Monday Feature: Weighing in

by Allison Younge

It’s 4:15 p.m. in the Gophers’ wrestling practice room. Following an intense, hour-long workout on the mat, Minnesota’s two-time All-American Chad Kraft is ready for circuit training.
Jumping from the stationary bike to free weights to stair climbs, Kraft works to prepare himself mentally and physically for his next grueling match.
“The sport requires such a discipline,” Kraft said. “It’s so hard with the workouts, cutting weight and everything; it takes so much responsibility that when a person puts that much into it — it’s almost like it’s all or nothing.”
A driven mindset could lead the celebrated 150-pounder to capture college wrestling’s most coveted prize — a national title. While recognized as a college sport, wrestling is unique in that it doesn’t qualify as a game. Maybe that is why the sport is so difficult for those outside of the wrestling circle to understand.
There might be no more mysterious realm in the athletic world as the sport of wrestling. Enveloped in a style unique to each competitor, wrestlers battle one-on-one for bragging rights.
Only fully understood by those who have endured its oppressive training rituals, a borderline obsessive longing to be the best is common among wrestlers.
“How many athletes can’t eat before they have to participate at the highest level possible?” Gophers coach J Robinson said. “Could a football player relate to a wrestler? A gymnast? A swimmer? No. What people don’t understand they tend to label as crazy. It’s not crazy.”
Robinson speaks matter-of-factly about wrestling’s age-old practice of making weight. Shedding pounds to qualify for lower weight classes has been the custom in wrestling since it became an NCAA sport in 1928.
During the past four months, however, cutting weight and the sport itself have been put under a microscope following the startling deaths of three college wrestlers. The same all-or-nothing approach that could earn Kraft a national title might have cost his peers their lives.
Dying to compete
On Nov. 7, Billy Jack Saylor, a freshman at Campbell University in North Carolina, died of cardiac arrest after riding an exercise bike and refusing liquids during a two-hour workout. In the week prior to his death, Saylor lost 19 pounds in four days. The 19-year-old was attempting to lose six more pounds in order to make the 190-pound weight requirement.
Exactly two weeks later, University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse senior Joe LaRosa fell dead from heat exhaustion after working to make the 150-pound weight requirement and wrestle in an open tournament at Augsburg College. Clothed in a rubber suit and two sweat suits, the 22-year-old rode an exercise bike, ran and sat in a steamy shower room for nearly four hours before he finally shut down. His body temperature was still 107 degrees at the time of his autopsy, an hour after he was pronounced dead.
The third death hit the Big Ten Conference on Dec. 9. Michigan’s 21-year-old junior Jeff Reese died of heart malfunction and kidney failure after a two hour ride on an exercise bike in a room with the thermostat fixed at a melting 92 degrees. Bundled up in a rubber suit and stocking hat, Reese was attempting to drop 12 pounds in one day in order to wrestle at 150 pounds for the Wolverines in the team’s match against Michigan State. Reese had reportedly shed nearly 17 pounds in three days.
Excessive behavior? Yes. Unusual? Apparently not. Each of the three incidents happened under the supervision of respected college coaches. In a 33-day span three college wrestlers were gone — leaving questions, criticisms and countless concerns in their wake.
Emergency action
On Jan. 13, more than a month after the third death, the NCAA took control of the weight-cutting issue. Three new rules were enacted by the NCAA Medical Safeguards Committee to prevent further catastrophe this season.
Several weight-cutting tools were banned from the college wrestling ranks. Rubber suits and excretion-inducing diurectics were prohibited as well as the use of saunas for weight loss. A seven-pound weight allowance was issued to all weight classes for the remainder of the season. In addition, a two-hour maximum weigh-in period was instituted — all in hopes of putting a stop to excessive dehydration as a result of cutting weight.
“The competitive safeguards committee settled on these ideas as ones that would be most effective in preventing any fatalities or any other health problems for the rest of this year,” said Marty Benson, playing rules liaison to the NCAA Wrestling Committee. “The idea was to get through this year without anything else happening and then reassess where we stood at the end of the year.”
In regard to the seven-pound weight allowance, wrestlers were not allowed to drop to a lower weight class. Wrestlers were required to remain in the weight class they were scheduled to compete at this season.
The outbreak
The news of the unexplainable deaths sent shockwaves through the close-knit wrestling community. While outside sources pelted the sport with criticisms, questions poured into college programs about their own weight-shedding techniques.
Michigan went off the mats for three weeks following Reese’s death. Wolverines athletics director Tom Goss even threatened to drop his school’s wrestling program if new rules were not enforced.
“We needed time to evaluate where we were,” Goss said. “During that time frame it allowed us to put together a task force to look at a way to make the sport safe.”
For wrestlers nationwide, the three horrifying deaths were a reminder of their own weight-cutting histories. While confident of the safety of his own weight-shedding tactics, even Kraft found himself wondering.
“After these three deaths, I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t stop and wonder if I’ve ever been close to that point,” Kraft said. “But I think there was something that these wrestlers weren’t doing right.”
While cardiac arrest (Saylor), heat exhaustion (LaRosa) and heart and kidney failure (Reese) were cited as the causes of death, these were athletes in the prime of their lives. The question of what singled these three men out from their past and present wrestling counterparts spawned further argument between the medical world and the wrestling community.
Opposing viewpoints
Dr. David Wang, a general physician for the Gophers men’s athletics department, said the deaths most likely were a result of the weight-cutting process.
“The whole debate about wrestling and cutting weight, especially with the three deaths this year, has brought forth a lot of revisiting of that whole system and that terrible ritual that they have,” Wang said.
While Wang was quick to pin the blame on the medically unpopular method of cutting weight, the statistics don’t lie. In 70 years of wrestling history, not one death was recorded as a result of shedding weight before last year.
“The medical world wants this to be wrestling related, and the way we cut weight, because for years they’ve wanted to ban this, and outlaw it and change it,” Gophers assistant coach Marty Morgan said.
But while no deaths occurred until this year, no solid studies exist regarding the weight cutting process in wrestling. As Robinson pleaded for research and scientific data, Wang said because of the blatant danger of excessive weight loss, the likelihood of accurate reports on this issue probably won’t be furnished by the medical community.
“Some of their practices –exercising in a sauna with a rubber suit on — this is not something that we would ever recommend subjecting anybody to,” Wang said. “It’s hard to do a study on something we wouldn’t consider healthy because the human subjects committee would shoot you down in a hot second.
“It’s inhumane basically, but they choose to be inhumane to themselves.”
So cutting weight stood as an unstudied practice that, although viewed as self-deprivation, boasted a perfect mortality history until late last year. This fact led some to question if outside forces were involved.
The threatening unknown
The eerie string of deaths in late 1997 seems to challenge elements outside of the wrestling realm. Not long ago, creatine, a newly popular dietary supplement, broke onto the athletic scene.
While it is found naturally in muscle tissue, creatine is also manufactured and sold by nutrition stores in powdered and liquid synthetic form. In large doses, it is said to provide body-building benefits while allowing muscles to recover faster, boosting performance levels from five to 10 percent.
“It has been shown in some studies to improve power and strength,” Wang said. “Everybody is looking for an edge, so they take it.”
In the process of recovery, however, the supplement is said to retain water in the muscles. As a wrestler works to shed weight, the creatine acts as an opposing force, producing problems for the body’s cooling mechanism. Since the supplement is so new, no long-term study results are yet known.
There were unconfirmed reports that at least one of the wrestlers that died was using creatine, but no direct connection has been made. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to release extensive study results of creatine in relation to the deaths on Feb. 20.
“When the FDA comes out with their study, I’ll guarantee you that there was some kind of supplemental imbalance in their bodies,” Morgan said.
The aftermath
With the NCAA’s new rules on weight cutting, wrestlers have found themselves in a unique situation. Morgan said that none of the Gophers’ wrestlers do anything to cut weight anymore. Because they were already down to weight and in shape before the new rules were instituted, their grueling two-a-day workout routine keeps them within their respective classes.
The effects of the new rules have yet to be determined. The seven-pound weight allowance could upset entire weight classes come tournament time.
“For the NCAA to come in and just throw down rules, I just don’t know if that’s fair,” Kraft said. “These weight rules could affect people’s chances of becoming national champions.”
While the NCAA took that fact into consideration, the NCAA’s Benson said that preventing anymore weight-cutting catastrophes was their primary goal when determining the new rules.
“Just as an airline sort of shuts down operations when there is a crash, we wanted to make some drastic changes to ensure that nothing else happened during the rest of the year with the understanding that some of the fairness and equity within the weight class was going to be sacrificed in order for safety,” Benson said.
Robinson viewed the rules as knee-jerk reactions that were instituted by the NCAA without any scientific explanation.
A different world
Robinson was also disturbed to hear Goss’ statement that Michigan would consider dropping its wrestling program after one casualty without any concrete studies. The Gophers coach said he thinks that tossing the same scenario into another arena would drastically change Goss’ outlook on the situation.
“If a guy died on their football field, do you think they’d drop football?” Robinson said. “This athletic director doesn’t think twice about having a training table and putting fat on athletes. What is the long-term effect of putting fat on people? Bad joints, heart disease, high cholesterol and shortened life span.
“It’s the long term effect, he’ll kill all of these football players, albeit very slowly, but should we have one problem with wrestling …”
Part of Robinson’s vigilance on this issue can be attributed to the 16 Division I wrestling programs cut in the 1990s. Robinson is worried that this latest backlash against the sport — criticism that he says hasn’t been substantiated with medical data — could lead more schools to eliminate the sport.
Goss refuted Robinson’s argument, stating that if something within the football realm was unsafe, elimination of the sport would have to be considered. But with a $13.5 million total in football gate receipts in 1996, it’s hard to imagine that Michigan’s entire athletic department would be erased after one fatal incident.
Shielded from consequence
While new information about the three weight-cutting tragedies is revealed, wrestling continues. With new rules in place, the early season’s deadly blot is fading as security creeps back into the practice room. The invincible wrestling attitude is revived.
“I’m an experienced wrestler. I’m one of the best at the college level,” Kraft said. “I know what I’m doing, and I’m not going to put myself into a situation where I thought I was going to kill myself.”
Still, there’s a question of where to draw the line and who can draw it. Saylor, LaRosa and Reese probably thought the same thing Kraft did as they prepared for their final workouts.