Monday, August 10, 2009

Fat guy walking

I’m fat. Not a little out of shape – fat. I’ve struggled with my weight for the last 25 years. Up until I was 35 I farmed, ran and played tennis and softball – all things that allow you to eat what you want and maintain normal weight. Then I went through a major life change and one of the ultimate results was that I started to gain weight – a lot of it. During the past quarter-century I have lost over 50 pounds three times. The last time was 11 years ago and I lost 65 pounds. I was so successful that Weight Watchers hired me to be one of their very few male “leaders”. I worked for them for four years and for the most part kept the weight off. After I left them I gained 80 pounds. I’m now in the middle of a doctor-recommended effort to lose at least 70 of that (30 down so far).

Believe me, I understand weight loss.

I recently re-read Mark Kreidler’s book, Four Days to Glory. It is the story of now-Hawkeye seniors, Jay Borschel and Dan LeClere, and their quest to become 4-time Iowa high school state champions. When I read a book more than once, I typically take away impressions that I may have missed during the first reading. The Hawkeye fan in me read it the first time, but it was the wrestling fan that read it the second time.

The first time through I was impressed by the dedication of these two young men, their coaches and their parents. The ultimate irony of Tom Brands replacing Jim Zalesky as Iowa head coach and the subsequent transfer of Jay and Dan from Virginia Tech to Iowa colored my interpretation of every page.

During the more recent reading I was struck by how well Kreidler captured and portrayed two prevalent aspects of wrestling. The first is the inbred nature of it – that is – kids wrestle because their dad or an uncle or a brother wrestled. You draw the conclusion that wrestling thrives in Iowa (and probably elsewhere) only when there is a history of the sport.

“The parents know the score. But they were also raised with wrestling if they’re from Iowa, or at least raised with the recognition that wrestling matters and will be accepted, glory and gore alike.”

Kreidler’s documentation of the struggles of weight management are the most poignant observations I’ve ever seen made by a non-wrestler (like me).

“There is, of course, no such thing as a satiated wrestler. To live with hunger, to go to bed with a gnawing feeling in the stomach, is to live the life. It is the season of an athlete who spends most of his waking hours, and some of those when he’s supposed to be asleep, contemplating calories expended and calories consumed, and the long-term cost of eating that French fry, and what is the smallest amount of liquid he can take in and still partially replenish a dehydrated body, and so on. It demands of high school students a kind of self-imposed discipline that is excessive and wildly unreasonable, yet routinely met. It requires the wrestlers to deny their bodies the basis for a more natural growth pattern. They’re actually stunting themselves, and they do it on purpose and in the sort of vague half-knowledge and general industry reassurance that, sooner or later, they’ll be able to get it all back. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.”

Cutting weight – tactic for success, badge of honor or bad for the sport?

Weight cutting has long been a part of the American wrestling culture. Conventional wisdom has been that the wrestler whose natural, “walking around”, weight is greater than that of his opponent has a competitive advantage. He’s just naturally bigger and stronger even though they are equal at the time of weigh-in. This led in the past to the frequent use of unhealthy weight loss practices such as extreme dehydration. In late 1997 three college wrestlers died while trying to lose weight rapidly. All three were engaged in practices that were commonly accepted at the time – strenuous exercise in an overheated environment while wearing a rubberized suit.

The NCAA and the National Wrestling Coaches Association moved quickly to respond to these tragedies. The NCAA banned the use of saunas and rubberized suits. The National Wrestling Coaches Association began work on what has become the Optimal Performance Calculator – a comprehensive guide to healthy weight management for athletes. Over 7,000 coaches, 8,000 athletic trainers and 240,000 wrestlers participate in the program. Weight loss among wrestlers is healthier than it has ever been.

Yet the culture, or at least the perception of the culture, still exists. Re-read Mark Kreidler’s observations above. I recently read a thread on one of the online wrestling forums called, “The craziest thing you ever did to cut weight”. It became a brag fest of claims involving diuretics, laxatives, self-induced vomiting and extreme dehydration. There were almost three dozen posts before the site administrator deleted the thread. I was not shocked by the claims (I’ve heard them all before), but I was taken aback by the obvious pride expressed by the posters. Internet posting is by and large an anonymous activity so there is no way of knowing if these things were done before or after the rule changes. It doesn’t really matter because the perception still exists.

If our favorite sport is going to experience serious growth it’s going to have to do so outside of the existing wrestling “family” – in cities and towns where the parents don’t fit the mold that Kreidler describes. We’re going to need parental support. We’re going to need moms. How are we going to gain that support if we allow the perception to continue that wrestling is unhealthy? The NWCA is working at it. Coaches are working at it. Tom Brands frequently talks about a “commitment to a healthy lifestyle” and almost never about “cutting weight”. We all – fans, athletes, coaches - need to make a conscious effort to project a positive image for the world’s greatest sport. Why? To get more kids on the mat.

Now I’m going to go get on the elliptical trainer. I still have 40 pounds to go.

No comments: