Mount St. Joseph wrestler Ryan Herwig compared last Friday to a Christmas in January.
It was the day that Maryland's annual 2-pound growth allowance for high school wrestlers went into effect, so instead of having to cut weight to 119 pounds for every match, Herwig's new target is 121.
"For me, 2 pounds makes a huge difference. You just can't believe how happy I am about it," he said.
The weight allowance "is intended to allow for the in-season growth of the athlete," said Baltimore County athletic coordinator Ron Belinko, a former coach at Overlea and Eastern Tech.
But many wrestlers use the allowance to drop into a lower weight class in hopes of gaining an edge. More wrestlers begin "sucking weight," and some take it too far.
Done properly, weight cutting can help produce victories on the mat. Done improperly, it can be self-defeating, create health problems and even be fatal.
Three collegiate wrestlers died last season of complications associated with extreme weight loss in a short period of time.
Most high school wrestlers cut weight at one time or another. Many, like Herwig, a state runner-up at 103 pounds last season as a freshman, push the limit but stay within reason. They sweat it off in two-hour practices, or perhaps hit a treadmill to shed the last few pounds.
"The last 3 pounds is always the toughest. That's when you get the cracked lips, the cotton mouth, you can't swallow. You can't do anything but cry," said Herwig.
Other wrestlers take more radical measures, such as excessive spitting, spending long sessions in saunas or wearing rubber suits or plastic bags to promote sweating. Some wrestlers even resort to diuretics, laxatives or induced vomiting.
Lisa Curry, a member of the state's medical advisory board for public schools, said it is recommended that a wrestler lose no more than 1 or 2 pounds a week.
Sam Case, a former Western Maryland wrestling coach and now an exercise physiology professor at the college, said a wrestler risks losing critical muscle mass if his body fat level drops below 7 percent. He lists "dry mouth, cracked lips, sunken-in eyes and lack of energy" among the overt symptoms of extreme weight loss.
"What the wrestlers are trying to do is to lose weight through dehydration, theorizing that they'll have greater muscle mass than wrestlers in their same weight," said Dr. David Roth, coordinator of compulsive overeating services at the Center for Eating Disorders at St. Joseph's Medical Center.
In the short term, Roth said, "any form of dehydration can lead to electrolyte imbalance [deficits of bodily salts], manifest by abdominal or lower-body cramping."
Roth added that, in the long term, "this could contribute to heart and kidney dysfunctions."
The roller coaster
Some of the state's best current and past wrestlers have allowed their weight to fluctuate wildly throughout their high school years.
DeMatha senior Wes Cummings, ranked No. 1 in the state at 171 pounds, said he didn't pay close enough attention to his diet and rode a weight roller coaster much of his career.
"I was pretty much starving myself for the first couple of years," said Cummings, 6 feet. "I won a state title at 119, but I grew to 145 in the off-season. Won states again at 140 next season, but grew to 215 afterward.
"Then I pretty much stopped eating to get from 215 to about 171 two weeks before the first tournament of the season. At about 5 a.m. the day of my first match, I lost about 5 pounds in three or four hours."
Cummings said he lost that first match "because I had no energy," and after three seasons, he finally has figured out that less is not necessarily better.
"For this year, I wrestled throughout the off-season and didn't allow myself to get much over 190. Then I wrestled the first two tournaments of the year at 189 before dropping down to 171," said Cummings, who is bound for Cal-State Bakersfield on a full scholarship. "I know I never believed it, but you can actually eat and still lose weight. But there's a big difference between a cheeseburger and a turkey sandwich."
Herwig was often undersized early last season at 103, but he was cutting from 110 by season's end. Two weeks after states, Herwig was competing at 119.
This past November, however, Herwig, 5-8, competed at 132 pounds. He beat two accomplished wrestlers there, so his mother contends he doesn't need to make 119 to wrestle effectively.
Herwig impressively won two December tournaments at 119, but has since missed weight once. The last time Ryan wrestled at 119 in December, Sharon Herwig said, he "had no energy at all."
Yet when a friend asked Ryan why he feels better served at 119, Ryan replied, "I just do."
Herwig's mother carefully monitors his diet. She visited the family physician Friday concerning Herwig's growth vs. weight loss. "The doctor said Ryan is fine at 121, but I just wanted to make sure," Sharon Herwig said. "It's my job as a mother to make sure that he develops in a healthy way.
"There's a difference between missing weight because of a lack of discipline and missing because it's God's will that our children grow."
Scott Birth, 26, defied the odds in 1992 by winning a state title for Bel Air after "sucking" from 157 pounds in preseason to 125 for the state tournament.
The payoff? He hammered heavily favored two-time champ Craig Middledorf of Paint Branch, 10-2.
Birth said he now weighs "around 140," has no health problems and no regrets about the methods that helped him to join his older brother, Chris, winner of a state title at Bel Air three years before him.
"The last 3 pounds were the hardest. I passed out twice. I'd just run between classes, during gym class. A couple of times, I got pulled out of regular classes to make weight," said Birth, now a shoe store manager in Towson.
"My first match at states, I pinned my kid easily. I weighed myself, and I was 6 pounds over. So I had to do some running, and I ended up being exhausted for my next match, but I won, 6-4."
That night, Birth "ran until I was about a pound and a half over. Then I just spit, ran, urinated. I passed out from dehydration, but then I made weight, went back to the hotel."
For dinner, Birth ate "two mushroom and Swiss burgers, two orders of curly fries, two milkshakes and a gallon of juice."
"Next morning, I felt great. Rejuvenated. I pinned my first opponent. I mean, I killed the kid. By the time I wrestled Middledorf, I was up to about 138 or 140."
At 5-9, the wiry Birth towered over the unbeaten Middledorf, who stood about 5-4.
"He felt really light to me. I picked him up once or twice, pretty much threw him around. It was nothing but technique and leverage," Birth said.
"I heard years later that Middledorf's still complaining about the extra weight. Know how I look at it? I did it within the rules, so I'm good."
Binge and purge
Some wrestlers consider vomiting a trick of the trade.
One of the state's better former wrestlers said he became hooked after learning the method from two older wrestlers. He later developed bulimia.
"As soon as I realized you could do it, bam, I was doing it," said the wrestler, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "From that point on, I'm like, whoa, I can do this. I still worked out all the time, losing weight just like everybody else. I binged and purged, though."
It became an obsession.
"I knew where to go and how to do it. I knew every bathroom in the school. I knew when my parents were leaving or not going to be at home. I'd take a shower, turn it on [to drown out the sound].
"When you're destroying somebody, the adrenalin's pumping. You can live on that for six minutes, slicking and tossing somebody around. But as soon as you get taken down, and you have to dig deep, I had no foundation. I couldn't get up. I was done."
The model approach
Not only did Steve Kessler never suffer a high school defeat over 148 bouts, but the four-time state champ from Owings Mills also never suffered through a day without a meal.
"He never had to lose a pound before a match in four years wrestling for me," said Guy Pritzker, his former coach.
"Two of the years Steve won the states, his sophomore year and his senior year, Steve actually weighed in at the weight class below. His senior year, he was sick and weighed in 8 pounds under," Pritzker said.
"For his career, Steve was certified to wrestle at 125 as a freshman, 130 as a sophomore, 135 as a junior and 140 when he was a senior," Pritzker said. "But he won states at 130, 140, 145 and 152, so he never wrestled where he was certified to wrestle."
Pritzker said he acknowledges weight cutting as an integral part of wrestling, but discourages it whenever possible.
Kessler relied on Pritzker and his mother, Claudette Kessler, to make sure his formula was a winning one on and off the mat.
"We remained aware of proteins, low carbohydrates that would be run off or worked off," Claudette Kessler said. "Steve skipped meals, but the meals he didn't skip were lots of fish, vegetables, fruit."
"I might not eat breakfast or lunch one day if I was close [to not making weight], but I was pretty much able to focus on technique in practice, so cutting wasn't a distraction," Steve Kessler said.
Now a redshirt freshman enjoying success as a 157-pounder at Iowa Central, Kessler routinely weighs as much as 170 but added that he's "still eating right," and that "it's not a major problem."
Pub Date: 1/21/99