Everyone knows that Cornell wrestler Travis Lee won his second NCAA tournament in March. But most people would not know what happened the week before.
It was during practice one day when while sparring with teammate, junior Dustin Manotti, Lee felt and heard his arm crunch. Later, he would find out that he hyperextended his arm, lucky not to dislocate it. Still, he was very concerned.
“I was worried about how I would perform at nationals because that day, I could barely even move my arm. If I couldn’t move my arm, how was I going to wrestle?” Lee said.
While Lee’s participation at nationals was never in doubt, his quest to bounce back from a personally disappointing junior season seemed halted. Lee burned at the thought of the minute things he did wrong a year ago when he placed fifth, and wrote and pasted motivational quotes on pieces of paper to remind him to never make those same mistakes again.
But the arm hurt, and with a week until nationals, Lee was relegated to doing rehab and fitness drills.
“For a whole week, he did not wrestle live once,” said head coach Rob Koll. “That’s like playing basketball and not taking a shot for a week and then going to compete in the national championships.”
Lee was still victorious at nationals, despite the fact that he was also dealing with a hernia.
After winning his first three bouts, prior to his semifinal match against the No. 5 ranked wrestler in the nation, Lee decided to take off the tape which was bandaged around his arm and proceeded to pin his opponent. He then knocked off Shawn Bunch of Edinboro in the final with an hyperextended arm and hernia to boot.
“Unless you’ve had some of these injuries, you just can’t appreciate what he did,” Koll said. He didn’t just go wrestle and win a match, he won a national championship, beating the best guys in the country with one arm and half of his groin.”
But if there was pain — and there surely was — once Lee went onto the mat, his desire and focus overshadowed any physical injury.
“He could’ve been hanging be a couple of pieces of skin and ligaments, as long as it was attached to his body, he was going to wrestle,” Koll said.
“When I got to nationals, I just focused on doing what I do best and just tried to leave [the injuries] out of the picture. When I started doing that, I didn’t feel too much pain,” Lee said.
Many recognize that Lee is a two-time NCAA champion — the first Cornell wrestler since Dave Auble ’60 to accomplish the feat. Lee is the first Ivy wrestler to earn four All-America honors. The all-time Cornell wins leader at 143, he also is a four-time EIWA champion and two-time EIWA Wrestler of the Year.
However, he has meant more to Cornell wrestling than this. Lee’s notoriety has been a boon for the wrestling program, as his story and accomplishments have helped make Koll’s recruiting class for next year one of the strongest in the nation.
“We’ve had great wrestlers before, but never anyone who has evoked this kind of emotion or outpouring from the Cornell community,” Koll said.
Lee’s name and face has become synonymous with Cornell and the relatively soft-spoken Hawaiian has taken this responsibility gradually, but in stride.
“It’s going to be interesting next year to start helping kids because I love doing that type of stuff, especially being involved in wrestling for a long time,” said Lee, who will be at Cornell earning his Masters degree next year.
Lee’s intensity and focus, as illustrated a week before nationals, also sets him apart from his peers not only in wrestling, but in athletics in general.
“There’s a lot of people who have the ability … but he’s able to deal with the pain, dig deep and push through like no one else I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Koll, who has competed at the international and Olympic level.
And this intensity, determination and focus, among many other reasons, is why Travis Lee is The Sun’s Senior Athlete of the Year.
“It’s quite an honor to be considered athlete of the year with all of the quality athletes at Cornell,” Lee said. “I’m very pleased.”
Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Assistant Sports Editor