College wrestlers dying, and so might the sport

January 10, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

If Title IX doesn't kill collegiate wrestling, perhaps the stupidity of those involved in the sport will.

"College wrestling is gradually disappearing," writes David Fleming in a recent Sports Illustrated article. "If schools continue to drop wrestling at the current rate, the sport will be finished at this level within 15 years. I used to think that would be a tragedy."

What changed Fleming's mind was the deaths of three collegiate wrestlers in 33 days. Jeff Reese of the University of Michigan, Billy Jack Saylor of Campbell University in North Carolina and Joseph LaRosa of the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse all died of complications associated with cutting drastic amounts of weight in a short period of time. Reese, a natural 170-pounder, tried to lose 17 pounds in three days.

"Wrestling's Dirty Secret," Sports Illustrated editors called the practice of cutting weight. It's a dirty secret to the general public perhaps, but not to anyone who's ever wrestled. It even went on in high schools, before leveler heads restored some sense of proportion.

Thank heavens I was a horrible wrestler in high school. I broke into the starting lineup only once for Baltimore City College's 1968 team. I had to shed a mere 6 pounds within a few days to drop from 135 to 129 pounds. I don't know if I could have lost any more weight. In those days there wasn't much of me to begin with.

The better wrestlers -- the ones who could decide whether a team would be a champion or a mere runner-up -- weren't as fortunate. Late in the season, City's team visited Edmondson for a match that would decide the championship. We were thoroughly trounced when their guys in the four heaviest weight classes -- Rick Kerns, Stanley Cherry, Arnold Crippen and James Watkins -- came up with consecutive victories.

"He lost 50 pounds to make weight," one of my teammates whispered to me about Crippen, who wrestled at 180 pounds. I was stunned. Surely this guy was just repeating a vicious rumor. But then I thought of Cherry, who wrestled at 165 pounds. A year before, when I wrestled for City's junior varsity and he wrestled for Edmondson's, he wrestled at 180 pounds. Cherry and I were both sophomores then. Allowing for the 10 to 15 pounds the still growing Cherry surely gained over the summer, he'd have had to shed 25 to 30 pounds to make weight. If Crippen didn't lose 50 pounds, he could well have lost somewhere in the neighborhood 30. Kerns, who wrestled at 154 pounds, also had to cut a great deal of weight.

It wasn't much better on our side. Our best wrestler, Jay Himmelstein, cut from 160 to wrestle at 145 pounds. Larry Yates shed a good 25 to wrestle at 138. Bill Scott wrestled at 120 but moved down to 112 pounds late in the season. Cutting weight literally made him sick. I saw Yates holding Scott as he hurled into the commode after overdoing it. Our school newspaper, ITAL The Collegian ENDITAL, wrote that Scott was a natural 130-pounder who "had trouble slimming down to the 112-pound class last year." Why was a natural 130-pounder, I wondered at the time, knocking off 18 pounds to wrestle in a particular weight class?

The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association may well have been wondering the same thing. Edward Sparks, the executive director, said he coached as recently as 20 years ago. The MPSSAA rules on weight loss that were in effect then exist today. Had Baltimore schools practiced them in 1968, some very talented wrestlers would have been spared much agony.

"We have a regulation that requires a youngster to go to a doctor to certify the minimum weight at which he can wrestle," Sparks said. "A doctor has to certify how low they can wrestle. That has to be done before the first match. And a youngster can't go more than two weight classes above his weight. That's to prevent him from being thrown in there as cannon fodder to prevent a team taking a forfeit."

Carroll County high schools are the most progressive when it comes to protecting young wrestlers from cutting too much weight, Sparks said.

"They do the whole body fat thing," Sparks said. "They go no lower than 5 percent, meaning a youngster can't get down to a weight where he has less than 5 percent body fat." Maryland schools also increased the number of weight classes to 13, with five being separated by only 5-pound intervals.

In his Sports Illustrated article, Fleming suggested that the NCAA -- that organization whose honchos are such sticklers for regulations -- go the way some high school athletic associations have done and impose medically required weight minimums for wrestlers. We'd best not hold our breath waiting for them to do so. The NCAA is probably content to wait for wrestling to die out at the college level.

Let's hope no more young men die before the sport does.

Pub Date: 1/10/98

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