Wrestlers sweat making weight

High schools: Most wrestlers have had to shed pounds quickly to qualify in their weight class, but too much too fast can be unhealthy.


Mount St. Joseph wrestler Ryan Herwig compared last Friday to a Christmas in January.

It was the day that Maryland's annual 2-pound growth allowance for high school wrestlers went into effect, so instead of having to cut weight to 119 pounds for every match, Herwig's new target is 121.

"For me, 2 pounds makes a huge difference. You just can't believe how happy I am about it," he said.

The weight allowance "is intended to allow for the in-season growth of the athlete," said Baltimore County athletic coordinator Ron Belinko, a former coach at Overlea and Eastern Tech.

But many wrestlers use the allowance to drop into a lower weight class in hopes of gaining an edge. More wrestlers begin "sucking weight," and some take it too far.

Done properly, weight cutting can help produce victories on the mat. Done improperly, it can be self-defeating, create health problems and even be fatal.

Three collegiate wrestlers died last season of complications associated with extreme weight loss in a short period of time.

Most high school wrestlers cut weight at one time or another. Many, like Herwig, a state runner-up at 103 pounds last season as a freshman, push the limit but stay within reason. They sweat it off in two-hour practices, or perhaps hit a treadmill to shed the last few pounds.

"The last 3 pounds is always the toughest. That's when you get the cracked lips, the cotton mouth, you can't swallow. You can't do anything but cry," said Herwig.

Other wrestlers take more radical measures, such as excessive spitting, spending long sessions in saunas or wearing rubber suits or plastic bags to promote sweating. Some wrestlers even resort to diuretics, laxatives or induced vomiting.

Lisa Curry, a member of the state's medical advisory board for public schools, said it is recommended that a wrestler lose no more than 1 or 2 pounds a week.

Sam Case, a former Western Maryland wrestling coach and now an exercise physiology professor at the college, said a wrestler risks losing critical muscle mass if his body fat level drops below 7 percent. He lists "dry mouth, cracked lips, sunken-in eyes and lack of energy" among the overt symptoms of extreme weight loss.

"What the wrestlers are trying to do is to lose weight through dehydration, theorizing that they'll have greater muscle mass than wrestlers in their same weight," said Dr. David Roth, coordinator of compulsive overeating services at the Center for Eating Disorders at St. Joseph's Medical Center.

In the short term, Roth said, "any form of dehydration can lead to electrolyte imbalance [deficits of bodily salts], manifest by abdominal or lower-body cramping."

Roth added that, in the long term, "this could contribute to heart and kidney dysfunctions."

The roller coaster

Some of the state's best current and past wrestlers have allowed their weight to fluctuate wildly throughout their high school years.

DeMatha senior Wes Cummings, ranked No. 1 in the state at 171 pounds, said he didn't pay close enough attention to his diet and rode a weight roller coaster much of his career.

"I was pretty much starving myself for the first couple of years," said Cummings, 6 feet. "I won a state title at 119, but I grew to 145 in the off-season. Won states again at 140 next season, but grew to 215 afterward.

"Then I pretty much stopped eating to get from 215 to about 171 two weeks before the first tournament of the season. At about 5 a.m. the day of my first match, I lost about 5 pounds in three or four hours."

Cummings said he lost that first match "because I had no energy," and after three seasons, he finally has figured out that less is not necessarily better.

"For this year, I wrestled throughout the off-season and didn't allow myself to get much over 190. Then I wrestled the first two tournaments of the year at 189 before dropping down to 171," said Cummings, who is bound for Cal-State Bakersfield on a full scholarship. "I know I never believed it, but you can actually eat and still lose weight. But there's a big difference between a cheeseburger and a turkey sandwich."

Herwig was often undersized early last season at 103, but he was cutting from 110 by season's end. Two weeks after states, Herwig was competing at 119.

This past November, however, Herwig, 5-8, competed at 132 pounds. He beat two accomplished wrestlers there, so his mother contends he doesn't need to make 119 to wrestle effectively.

Herwig impressively won two December tournaments at 119, but has since missed weight once. The last time Ryan wrestled at 119 in December, Sharon Herwig said, he "had no energy at all."

Yet when a friend asked Ryan why he feels better served at 119, Ryan replied, "I just do."

Herwig's mother carefully monitors his diet. She visited the family physician Friday concerning Herwig's growth vs. weight loss. "The doctor said Ryan is fine at 121, but I just wanted to make sure," Sharon Herwig said. "It's my job as a mother to make sure that he develops in a healthy way.

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