Jay Eide was a walk-on for the South Dakota State University wrestling team in 1993. His natural weight was around 165 pounds, but he would drop to as low as 134 for competition purposes. That was, until one day, he just had enough.
"I can clearly remember the last day I wrestled," says Eide. "I was in the SDSU cafeteria deciding between eating a dry piece of fish and a loaded burrito. I’d been choosing the fish the whole season, but decided that day I was done cutting weight and ordered the burrito.”
Eating healthy had been part of his training regime, but he knew his weekly weigh in was just around the corner, he says. Finally, the toll of fighting to make weight became too much. “That was the last day I went to practice," he recalls.
That bitter experience was still on Eide’s mind when he created the Pikes Peak Wrestling League, a youth wrestling league based in Colorado Springs. As a result, his league’s Saturday tournaments run on a weight format where wrestlers don't have to make a certain weight class in order to compete.
"Since our wrestlers don’t have to make a weight class, parents and coaches don’t force their wrestlers to cut weight for our events," says Eide. He is not alone. His system has caught on and now nearly 100 clubs throughout Colorado have joined the league.
Rethinking Weight Standards
Eide’s efforts are part of a broader shift. Led by organizations such as the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA), wholesale changes to weight management have been implemented across the sport and it's changing the mentality across all levels of wrestling.
New wrestlers are now required to go through an initial weight assessment prior to either the first practice or competition (depending on the state association) to determine that wrestler’s minimum weight class, points out Pat Tocci, the director of administration at the NWCA. The wrestlers must pass a hydration test, then have their weight measured and body fat calculated. After the measurements are taken, the data is calculated to provide a minimum weight class at either 7-percent body fat for males or 12 percent for females.
"It is important to remember that this is a lowest possible weight class but not might considered an optimal weight class," says Tocci. The point of all this, he adds, is to keep the athlete healthy.
In addition, many states require a nutrition education program as part of the weight management program. This is to keep the wrestler, parents, and coaches educated on the nutritional aspects of the weight management program. Recently, the NWCA partnered with a company called My Sports Dietitian to provide a nutrition program for all wrestlers who use the Optimal Performance Calculator system.
"This removes coaches and parents arbitrarily deciding what weight class a wrestler should be competing in,” explains Tocci. “One of the black eyes for the sport was weight cutting and this is a good way to combat that. We’re educating people about this, not only at the secondary level, but at the youth level as well.”
The new rules and guidelines have made a huge, positive impact, says B.J. Anderson, team physician for the Augsburg College wrestling team and medical advisor for Minnesota USA Wrestling. Gone are the days when a medical doctor just looks at a kid, puts him on a scale and estimates what his competitive weight should be, says Anderson. Now, there are a number of methods—calipers, water displacement devices, electrical impedance—that doctors can use to monitor safe weight levels.
"We've embraced the appropriate changes that will only strengthen the sport and make it healthier for all competitors," says Anderson.
This new paradigm for healthy weight management also helps develop a healthy and robust metabolism, says Robert Forster, a physical therapist who has trained 54 Olympic medalists and numerous professional athletes.
"When athletes are trained in accordance with science and have a healthy diet, their metabolism will burn off excess body fat. As a result, they will not only arrive at their best competition weight naturally, but they will perform better too," Forster notes. By contrast, he notes that overtraining, coupled with calorie-restricted diets, can create a suppressed metabolism and put undue stress on the body.
Mark Reiland, head coach of Iowa City West High School and an NCAA champion under Dan Gable at the University of Iowa, acknowledges the extreme weight-cutting stereotypes still exist. But he points out that, thankfully, they’re no longer accurate. "No one enjoyed the massive weight cutting," Reiland says. "Now, the rules won't allow for it."
This new mindset allows wrestlers to concentrate on getting better at the sport instead of battling the scale day-after-day, Reiland notes. “That helps give wrestlers more energy to keep the other areas of their life in balance such as school work and family time,” he says. “I believe it has been a positive step for the sport and I think it will continue to improve the sport as a whole."
College and senior-level wrestlers have already begun to adapt to this. Kyle Dake, now a USA Senior Men's competitor ranked in the top five at 74 KG/163 pounds, won four NCAA Division 1 titles in four different weight classes (141, 149, 157, and 165 pounds).
Likewise, David Taylor, a two-time NCAA champion and two-time Dan Hodge Trophy winner from Penn State, who finished third in 2015 the World Team Trials at 74 KG/163 pounds, recently announced plans to move up a weight class and focus on competing at 86 kilograms/189 pounds. The reason? Taylor found that he had been focusing more on making weight and recovery than becoming a better wrestler. At this year’s World Team Trials, he says his efforts to cut weight caused him to perform at below a peak level because he was just too fatigued.
When senior level competitors like Dake and Taylor focus more on competing at their natural weight, they set an important example for younger wrestlers, says Eide.
"Living in Colorado, I get a chance to see the Olympic Training Center wrestlers and speak with them," says Eide. "They eat healthy year round and consult with a nutritionist weekly. They know they have to watch what they eat, but they have a plan and are fully in control of their weight management.”
Wrestling has plenty of mental and physical challenges without the stress of maintaining an arbitrary weight, says Eide. "For a young wrestler, adding on the pressure of trying to make weight can take too great a toll after a few years.” It makes for a problem Eide knows all too well.