The Olympic hopeful and University of Iowa graduate student gets on the mat and talks shop during a recent visit to Japan.
Emily Nelson
courtesy of Spencer Lee and Yamanashi Gakuin University

Spencer Lee has traveled to many countries throughout his storied wrestling career. But one country he recently visited carries special meaning.

The Hawkeye wrestling star credits Japan in part for how his parents, both judo athletes, met. His dad, Larry, who later became a U.S. judo national team coach, was training in Japan when the French national coach convinced him to come train in France. It was there that he met Lee’s mom, Cathy, an Olympic alternate in judo in 1992.

“I’ve always loved Japan. I love their culture,” Spencer Lee says. “And if it wasn’t for Japan, I maybe wouldn’t be here.”

Lee, who graduated in December 2021 with a BS in sport and recreation management and is now pursuing a master’s degree in the program while competing with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, traveled to Japan for vacation—not for training or competition.

But his reputation preceded him, and he was persuaded to get on the mat. Along the way, he had a chance to experience Japanese training methods and explain to his Japanese counterparts how they differ from those in the United States.

Lee’s trip was a bit impromptu.

“I had some free time and my coaches urged me to get away for a bit, so I bought a ticket five days before I left,” Lee says. “I stayed with family friends, who organized a great itinerary for me. I saw a lot of Japan. A friend there said I’ve now seen more of the country than he has.”

Along with exploring cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and Yokohama, Lee also fit some wrestling into his trip. He watched the Japanese world team trials and sumo wrestling.

He also visited an old friend, Takuto Otoguro, at his alma mater, Yamanashi Gakuin University in Kofu, Japan.

Lee and Otoguro, who won a gold medal for Japan in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, met while competing in the 2014 Cadet World Championships. The two didn’t speak the same language but managed to communicate through gestures. Before leaving, they traded singlets and promised to keep in touch, which they did.

“I’ve long been trying to visit Japan to see him and see how he trains,” Lee says.

Spencer Lee on the street during his visit to Japan

While Lee was not officially representing the University of Iowa, he says he enjoys talking about and answering questions about life—and wrestling—in Iowa. “I told them that if I could ever do anything to help the relationship between the two universities (Iowa and Yamanashi Gakuin), I would,” Lee says. “Because I definitely plan to go back to Japan.”

While at Yamanashi Gakuin University, Lee attended a wrestling practice.

“They train nothing like we do in America,” Lee says. “Americans get one partner, and you wrestle that guy the whole practice. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. They switch partners a lot. They don’t care if the wrestler is bigger or smaller or male or female. They just wrestle. It was cool. I really liked it a lot, to be honest.”

He also was talked into getting on the mat with a few of the wrestlers.

“If they run at you, they want to wrestle you. And all these guys were running at me, even guys that were 20 or 30 pounds bigger than me,” Lee says. “But I know it’s a respect thing. It was fun.”

Along with the coaches, including Yuji Takada, a gold medalist at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and four-time world champion, and Yuki Takahashi, a world champion and Olympian, he also met Yamanashi Gakuin University’s president, Takako Aoyama.

Lee says he appreciated her stopping by to meet him.

“It’s humbling having someone of such a high status show up just for me,” Lee says.

While Lee was not officially representing the University of Iowa, he says he enjoys talking about and answering questions about life—and wrestling—in Iowa.

“I told them that if I could ever do anything to help the relationship between the two universities, I would,” Lee says. “Because I definitely plan to go back to Japan.”

Russell Ganim, associate provost and dean of International Programs and professor of French, says Yamanashi Gakuin University is an important partner because of frequent and substantive interactions between its students and faculty and those at the University of Iowa.

“The University of Iowa is a leader in global education, and Spencer’s visit helps promote the Iowa brand abroad by demonstrating the excellence of our academic and athletic programs,” Ganim says.

Ganim says visiting and experiencing other countries and cultures allows students to see the world in a new way.

“Through international engagement, students challenge themselves to learn different ways of thinking and living that go far beyond the classroom,” Ganim says. “On both a personal and a professional level, time abroad helps students develop life skills that make them more open and more adaptable to new environments.”

Lee was able to have conversations pertaining to his master’s degree dissertation, which focuses on coaching elite athletes. Along with Otoguro, Takada, and Takahashi, Lee met with Yui Susaki, who won gold in the 2020 Olympics without yielding a single point.

“A lot of them are Olympic champs. They’re better than me. I’m not saying I won’t be an Olympic champ maybe in the future, but they already are. They are at the peak of my goal, so it was cool,” Lee says. “It was interesting to see how they were taught, how they were dealt with, and how they coach. Just talking about their mindsets was interesting.”

Lee says the Olympic trial process will start for him in December. Meanwhile, his trip to Japan gave him one more reason to want to win gold in 2024.

“I met a Michelin-star chef who told me when I win the Olympics we will celebrate at his restaurant,” Lee says. “I told him if I win, I’ll have to go back.

“Although I really love Japan and will go back no matter what.”