AUGUSTA — During wrestling season, Nokomis senior Calvin Peck knows the value of a good night’s sleep. He also knows the value of the minutes just before.

“Every night before I go to bed I eat a clementine and a tablespoon of peanut butter,” said the Warriors’ 126-pounder. “And I’ll lose a pound and a half overnight just like that.”

Peck’s trick is one of many that high school wrestlers employ during the season to maintain weight so they remain eligible to compete at meets.

Maintaining weight is critical to a student-athlete’s success in the sport, but health experts and coaches alike warn of potential dangers that unsafe diets or practice habits present.

Just as it’s important to know the proper way to shoot for an opponent’s legs or execute a reversal or bridge to avoid a pin, it’s crucial for wrestlers to know proper dietary tips.

Nokomis wrestler Calvin Peck eats a spoon full of peanut burtter before practice Wednesday in Newport. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

We have these kids that are kind of obsessed, they come and see me during school and ask if I can get the scales out so they can check the scales in the morning and they can figure out what they can eat, how much they can eat at lunch,” Cony coach Shawn Totman said. “I worry about kids like that because you can tell it’s on their minds all the time.”

Added 182-pound Cony wrestler Casey Mills: If you want to be successful and you want to be a good wrestler, you have to focus on what you’re doing outside of the room, too. Outside of the weight room, outside of the practice room.”

And yet, it’s a far cry from where the sport used to be. In years past, there was an emphasis on weight cutting, and wrestlers would manipulate their weights to find competitive advantages. A 170-pound wrestler, for example, would try to rapidly cut weight in order to make the 152-pound class. That led to horror stories of wrestlers of depriving themselves of needed sleep, or starving themselves while running for hours in heavy suits to sweat as much of their weight off as possible — then binge eating after the meet to start the cycle again.

Back in the day, they’d wear the plastic suits and there’d be saunas and all sorts of stuff,” Mt. Ararat coach Erick Jensen said. “I’m glad that’s mostly gone, because kids died from that.”

In 1997, three college wrestlers died in six weeks as a result of extreme weight-cutting measures. The response trickled to the high school level, including in Maine, where in the 2006-07 season the alpha weigh-in program was implemented. Still in use, the program has wrestlers weigh in at the start of the season, and pass a urinalysis and body fat check. Wrestlers have to be healthy and hydrated to be cleared, and once their weight is established, so are the limits to which they can add or drop pounds and still be eligible to compete.

“Since we’ve implemented it, I’ve seen a drastic change in how wrestling coaches and wrestlers approach their weight class,” said athletic trainer Chris Sementelli, who has worked at MaineGeneral Medical Center since 1990. “The days of kids coming in in November at 189 and cutting down to 160, those days are gone.”

So much so that “cutting” has become a term of scorn. The new word is “maintenance” — keeping a wrestler at the class that suits his or her healthy weight.

“A lot of kids, they go to school and say ‘Oh, I lost 5 or 10 pounds.’ That’s really not something you should be bragging about,” Mills said. “You’d rather kids say ‘I’ve kept my weight at a flat line the whole season.’ ”

“We check every kid’s weight every day,” Skowhegan co-coach Brooks Thompson added. “If it’s fluctuating a lot, we need to take a step back and see what’s going on. … We don’t really cut a lot of weight. I’m not a huge fan of cutting weight. I’d rather a kid be healthy and hydrated and competing at their natural weight.”

The key for wrestlers is keeping their weight in those narrow windows between classes while remaining well-nourished and well-rested. To do that, wrestlers rely on a healthy diet, one that can make maintaining weight nearly automatic.

“Burgers aren’t good and neither is soup because soup’s heavy, and you’ve got to stay away from salt and water because salt makes you retain your water weight,” Peck said. “So I just have unsalted peanuts I bring with me and granola mix, because that’s the protein to keep your metabolism running.”

Mt. Blue’s Tucker Nicholas, a 170-pounder, said portion control is also key. Smaller meals throughout the day are preferred, rather than loading up on three large courses.

“Mostly it’s chicken, and pasta sometimes, to keep my carbs up,” he said. “But usually I try to cut out anything with sugar in it, and try to have smaller meals a day, five or six times.”

Maine Central Institute’s Cole Steeves, a 138-pounder, said he used to struggle hitting weight earlier in his career before committing to a better diet.

“A lot of it is just maintaining a diet and sticking to a plan. A lot of nuts, lean meat, salads with dinners usually,” he said. “I usually have about 16 ounces of water before lunch, and I try to have another eight directly after lunch. … I eat pretty much whatever I want, you’ve just got to remember that next week there’s going to be another weigh-in.”

A healthy diet sets up the body to burn weight naturally, and the strenuous mid-week practices, for most wrestlers, take care of the rest of the pounds. Sometimes, though, the numbers don’t add up, and the wrestler might need some help in trimming the extra pound or two.

There have been mornings where I’ve woken up a pound and a half over,” Peck said, “and I’m doing jumping jacks in front of a wood stove trying to get that extra weight off before weigh-ins.”

“Sometimes you come in, you think you’re going to be under weight, and it doesn’t happen,” Mills added. “So Plan B is always get a sweatshirt on, get sweatpants on, go run on a treadmill at 5:30 in the morning.”

Other wrestlers, either due to a weaker diet or a different body type, might have more work to do.

“That definitely happens. You see kids before meets that are running laps in their khakis,” Steeves said. “Or they have a sweatshirt and a coat on and they’re running laps before weigh-ins, because they’re stressed out about it.”

Added Sementelli, the athletic trainer at MaineGeneral: “The questions that come to me as an athletic trainer in my training room are, ‘how do I eat better?’ (and) ‘what’s better to drink, Gatorade or water?’ … The questions are now promoting their health and weight maintenance as opposed to, ‘how can I get away with cutting a large amount of weight in a short amount of time?’ It’s totally changed the way wrestlers and the coaches look at weight management.”

Weight can add more pressure to wrestlers with enough on their minds already, so coaches try to help out. They work with the athletes on their food choices to help build better diets, or, in the case of Cony’s Totman, they give their wrestlers a rest.

“I’ll pick a week and say ‘OK, you don’t have to worry about making weight this week.’ Just to give them a break,” he said. “Just mentally, (it) gives them a break from having to be pretty stressed about it, because these kids take it very seriously.”

It’s no longer, however, the desperate endeavor from years before. The weight being lost is less, the diets are better, and the goals of the wrestlers’ themselves are more reasonable and manageable.

“There’s this negative connotation towards wrestling, that wrestling’s bad because you have to lose weight, and I know a lot of times you hear parents say that, ‘I don’t want my kid going in having to lose 20 pounds,’ ” Mills said. “But if you’re smart and you do what you think you can, it really shouldn’t be too unhealthy. … Overall, the sport has become safer, it’s become healthier, and at this point if you want to be healthy, you can be healthy.”


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