'A life-threatening scenario': Carmel wrestlers used banned weight-loss suits

Photo: IndyStar/Jenna Watson

Eight Carmel High School wrestlers have been forced to forfeit matches from earlier this season after the school self-reported to the IHSAA that several athletes had worn banned weight-loss suits during practices.

The suits, commonly known as “sauna suits,” are banned by the NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations because they can cause severe overheating and dehydration, sometimes resulting in death.

A statement from the school’s community relations liaison says the suits were used “under the supervision of coaches.”

“Once this information was brought to our attention, we investigated and immediately self-reported the rule violation to the IHSAA,” the statement said. “We are disappointed that this occurred under the supervision of our coaches and appropriate corrective action has been taken. We remain committed to providing our student-athletes with a safe and positive environment that promotes good character and sportsmanship.”

When contacted by IndyStar, Carmel wrestling coach Ed Pendoski declined to answer questions, saying he had been told to direct all inquiries to the school’s PR department. Pendoski has been the head coach of the program since 2012 and is a member of the Indiana High School Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

IndyStar confirmed that Carmel athletic director Jim Inskeep had sent a letter to athletic directors of other schools in the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference addressing the violations. The letter, published by WRTV 6, said, in part:

As a result, eight student-athletes have forfeited matches throughout the course of 19 different competitions during the season,” the letter read in part. “We have started the process of working with our staff to insure(sic) future violations do not occur within the program. I apologize you have to receive this communication as we always strive to be leaders in our state in all areas of our athletic programs. The violated rule will be corrected moving forward as well as other measures to insure(sic) the health and safety of our student-athletes.

Inskeep did not respond to a request for comment. When IndyStar contacted the office of Principal Tom Harmas, the school sent the call to the community relations liaison. The school did not respond to questions regarding specific details about what is being done to “insure future violations do not occur” or what “other measures to insure the health and safety of our student-athletes” entailed.

The Indiana High School Athletic Association released a statement about the incident, including details about punishments for the athletes who were involved:

Carmel High School self-reported violations of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) wrestling weight loss rules by several of its wrestlers. The violations occurred over several weeks during the regular season and the penalties for those violations are match forfeitures by the individuals involved which affects their won-loss record and negatively impacts their seed within the sectional bracket.

NFHS Rule 4-4, Article 3 states: “At any time, the use of sweat boxes; hot showers; whirlpools; rubber, vinyl, and plastic-type suits; or similar artificial heating devices; diuretics; or other methods for quick weight reduction purposes is prohibited and shall disqualify an individual from competition.”

Robert Faulkens, an IHSAA commissioner who oversees wrestling, said such violations are not uncommon.

“Kids try to get down to weight. It’s a difficult process. Every year we have schools report that kids are doing that they shouldn’t,” he said. “They’ll take a dietary supplement or all kinds of things. Schools self-report and we move on. … This is not the first time and it probably won’t be the last time, even though we know that kids are not supposed to do that. Most times it happens outside the purview of the coach and when the coaches find out, that’s when they self-report. In the last eight years, this is the third or fourth time a school has known about it and we’ve had to address an entire program, not just the athletes.”

Faulkens didn’t go into detail about the use of the suits, including who was present when the suits were being used, or whose decision it was for the athletes to wear them.

“As Carmel reported, the coaches knew that it was occurring,” he said. “What we don’t know is whether it was during practice or after practice or whatever. We just know they knew about it and were aware of it.”

Wrestlers attempting to lose weight in order to meet weight-class requirements in nothing new. A 1985 story from the Washington Post reported that wrestlers called suits and saunas an “open secret” among wrestlers.

The National Federation of State High School Associations implemented its rule banning rubber, vinyl, and plastic-type suits in 1977. A series of tragic events in 1997 caused even more widespread change. Three college wrestlers died in a span of 33 days, each of them trying extreme measures to cut weight. A senior at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse died of heat stroke after riding a stationary bike in a rubber suit, and a junior at Michigan died of kidney failure and heart malfunction after wearing a rubber suit and working out in a room heated to 92 degrees.

The NCAA acted quickly, changing its rules in 1998 to ban rubber suits. Rules were updated for the 2017-18 season, implementing harsher punishments for violations. The rationale? “Violations of this nature are serious and endanger student-athletes as well as impact the integrity of the weight management process. This protocol makes clear that violations of this nature will be handled as very serious rules violations.”

The NFHS requires wrestlers to forfeit matches if the banned suits are used, but does not address coaches who knew of or encouraged use of the suits.

Elliot Hopkins, the NFHS Director of Sports, Sanctioning and Student Services, would not comment specifically about the violations at Carmel, saying, “I’m quite comfortable that whatever repercussions or penalties that will be assessed will be fair and reasonable. I’m not going to armchair quarterback what they do, because they are talented and qualified to handle the situation.”

He said that high school coaches across the nation have an obligation to protect their athletes.

“Coaches are responsible for the young people,” he said. “They’re responsible for someone else’s child. They have to be held accountable. My child goes and plays for a school. I’m trusting my child’s well-being to that man or woman as a coach.”

Other influences, such as mixed martial arts fighters showcasing rapid weight loss, add to the problem, Hopkins said.

“When you showcase something like that, it gives the viewer the impression that’s the best way to do it,” he said. “We know that’s not the way to do it. Those are concerns. We have to keep educating our schools and our young people that’s not how you lose weight.

“This is a life-threatening scenario,” he said. “You want to be careful. Kids need to be aware, parents need to be aware and coaches obviously need to be aware that you don’t want kids to lose weight this way.”

Read the full story at the IndyStar.

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