College Wrestling Reaches a Crossroad
After recent deaths, wrestlers grapple with cutting pounds
The common denominator among individuals who compete at the highest levels of college athletics is an intense appetite for success--an almost all-encompassing desire for the challenging and the difficult.
Intercollegiate wrestling is certainly no exception and now, in part because of that focus on success, an ominous cloud now hangs over the heads of some of America's finest athletes as they compete in a sport that has been recently over-whelmed by tragedy.
In November and December, three college grapplers had their careers brought to an abrupt halt while participating in a practice that is quite commonplace in American wrestling: cutting weight.
In college wrestling, athletes compete in specific weight classes, ranging from 118 pounds to heavyweight. The practice of "cutting weight" can often provide the wrestler with an advantage; by losing water weight through intentional dehydration, a wrestler can compete in a lighter weight class. Because weigh-ins occur 24 hours before a match, a wrestler can weigh-in at the appropriate weight and recover fluids before the match. By the time he hits the mat, the wrestler is back above the weight limit, and has theoretically fully recovered.
However, after a series of tragedies involving this widespread practice, the rules that govern the sport have had to change.
On November 7, 1997, Billy Jack Saylor, a Campbell University wrestler, died of a heart attack while trying to shed pounds before dawn. Saylor was riding a stationary bike while wearing a rubber suit--a common technique used to lose water-weight. While Saylor's death through dehydration may have seemed like a tragic fluke to some, November had yet another shocking event in store.
Two weeks later, Wisconsin-LaCrosse wrestler Joe LaRosa died under similar circumstances while attempting to make a lower weight class for an upcoming meet. The results were typical, if extreme: a wrestler cutting weight can experience any combination of kidney failure, heat stroke, or heart attack through rapid weight loss incurred by dehydration.
The final link in this unfortunate chain came on December 9, when University of Michigan wrestler Jefferey Reese lost his life in an evening workout.
When this back-up wrestler was told that he would be able to start at a lower weight class, Reese engaged in a regimen for serious weight-loss. Long after his teammates had stopped practicing and gone to dinner, Reese stayed behind to shave those final fatal pounds under the supervision of Assistant Coach Joe McFarland. Ninety minutes before his death, Reese asked McFarland if he could delay his weigh-in until the next morning. McFarland responded that Reese would not be eligible for the upcoming meet unless he made weight that night.
There was no next morning for Jefferey Reese; Reese also died of a heart attack while exercising.
Sophomore Fran Volpe, a 177 pound Harvard wrestler, said he has heard wrestlers brag about how many pounds they can lose to make weight. Volpe reminds us, though, that this pride is merely a strange offshoot of the sport and should not detract from the essence of wrestling itself.
"Yes, I've heard people brag about cutting weight, but not here," Volpe said. "I grew up around wrestling and have been around it for my entire life, and I've heard some things. Still, here, on the college level, you don't hear it as much."
In a quick response to the rare deaths, the NCAA elected to alter rules concerning weigh-ins and weight-loss techniques for the remainder of the season. The new rules imposed a ban on all "vapor-impermeable suits," and the use of what the NCAA calls a "hot room," defined as any room having a temperature of over 79 degrees Fahrenheit. These rules supplement the already-existing statutes banning the use of diuretics, laxatives, or self-induced vomiting. The NCAA will also attempt to establish an education platform, through which they hope to keep athletes aware of the dangers of pushing their bodies beyond their limits.
In an effort to make wrestlers and teams reconsider drastic weight-loss, the NCAA has moved weigh-ins from 24 hours before a meet to 2 hours before a meet. Now, instead of having 24 hours to recover from the dehydration, a wrestler would be severely weakened in his match if he had cut weight. Also, the NCAA has created a seven-pound buffer on the upper end of its weight classes, meaning that a wrestler who operates in the 118-pound class can actually weigh up to 125 pounds at weigh-in.
Harvard's fourth-year Head Coach Jay Weiss and his athletes had much to say on the new regulations.
Speaking out in favor of the later weigh-in time, Weiss said, "The closer we get to competition now, the less weight will be cut. This should not be an overnight process."
"The United States is the only remaining country in the world that cuts as much weight as it does," said Weiss.
Weiss went on to cite the experience of Assistant Coach Granit Taropin, formerly a wrestler in the Soviet Union. Taropin often reminds Weiss that the weight being lost is "too much," and that he is amazed at this almost exclusively American practice.
"It is the incidents with the three kids that have caused us to reevaluate coaching procedures that were common until now, not the rule changes," Weiss said.
Weiss also noted that he is "extremely excited" about the NCAA's trying to "remove the black eye" given to wrestling by the recent deaths.
Harvard's grapplers are somewhat split on the effects of the new policies. Volpe heavily favors the new mandates.
"Personally, I've wrestled at the same weight the whole time I've been here," Volpe said. "The new weigh-in rules definitely help the level of competition in the matches. On the whole, you're going to see much better wrestling. The last two or three pounds are the hardest to lose. They seem to take a lot out of you."
Freshman Adam Truitt, another 177 pound Crimson wrestler, noted, "I liked the way it used to be. It gives you more time to recover for your match."
When asked whether wrestlers will begin to reevaluate their weight-loss tactics. Truitt added, "Everyone has his own technique and does what he feels is right. Those deaths were absolutely tragic."
Now that the new rules are in place, the Crimson wrestling squad will adapt accordingly to their ever-evolving sport. That means, without a doubt, more safety.
"We're moving toward staying in year-round shape," Weiss said. "With the prevalence of weight lifting, a 150-pound wrestler who puts on a lot of muscle weight still sees himself as a 150-Ib wrestler and tries to reach that weight again.
"I think that instituting some kind of body-fat testing in September would give us a gauge to tell where a wrestler should fall into a weight class."
This idea has recently emerged as a new possibility put forth by the NCAA.
"Controlled diet is the answer. I have been telling my kids that they can't binge after a match on Saturday. When they eat, they have to work out," Weiss responded.
"The deaths have not changed anything about how I approach losing weight before a match," junior tri-captain Ed Mosley said. "A good diet is the most important factor in controlling that."
Recently, the NCAA has been considering another idea to help ensure the safety of college wrestlers: the adding, dropping, or altering of the weight classes themselves.
Neurosurgeon Stephen Papadopoulos, member of the Board in Control of Inter-collegiate Athletics, has been one of the first to address the need for change in the weight class alignments.
"We probably need more weight classes, and the weight classes need to be changed," Papadopoulos said.
Weiss also fervently supports this proposal.
"Many of the older coaches think the weight classes should be kept the same," Weiss said. "The athlete has evolved. I think there should be an adjustment."
Weiss also stated that there have been rumors circulating among the college coaching ranks that the NCAA may drop its 118-pound weight class and add a 215-pound weight class in an effort to discourage massive weight-loss.
When asked if it was more difficult to lose weight the lighter you are, Mosley said, "Sure. It's more difficult to cut that weight when you're lighter because it's a higher percentage of your body weight. It's tough."
With the possibility of a higher danger for the lighter wrestlers, the idea of dropping the 118-pound class might not be a bad one.
These tragedies and the Band-Aid reparations have struck another blow against a sport that has been fighting for its life. In recent years, the number of schools that carry wrestling as a varsity sport has been steadily declining, and the deaths of the three young men cannot have helped its case.
"This news comes at the worst possible time for wrestling, but obviously there is never a good time for people to die," Weiss commented.
Still, the Crimson wrestlers have seemed to transcend and adjust to their new situation quickly and easily. Harvard wrestlers are refusing to let the turmoil affect their concentration as they prepare to lock horns with Princeton and Springfield this Friday.
"Cutting weight is only a very small part of the sport; our focus is going to be on technique," Weiss said.
Mosley remained unflappable in light of the recent media blitz and NCAA influence, stating, "Wrestlers love wrestling, not cutting weight. This will be positive for all of us."
Freshman Dan Kaganovich, a 118-pound grappler, added, "Cutting weight is probably what wrestlers hate most."
Volpe agreed, "It's not fun losing weight at all."
The question is: If losing weight is the least enjoyed facet of the sport, why are wrestlers losing their lives to do it? Perhaps the answer lies in the reason that most young men become involved in wrestling: they have a deep-seated desire to win. The same rugged individualism within a team atmosphere that allows them to emerge from a match victoriously, chains them to the necessary evils of the game. This situation leaves the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Amidst this "Weightgate," Harvard's matmen will continue to do what they do best: focus on techniques and superior preparation. While the future of the sport remains undetermined, wrestlers around the country continue their quest for success. Any obstacle on the road to victory will be moved, no matter how heavy it may be.