Ansley Washburn is currently a senior at Brookline High School and has been on the Sagamore’s staff since 2019. She loves to spend time playing soccer,...
Restrictive weight classes force wrestlers to alter their bodies
March 25, 2022
As a freshman, captain Lyle Gray, now a senior, forced himself to lose 12 lbs to qualify for his chosen weight class on the varsity wrestling team. He did so again as a sophomore, increasing the amount of weight he lost to 19 lbs.
Although it is not the case for all, many high school wrestlers find themselves facing a similar fate as Gray: forcing themselves to lose significant weight for their sport. Calorie deficiency, dehydration and a changed relationship with food are some effects these athletes deal with as a result of altering their weight drastically and rapidly.
Wrestling has been a sport at the high school for decades, and recently the varsity team’s success has improved dramatically. For the past three years, besides 2021 because the state tournament was canceled due to COVID, the team has placed in the top 5 in the state. This winter, they won sectionals for the first time in school history. The program has both a Junior varsity (JV) team and varsity team that are co-ed, but both teams are predominantly male and have an all male staff.
In wrestling, opponents are predetermined by weight classes to keep competition as fair as possible. There are 14 weight classes at the high school level and they range from 106 lbs to 285 lbs, with increments getting larger and larger as the weight class increases.
Wrestlers must ‘weigh-in’ at or below their assigned weight class on the day of competition. If they fail to, ‘make weight,’ they are not allowed to compete.
Athletic trainer Alex Jzyk, said there is heavy pressure on the wrestlers to weigh-in at their weight class on the day of competition.
“If you don’t make your weight, you don’t wrestle. It costs points for your team, it takes you off the mat, it doesn’t allow you the ability to wrestle,” Jzyk said. “It is an individual sport but it’s a team sport too. If you’re not making your weight, you’re hurting your team. The pressure is obvious.”
Despite the intensity and structure of the sport causing some wrestlers to go to extreme lengths to perform, registered dietician and mother of two wrestlers at the high school Emma Snyder Samuels said the pressure comes mostly from the athletes themselves.
“If an athlete didn’t make the weight that they had wanted, nobody’s making them feel bad. No one is punishing them. People are people and they may be more down on themselves or may just feel generally disappointed, but nobody is being punished for not hitting a weight,” Samuels said.
At the beginning of the season, wrestlers must choose which weight class they want to compete in. They make this decision by consulting coaches, doctors and Jzyk. Coaches help the athletes decide what makes sense for the team. Each teamAt the high school, it is allowed to have multiple wrestlers in one weight class per team, but tournaments only allow one wrestler per team per weight class. This can create the need for a hierarchy among athletes competing in the same weight class. At the high school, athletes competing in the same weight class must wrestle each other to decide the hierarchy. According to Gray, because of this, many wrestlers try to be in their own weight class, even if that means significantly altering their weight. Gray said his success on the team has come with a price.
“I started cutting a lot of weight very young. No one else on the team really ever decided to go that path or go that route after me. That was purely my own ambition. It wasn’t recommended by a coach or anything. I wanted to wrestle varsity my freshmen year and I knew by making that decision I was going to have to put my body through what I put myself through to make the weight to make the team,” Gray said.
Besides checking in with coaches for what makes sense for the team in terms of weight classes, athletes must also get certified by a doctor and the athletic trainer to verify that the weight they want to wrestle is attainable and healthy for their body. Jzyk conducts a ‘weight certification’ with the athletes before the season to ensure they don’t alter their weight an unsafe amount.
Junior and captain Haden Bottiglieri has been wrestling since fifth grade and he currently competes for the varsity team. He said the coaches do a good job keeping their athletes safe, but many athletes find ways to “cheat the system” in order to be able to cut more weight.
“[Alex] won’t let you go too low. However, I don’t know how much the ‘weight certification’ does because guys will cut weight before that, which you can’t really regulate. It really comes down to the coach’s responsibility of what’s safe for their athletes and I think at Brookline the coaches do an amazing job with that,” Bottiglieri said.
Although Jzyk said he does not recommend the athletes lose too much weight, he understands the reason behind the weight loss in the sport and said he believes it can be done in a healthy and productive way.
“The reason why they do it is because in wrestling you want to have as much muscle on your body as you can for your weight. They try to be as lean as possible for their weight class. The higher percentage of muscle you have on your body the more efficient your body is essentially,” Jzyk said.
Varsity Coach Nick Tourville said the coaches encourage their athletes to lose weight naturally, by working out and eating healthy.
“I would say in high school there is less emphasis on cutting and more emphasis on eating healthy, getting your weight down naturally through the season. That just comes through working out more or even just practice. Wrestling is obviously a pretty intense sport. The practices are very cardio intensive and strength intensive so you lose weight naturally getting in shape for wrestling,” Tourville said.
Bottiglieri also said the coaches want the athletes to lose weight over time, rather than very quickly, which is unhealthy.
“One of the big things our coaches will tell you to do is not to yo-yo your weight. That basically means that some guys will cut 10 pounds or something and then two days later they will be right back up to where they were,” Bottiglieri said.
Jzyk said many of the athletes do not follow their coaches’ advice and instead try to lose weight too quickly.
“I can tell you many of them do not cut weight in a smart way. The most common way that you see them try and cut weight is to put on a big ol’ sweat suit, sometimes even a plastic bag over that, to raise your body heat more, and to get on a bike or a treadmill and you sweat it out. You essentially just sweat the water out of your body. Water weighs a lot, so the more water you lose the less you weigh. When you ‘crash diet,’ you’re just cutting out water,” Jzyk said.
Though Bottiglieri said he himself has never had to take drastic measures because his weight class is close to his natural weight, he said he has seen other wrestlers go to extremes to lose weight quickly. He also said that he has seen that under-nourishing and dehydrating will make other wrestlers perform worse.
“At some tournaments, more so at national tournaments, I’ll see guys that I know are tough wrestlers spitting in bottles or running around the arena 30 minutes before weigh-ins to get the last pound out. A lot of them will then under-perform because of what they have to put their body through. At a certain point you do more damage than good,” Bottiglieri said.
Samuels said cutting weight too quickly is not healthy and can be very damaging, even beyond limiting athletic ability.
“Physiologically you can lose a lot of weight quickly, it’s just not safe. It’s not advisable. You cannot maneuver your weight more than two pounds within a couple of days or a day. If you are looking to do anything more dramatic, it’s not safe and then you get sick, and then you can’t compete, and then you may not be able to go to school,” Samuels said.
Jzyk said losing weight quickly can have severe physical consequences.
“Getting rid of water means you’re dehydrated which leads to cognitive deficiencies, it leads to skeletal muscle deficiencies, cramps. By cutting weight quickly, you’re essentially just burning water out of your body and water is essential for all the high level functions of your body,” Jzyk said.
Gray said he felt the effects of under-nourishment and dehydration, especially in his underclassmen years when he was cutting extreme amounts of weight.
“I always felt super tired the day before I wrestled or the day I wrestled because there was not a lot of food in my body. I would look in the mirror and there was no fat in my face and I looked tired all the time. I could see it in other parts of my body too when I looked in the mirror. I was noticeably slimmer, I could see more of my ribs,” Gray said.
Besides the toll weight loss during adolescence can take on one’s body, it can also take a toll on your mental health. Gray said forcing himself to always be conscious of everything he puts into his body has reshaped the way he thinks about food.
“Now I don’t ever eat unconsciously,” Gray said. “I always know what I’m eating when I eat now. I never really understood that before and I never really put as much thought into the food I eat as I do now.”
Despite the negative impacts that rapid weight loss left on Gray, and despite the fact he would not encourage a peer to do what he did, he said he does not regret it and the bonds he made with the team made it worth it.
“It wasn’t healthy and I wouldn’t recommend it, but I definitely would do it again if it was just me,” Gray said. “That being said, it also had some really great impacts on my life. I made great relationships because I was on varsity because I could wrestle at that level. In the long run I think it made me a better person. It was definitely hard, but I had teammates doing it with me.”
Samuels said she has seen the negative effects of teenage weight loss and said she does not support the concept of ‘cutting weight.’
“I don’t think there is a single parent out there who likes the idea of needing to cut weight, not one. Many of the boys are growing and they are still in the middle of puberty. I don’t see any positive benefit in any way of managing, controlling or reducing calorie intake during those really important growing years,” Samuels said.
This story discusses disordered eating, rapid weight loss and unhealthy eating habits. If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorder Hotline is 1-800-931-2237.