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.