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Wrestling with weight

By Aimee Berg | April 21, 2012, 12:48 a.m. (ET)

Henry Cejudo

BY: Aimee Berg

CORALVILLE, Iowa – Rulon Gardner was a no-show at weigh-in at the 2012 US Olympic Wrestling Trials on Friday, thus ending his bid to compete at the London Games.

Few had expected the two-time Olympic medalist to shed 15 pounds overnight to make the super-heavyweight cutoff of 264.5 lbs after whittling himself down from an all-time high of 474.

By late afternoon Friday, Gardner had no comment.

But there was a time when corpulent grapplers did not have to deal with the tyranny of the scales. Until 1988, the super-heavyweight Olympic division was open-ended.

Then, at the Seoul Games, super-heavies were slapped with a cap of 130 kg (286 lbs).  

Singlets shrunk further at the 2004 Athens Games, when officials skimmed 22 lbs off the maximum weight to the current cutoff of 120 kg (264.5 lbs).

But the fact remains: Only the giants are forced to cut weight in wrestling. Everyone else has a choice about whether to starve themselves for the sake of competing.

So why do so many wrestlers feverishly battle the bulge in the final hour -- allowing themselves just two weeks to cut 5 to 10 percent of their body weight by forgoing fluid, turning vegan, jogging in neoprene tracksuits, or joining the hot yoga trend?

“The wrestling mentality is: It doesn’t matter if you’re half dead and have to cut off one leg to make weight,” said R.C. Johnson who competes in Greco-Roman at 96 kg (211.5 lbs).

Anything less extreme? Meh.

At a tournament last month, 2008 Olympian Clarissa Chun called her club coach in a panic because she was one kilo over 48 kg (101.5 lbs) on the eve of weigh-in. “I don’t feel sorry for you, Clarissa,” he said, “Not eating on the day of weigh-ins is not ‘cutting weight.’”

Would it be so bad to fight at one’s normal weight?

At Trials, at least one wrestler will do so, and Travis Paulson said his parents were “ecstatic” when he told them he was going up to 84 kg (185 lbs). So was his brother, Trent. But the decision wasn’t in the name of healthy-body image. Paulson did it so he wouldn’t have to potentially knock his twin out of an Olympic berth at 74 kg (163 lbs).  

“I made the decision while watching my brother wrestle to the gold medal at the Pan Am Games [at 74 kg],” he said, and when he told his family, “It was a huge weight off my shoulders. I’m big enough to compete at 84.” Paulson normally weighs 180 or 185 anyway when he’s not cutting weight, and he’s not worried about facing heavier competition. “I can jump higher,” he said. “I’m explosive.”

So what’s with everyone else’s obsession with extreme dieting?

The U.S. Greco-Roman coach Momir Petkovic thinks it’s an American thing.

“Here, the mentality is the more you lose, the stronger you are,” said Petkovic who represented Yugoslavia at two Olympics and has been a Team USA coach since 2002.

Petkovic won gold at the 1976 Montreal Games in Greco at 82 kg and placed fourth in the same weight class eight years later in Los Angeles.

“The way we wrestle [back home],” he said, “They teach you the beauty of the sport. You become a Jedi of wrestling. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrestling at 120 kilos.

“Right now I’ve got a 19-year-old kid at 66 [kg] who wants to go to 55. It’s crushing me. It’s just wrestling. You want to win? Get technically better and you can wrestle anybody,” he said.

The difference between 55 and 66 kilos is nearly 25 lbs.

“I don’t understand how the parents can [condone] it,” Petkovic said, even though athletes at the US Olympic Training Center have access to nutritionists and doctors.

“When kids try to cut weight, they get tired, they get hurt,” he explained. “They walk away because they decide, ‘I don’t want to cut 15 lbs my whole life.’ From the love becomes hate.”

Perhaps the key to change rests within the sport.  

“If you can change the minds of the first kids’ coaches,” Petkovic said, perhaps wrestlers won’t focus so much on how much they have to lose in order to win.

Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.