New York, NY (CSTV U-WIRE) -- It's almost a tradition, a right of passage in the sport, something expected of all athletes who turn their lives over to it. Fans understand that beyond the glory of the playing field loom practices that can be extremely harmful to the body. Artificial performance enhancers in baseball and football have been receiving substantial media coverage recently, but what has often been lost in the hysteria surrounding mainstream sports are the tender issues concerning wrestling and lightweight crew, the only two collegiate sports that have explicit weight requirements for competition.
Wrestling in particular has been functioning for decades under the accepted illusion that significant weight loss is necessary for success.
"This isn't new that you shouldn't be doing this, but there was this culture," said Jim Gossett, Columbia's head athletics trainer. "Stimulants like caffeine or some type of energy drink were popular. Chewing tobacco was something people probably did because it helped the spitting. People would wear rubber plastic suits and expose themselves to high heat."
The landscape of training regulation changed forever in late 1997, following the deaths of three Division I wrestlers who lost their lives while trying to rapidly shed weight. Published reports on these athletes showed that they were attempting to lose between one and two pounds per hour after having lost more than 20 pounds in weeks leading up to competition.
In wrestling, the impetus behind these drastic measures in many cases is the belief that dropping to a lower weight class gives one an advantage in strength and power. A coach may also need to shuffle the distribution of his players to give the team a better chance of winning.
In addition to intense dehydration through the use of saunas and sweating, various starvation diets are among the most popular ways to get rid of pounds. Several clinical studies have shown the negative effects of these methods both physically and mentally. Some of the many consequences include impaired thermoregulation, a decreased work and endurance capacity, alterations in hormonal levels, stunted growth and development, and the deterioration of the heart as a muscle.
"If you are dehydrated, that's the first thing that impairs performance. Anything even as low as three to four percent dehydration, it gets harder to think," Gossett added. "As the system gets thicker (blood flow), it gets harder for the heart to do its job. If you don't eat, your body doesn't know that you're not eating because you don't want to. It thinks you're starving and drops the basal metabolism level."
In addition to actual physical irregularities occurring from rapid weight loss, there has long been a stigma linking eating disorders to athletes who significantly reduce their weight to compete. Gossett cited a difference between traditional eating disorders and what he acknowledges to be "disordered eating."
"Is there disordered eating? Yes," he said. "Do coaches promote eating disorders? No. Disordered eating is a nutritional problem. Eating disorders are a psychological problem."
Gossett pointed to the fact that most wrestlers and rowers go on to do other things after their collegiate careers and the disordered diets are discarded, unlike an eating disorder, which would persist even in the absence of involvement in the sports. In addition, Gosset cited new restrictions set by high schools and universities to prevent deaths.
"We don't prescribe a diet. Variety and moderation is encouraged. There are no bad foods," he said. "At some schools, people sometimes turn supplements into substitutes for meals, which isn't good. Food is a good thing and there are a lot of good things that food provides the body that still can't be explained."
Gosset's goal is to make the process smoother, with gradual weight loss that targets around a pound a week.
While on the whole, regulations and standards have increased, the prevalence of unhealthy weight management may still be far from negligible. The few members of Columbia's wrestling squad approached for this piece refused to divulge or comment on any aspects of their dieting habits.
Lightweight rowing has more recently experienced its own tragedy when Boston College oarsman Scott Laio passed away shortly after his team won the prestigious Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia last May, reportedly from a heart failure. It was speculated that an inherited heart abnormality may have also compounded the effects of any dehydration and unhealthy weight loss for Laio.
Dehydration is one of the causes for imbalanced electrolytic concentrations and severely disrupts the functioning of inner organs such as the heart.
"All of the bodily systems are affected by dehydration. You could pass out. You could vomit," said James Feit, a nutritionist based in Tenafly, New Jersey who is certified in weight and stress management.
When dehydrated, athletes will lose their electrolytes making the body's pH unbalanced, instead of the desired neutral territory. During dehydration, the body enters a state called ketosis which leads to acid buildup in the blood.
Lightweight men's rowing draws particular concern because it is not an official NCAA-regulated event.
"This is the only death that has ever occurred in the sport, although one is still obviously too many," Gossett said. "The initiative has to be taken by the institutions. If 90 percent of schools are following a certain protocol, and some other school that doesn't really care has a problem, then they're going to have a big problem."
Mark DeRose, Columbia's head coach for the lightweight crew squad described a highly self-regulated Lions program.
"At Columbia we have very safe practices. We don't practice dehydration. We don't use any type of diuretics. We don't promote any type of quick weight loss," DeRose explained. "In our weigh-ins, I barely ever see anybody drop more than a few pounds in a week. We say, 'If you're going to lose weight in a healthy way, then one to two pounds per week is the absolute maximum that you are allowed to lose.'"
Due to a lack of legislation regulating this sport, many Ivy League coaches and physicians have been working together to come up with a rigorous protocol. According to Gossett, Princeton will be implementing a pilot set of guidelines this year.
"The lightweight coaches in the Ivy League are creating a proposal to standardize year long weigh-in procedures, or weight certifications," Derose added. "We are trying to institute a policy where you weigh athletes in at certain checkpoints throughout the year to make sure that athletes aren't going to lose a tremendous amount of weight [at one time]."
The average lightweight rower is projected to eat 3000-3500 calories a day to maintain his weight after training between 90 and 180 minutes a day. This includes workouts that are done independently.
"When red flags come up, we send the student for professional help," DeRose said. "That could mean a nutritionist, it could mean a therapist."
However, without a recognized system of rules, there is still a large window of opportunity to do things the wrong way.
Although the league operates under an "honor system," Gossett believes one thing that could be done to eliminate any doubt would be to have a neutral official come in and do weigh-ins along with a coach, as opposed to the coach weighing his own players. Another aspect is the care with which athletes are recruited. By recruiting people that already fit the required profile or are very close to it, there is less need to drop weight.
Many times, lightweight members who have cultivated a strong bond with fellow rowers may take extreme measures to ensure staying in the lightweight division and try to counter the natural growth process that often occurs through the course of their college years.
Despite the serious health issues being addressed by the sport at this time, both Gossett and DeRose maintained that Columbia's program and most other League teams are meticulously run and have faced no problems.
"We don't see problems because we lay out very clear expectations. All of our athletes, with the exception of a few, are recruited. They're coming to Columbia to row lightweight crew. They know what the requirements are," DeRose said. "They know what the weight is. If a guy shows up to the first day of camp in September weighing 190 they have not met an expectation and will probably not be allowed to train."
(C) 2006 Columbia Daily Spectator via CSTV U-WIRE