MOUNT VERNON, Iowa — Spencer Lee spent several Saturday mornings this fall working in fan assistance at Iowa football games, working in the neighborhood surrounding Kinnick Stadium.
Decked out in the brightly-colored shirts the group wears as it fulfills hours needed to complete a class project, the two-time NCAA wrestling champion has largely gone unnoticed while directing fans to the correct stadium entrance or the nearest restroom facilities.
“With his glasses on, he looks just like any other student straight out of the library,’’ Iowa coach Tom Brands said.
Lee expects to be a little more noticeable on the mat during what promises to be a very unique season for the 125-pound Hawkeye junior.
Not only does he expect to work to join a group of a half-dozen Iowa wrestlers who have won three national championships, Lee also plans to pursue his Olympic dreams.
“My goal has always been to win an Olympic gold medal,’’ Lee said at Iowa’s media day last week at Kroul Farms. “National titles are great and all, but I’ll take an Olympic medal over any of my national titles. That’s not even a decision, nowhere close to a tough decision.’’
Lee said his decision to compete for Iowa was based on his belief that the Hawkeye wrestling room was the best place to train and to position himself for that opportunity.
“This is where I need to be. This is where I can best prepare myself to be the best I can be,’’ Lee said. “World, Olympic championships, the national titles are a stepping stone for that.’’
During the upcoming months, that will involve a creative approach.
Lee will not only work to help the Hawkeyes toward their goal of winning the 2020 NCAA team title, something Iowa last accomplished in 2010.
With two NCAA championships of his own and a 45-5 career record, Lee is among seven wrestlers with all-American credentials on the Iowa roster this season.
Still looking for his first Big Ten championship at 125, Lee will be part of the Hawkeyes’ postseason lineup this year and will compete in duals for Iowa as often as a unique schedule allows.
“Spencer Lee’s path to the Olympic games will go through collegiate wrestling,’’ Brands said. “He still has to qualify for the (Olympic) Trials … but he’s going to be heavily involved this year and we’re going to need him.’’
Brands said Lee will wrestle internationally at times during the upcoming collegiate season, but will also take the mat for the Hawkeyes at times during dual competition and will compete for Iowa in the postseason.
Lee and Brands have mapped out a game plan, providing Lee with multiple opportunities to compete in meets during the upcoming months that will provide with the chance to qualify for the U.S. trials, scheduled for next April 4-5 at the Bryce Jordan Center at Penn State.
The 2020 NCAA champ is guaranteed a spot in that field, but Lee will work to lockdown that trials spot prior the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis in March.
Beginning with the Bill Farrell Invitational in mid-November and continuing with the U.S. Senior Nationals in December and the Dave Schultz Memorial in January, there will be multiple opportunities for Lee and others to earn their automatic spot on the trials bracket.
“We’ll see where I go,’’ Lee said. “We haven’t figured everything out yet. We’ve talked and we have an idea, but I don’t want to put anything out there and then change my mind. So, you guys will all just have to see. It’s not a big secret or anything.’’
It’s just not carved in granite.
“We’ll see how it all plays out together,’’ Lee said.
Aaron Cashman, a redshirt freshman, will likely take Lee’s spot in the lineup when he is competing elsewhere.
“He’ll be on the mat in some big dual meet matches for us,’’ Brands said.
The two Junior World Champion titles and the Cadet World Champion title Lee won before arriving at Iowa make him eligible to take an Olympic redshirt year.
But, Lee chose not to take the path the NCAA has for eligible wrestlers to take a year off from collegiate competition to train for the Olympic Trials and retain whatever eligibility they have left.
With Iowa positioned for team success this season, something Lee wants to be a part of, he joins Brands in believing that there are benefits to be gained by wrestling an intercollegiate season prior to the Olympic Trials.
“This is what’s best for me. Obviously, I want to help the team out and win a team national title, but I have to focus on myself first,’’ Lee said.
“I think wrestling during the season is a great idea. It helps keep me accountable and in shape and ready to rock and roll. The grind is great for me, specifically.’’
Teammates believe that having Lee in the Hawkeye wrestling room, helping them work toward national team success, demonstrates the type of teammate that Lee is.
“He’s about winning titles and everything, but he’s about the team, too,’’ Iowa 174-pounder Michael Kemerer said. “I think he knows we need him by our side to win this team title, and I think he’s a big team guy, too.’’
Lee said that works both ways.
That is among the reasons he has chosen to create his own unique path to the Olympic Trials.
“This is a group effort,’’ Lee said. “No one makes the Olympic team on their own unless they’re just not human,’’ Lee said. “You’ve got to have a coach, you’ve got to have a support network and you’ve got to have people who believe in you and love you and want the best for you.’’
Lee said being surrounded by people who are never going to let him make a decision that could impede his development is important.
“It’s a group effort. We’re in it together,’’ Lee said.
It also leaves Lee in his comfort zone.
He expects to benefit from the approach of getting ready to compete on a weekly basis.
“I feel like that is the best thing for me. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those guys who shows up two, three times a year to compete,’’ Lee said. “That’s not me. I’m going to wrestle when they tell me to and that’s pretty much that.’’