It trickled down his face, seemingly gallons of perspiration, each time Jamie Weaver hoisted his 203-pound frame up to the heating pipe. The sweat soaked “a bunch of sweat shirts and sweat pants” — two, three, four of them, each piled on top of the other — he wore inside a virtual oven.
Whether it was running in motion, jumping rope or those pull-ups — he and his teammates would wrap towels around those scalding pipes to complete the exercise — Weaver would endure “just constant motion for 45 minutes” inside the boiler room at Spackenkill High School.
“That room was easily 100 degrees in there,” Weaver says, an incredulous, what-were-we-thinking tone in his voice. “On top of that, there were five or six of us working out in there.”
Coming off his senior soccer season at the Town of Poughkeepsie school and entering his final wrestling campaign in late 1986, Weaver looked to drop 26 pounds to compete in the 177-pound weight class … and he was willing to try pretty much anything to do it.
Weaver, now the varsity wrestling coach at John Jay High School, was able to cut the weight and wrestle most of that season at 177 pounds. But he paid a price: “I was pretty sick at the end of the year with pneumonia.”
As New York crowns its wrestling champions today in 15 weight classes, ranging from 99 to 285 pounds, horror stories like Weaver’s and countless other wrestlers’ are mostly a thing of the past across the state, as New York’s safeguards have made such drastic weight-cutting practices obsolete.
“The sport is 100 times safer than it’s ever been,” said Beacon Athletic Director Eric Romanino, the wrestling chairperson for Section 1. “The kids are healthier. The kids are happier. It was a great addition to make the sport better in the state of New York.”
These days, through the use of a stringent certification process and computer calculations, as well as improved dietary and hydration habits, many coaches say young grapplers are losing less weight before bouts and shedding those fewer pounds in a safer way.
“Today, these kids have so much more information that we give them on nutrition and doing it the right way,” Weaver said.
Some have found ways to shed pounds within the rules, while others think more regulations are needed to protect the young athletes.
Among the 19 local high schools, there are 10 varsity wrestling teams; that includes a combined squad composed of grapplers from Red Hook and Rhinebeck high schools.
John Wall, a wrestler at Roy C. Ketcham High School, said wrestlers like him, who are weighed in before every match throughout the season, utilize smarter methods of keeping their pounds in check and moving between weight classes.
“You just have to maintain your weight, eat right, do what you’ve got to do,” said Wall, who competed this past season at 113 pounds. “I just eat right: salad for dinner most of the time, bananas, apples. I try to stay away from the junk food. It’s not too hard.”
That’s because uniform rules have changed the way wrestlers statewide think about losing weight for competition.
Dying to make weight
Amateur wrestling changed forever in late 1997.
In a span of less than five weeks, three collegiate wrestlers across the country died as a result of trying to cut too much weight too quickly.
One young Michigan wrestler’s heart and kidneys gave out when he donned a rubber, impermeable suit, called a sauna suit, while working in an actual sauna, a room where the temperature topped 90 degrees.
Another wore a similar sauna suit while trying to pedal off the pounds in place without replenishing the fluids he’d lost. A similar sauna suit-stationary bike combination similarly doomed the third.
While nothing like those aforementioned extreme incidents had been reported locally, states’ scholastic governing bodies throughout America took notice, and then they quickly took action.
Romanino said New York adopted its biggest changes “about 12 years ago,” adding state officials have since tweaked the regulations to better protect student-athletes.
“You’re not allowed to use a sauna, and you’re not allowed to use garbage bags and things like that. If someone catches you, you’re gone for the year,” said Joe Warren, who wrestled at Ketcham, graduated from the school in 1999, and now coaches the sport there. “The kids’ safety is really the very first thing.”
In recent years, states have adopted more stringent guidelines to keep young wrestlers safe as they move from one weight class to another.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association, for example, publishes a 25-page handbook with regulations for certifying a minimum weight at which each wrestler in the state can compete with minimal risk.
Once student-athletes hand in a signed parental awareness form, the certification process begins with unrinalysis, which determines if the student-athlete is hydrated enough to continue the exam. From there, he or she gets weighed on a digital scale before several skinfold measurements are taken to obtain body-fat percentages.
With the data collected, a computer program will supply each wrestler a minimal weight — for boys, it’s based on 7 percent body fat; for girls, 14 percent — at which he or she can compete.
“It gives the lowest weight — not so much a weight class — but the lowest weight,” Arlington coach Fred Perry said, noting wrestlers are granted two extra pounds to account for weight gained following the Christmas break.
A ‘great’ plan
New York’s certification process, some coaches said, gives standardized baselines from which student-athletes in the state’s 11 sections throughout all 62 counties compete on level ground. A wrestler’s minimum weight is now the indisputable result of science and math.
It’s quite a change from the past.
“When I started wrestling — this was 15 years ago — you used to go to the (school) nurse’s office, and basically lied: ‘Oh, I’m 105 (pounds), and I need to get down to 90,’ ” said Warren, explaining how the old system could be exploited. “Now, they basically tell you, ‘You can’t go below this.’ They tell you what you weigh at 7 percent (body fat), and you can’t go below that.”
Perry said when he wrestled in high school, a student-athlete could often simply tell a doctor which weight class he wanted to wrestle in — no testing, no mathematical formula — and it was so.
“It’s great,” he said, referring to the current system. “In the old days, you’d get on a scale and, depending on who was doing it, it was just a matter of circling a number on a card.”
Still, Arlington junior Nick Tolli said when he gets certified, there are still ways of shedding a few extra pounds quickly.
Lounging in the sauna is an old standby, he said. Going a couple days without food or water will do the trick, too.
“My main thing is taking Epsom salt baths, which is just bath salts in a steaming hot bath, and you just sit there and soak it in, and you just sweat,” said Tolli, explaining the chemical draws moisture out of the body.
During the season, however, Tolli said the issue of cutting weight isn’t a daily concern for him.
“It depends on how long I have in between each match. If I have a long time, I’m going to have to drop a lot more,” he said. “I really just do it the night before, the day before. I don’t worry about it every other day in between (matches), except the day before. I’ll step on the scale every other day, but the day before (a match) is when I really step on it. Then, wherever I am, I just lose it all.”
Earlier this season, for example, Tolli weighed 122 pounds when competing against Ketcham. Two days later, he was to wrestle in the 120-pound weight class at the prestigious Eastern States Classic tournament in Loch Sheldrake, Sullivan County.
How did he plan to maintain his weight during those ensuing 48 hours?
“Just not eat in school, go to practice, do whatever,” said Tolli, unfazed by any risks. “I’m not concerned about it at all.”
Bob Myers doesn’t think the practice of cutting weight has any place in the sport.
After starting his wrestling career in 1979, Myers went on to coach the sport at Nazareth Regional High School in Brooklyn. He now holds the same post at Our Lady of Lourdes.
In his 34 years around the sport, “You name it, I’ve seen it,” Myers said, in terms of young wrestlers trying to lose weight rapidly.
“I hate weight-cutting. Weight-cutting is the worst part of it,” said the coach, who, while at Nazareth, once walked into a locker room to witness a wrestler on an opposing team slicing his calf muscle open and squeezing out blood to lose as much weight as possible.
Scenes like that stay with a coach.
Lourdes routinely enters each match trailing by several dozen points, the result of forfeiting bouts at the lighter weight classes — 99, 106 and 113, among others — because Myers won’t risk the health of his student-athletes for a few pounds.
“I’ve seen kids pass out,” he said, referring to the ill effects of weight-cutting. “I’d never ask a kid to suffer like that. What kind of coach asks a kid not to eat dinner at night?”
Myers concedes, however, within any given team, attitudes about weight-cutting can vary between wrestlers and their families, even within his own squad.
As a lineman for Lourdes’ football team, senior James Maher played most of his final season at 235 pounds this past autumn. Three weeks later, his season wrestling for Myers’ Warriors began.
Maher’s father, Jim, said between exercise and diet, his son began the wrestling season competing in the 220-pound division, where he’s remained.
“He worked hard during those three weeks because he wanted to get to that 220. He lost 10 to 12 pounds in a couple of weeks. I’m sure the first couple of weeks, he went overboard a little bit,” said Jim Maher, adding his son later took a safe and practical approach to weight loss.
The younger Maher, his father said, “tried to lose a little bit of weight” on his own shortly after football season. From there, he spoke with his sister, who’s studying to be a nutritionist and encouraged him to control his portion size.
The result: Maher is eating smaller meals and eating healthier alternatives between meals.
“He still eats his three meals per day; they’re just smaller portions at each meal,” said Jim Maher, adding his son has adopted a new attitude toward food during the wrestling season. “He would come home, and he stopped eating the potato chips after school. He’d ask me to bring home granola bars or the 100-calorie packs (of snacks). This way, he can still get the treat, but not all the calories in his body.”
But not enough wrestlers take the responsible path to making weight, Myers said. The sport’s governing bodies, he said, should take the lead in ensuring young wrestlers are healthy when they compete.
“First thing, you probably get rid of the bottom class, the 99-pound class. Half of the teams we wrestle don’t even have it,” said Myers, listing some reforms he’d like to see. “Then maybe we spread them (the weight classes) out a little bit more, and then the competition goes down because you only need 10 (athletes) to wrestle.”
Additionally, Myers said since hydration affects throughout the season, wrestlers should be tested throughout the season.
“I’m sure it’s expensive, and you have to have a trainer at every match,” he said, “but if you had the urinalysis test at weigh-ins, I guarantee you 25 percent of the kids would fail.”