John Altieri has a wrestling match tomorrow. Like any athlete, he is taking the night to get into his competitive mindset. He is visualizing his take downs with the desired outcome in mind: victory. The only difference between him and any other elite athlete? Altieri has not eaten in over 24 hours.
Commonly referred to as “the battle before the battle” wrestlers at all levels experience the same thing; cutting weight.
In NAIA wrestling there are ten weight classes: 125 lbs., 133 lbs., 141 lbs., 149 lbs., 157 lbs., 165 lbs., 174 lbs., 184 lbs., 197 lbs. and 285 lbs. If an athlete is to compete in a match or tournament, they must weigh in at, or under, their weight class.
Statistically, college wrestlers cut an average of seven pounds before weigh-in. Often times serious cutting does not begin until around a week before competition, and if the average of seven pounds is taken, a college wrestler must lose around a pound per day to make weight.
Altieri, nationally in the 125 lbs. weight class, admits that the pr
ocess is not fun, “The first cut is always the worse and biggest. This year I went from 145 to 125. But once my weight is down I generally stay around 132. So I start the process to go from 132 to 125 about a week before weigh-in,” Altieri said.
According to Vanderbilt University, more than 75 percent of youth wrestlers have used dehydration as a method to cut weight. To maintain the integrity of the sport, as well as ensure the safety of participants, the NAIA has strict guidelines on what methods of cutting weight are legal to use. Legal methods include: consistent dieting to maintain weight throughout the season, exercising regularly (normally running or anything to produce a lot of sweat and get the metabolism going) and inducing sweating to lose water weight.
Although there are safe methods available for use, sometimes wrestlers turn to dangerous measures to make weight. For example, wearing sauna suits (or makeshift ones out of trash bags) is an illegal technique that many competitors still turn to in order to produce more sweat. Starvation and dehydration are two moves that are generally frowned upon, but widely used.
Altieri says, “The weigh in is on a Thursday and usually on Monday I’ll weigh around 132. I’ll wake up and check my weight. Once class is out I’ll check my weight again and then depending on my weight, I might eat a little more or less… I’ll do this Tuesday as well but eat slightly less. Now, Wednesday is the day I won’t eat at all, and I will run once or even twice before practice to get my weight down. Twenty-four hours prior to weigh in nothing goes into my body, unless my weight is light.”
Kionte Crocker, William Penn’s starter at 149 lbs., explains that “different people have different ways of cutting weight that work for them.” Crocker says he also generally cuts around seven pounds per week and his favored method is running with heavier than normal layers in order to sweat more.
The NAIA has set procedures to determine the lowest possible weight class a college wrestler can go, and to be eligible for competition a trained professional must certify each athlete.
In the NAIA Wrestling Coach Manual, the following is said about the certification process:
“All NAIA wrestlers must be examined by a certified athletic trainer or other certified medical personnel no sooner than the first official day of classes and no later than the first official practice of the season. Each institution shall keep on file a copy of their wresters’ NCAA Weight-Management Program forms…wrestlers descending to their lowest certified weight class shall not weigh in more than one weight class above their predetermined lowest weight class. Each student-athlete has until (on or before) Feb. 14 to reach or descend back to his or her lowest certified weight class as determined by the student’s individual weight-loss plan.”
Requirements like the NAIA policy are not new, but are taken much more seriously now than in past years. In 1997, three collegiate wrestlers died in a span of just 33 days due to extreme measures used to cut weight.
The autopsy performed on Michigan wrestler, Jeff Reese, revealed that cause of death was “metabolic derangement”. The cause of death for Joe LaRosa of the University of Wisconsin was heat stroke. Billy Jack Saylor, a wrestler out of Campbell College, suffered from a heart attack.
While these deaths are tragic, they were certainly avoidable. The risks associated with cutting weight can be severe. At the very least, physical and cognitive impairment can be expected. The worst case scenario, which is scarily possible, is death.
The NAIA policies and restrictions have made the practice of cutting weight safer. But wrestlers still turn to devices like spitting, chewing anything that produces salvia, wearing heavy layers when working out, staying away from dairy, limiting carbs and caloric intake, wrestling in a hot room to sweat more, etc.
Perhaps the issue lies in education? Crocker says that cutting weight can be dangerous to an extent but, “some people do it right and some do it wrong.”
Altieri, on the other hand, knows that cutting weight can affect his health negatively, “I feel like cutting weight is extremely dangerous for my health. It’s never good depriving yourself of water and food for an extended period of time. It actually stunted my growth my doctor said. When I was young and my body needed nutrition to grow, it didn’t get it because of cutting.”
In order to educate coaches and wrestlers, the NAIA has created a computer program to make sure the Weight Certification process is completed in the correct way. In 2003, the NAIA passed a motion that requires all NAIA coaches to use the software to learn the process and store their results.
Despite the dangers that wrestlers face by cutting weight, the love of the sport is what keeps them going. As long as the process is done correctly, by a combination of weight management and high-impact exercise, cutting weight does not have to be dangerous so athletes can perform at their peak.