Wrestlers’ health is foremost, coaches say

Medical problems due to severe weight loss among high school wrestlers is uncommon because of safeguards adopted by the sport in recent years, area coaches said.

Otto Olson, the third-year head coach at Mariner High School, said standards have been tightened since he was a wrestler at Everett High School a decade ago.

Among the primary changes, he said, is a doctor’s certification of an athlete’s minimum weight recommendation to determine “the weight they can safely get to.” That form also requires parental approval.

Some weight-loss practices that once were commonplace are now prohibited, Olson said. For instance, wrestlers can no longer work out while wearing plastic suits, and teams have to keep their practice rooms at 85 degrees or below. Plastic suits and saunalike workout rooms were once tactics used by wrestlers to help lose weight through increased sweating.

Also, weigh-ins are done one hour before a dual meet, as opposed to several hours or even the day before, as in years past. The time change helps discourage athletes from losing substantial weight because those wrestlers likely will be weaker and less effective in their upcoming matches.

Wrestling has “gotten safer, and I think it’s going to keep getting safer,” said Olson, who went from Everett to a successful wrestling career at the University of Michigan. “They keep adding more and more rules.”

Mariner certifies the weight of its wrestlers in late December, Olson said, though the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association does not require weights to be submitted until mid-January. The process involves a doctor weighing each athlete and doing a body fat analysis. Generally, athletes are not supposed to go below 7 percent body fat.

The school also helps wrestlers figure out reasonable competitive weights early in the season, he added.

Olson said he begins each season by explaining to his athletes the importance of proper nutrition.

“We talk about all that stuff,” he said. “About eating the right foods and how to hydrate yourself after practice. But sometimes you can ask a kid what you told him 10 minutes ago, and by then he’s already forgotten.”

Getting athletes to follow good safety practices is an issue in all sports, said longtime Lake Stevens High School wrestling coach Brent Barnes.

“It’s just like with football players,” he said. “They wear helmets, but there’s no guarantee they’re not going to lead with their head when they go to make a tackle. You can tell them and show them the proper way to do it, but when they’re on the field, they don’t always make the right decision.

“Our athletes get a great lesson in proper diet. They learn how to take care of themselves and how to eat right. Now, do they always do what we tell them to? No, they don’t. But you have to stay on top of them and hope they make the right decisions when they’re away from the school or the program.”

Like Olson, Barnes said many of the recent safety measures are “positive steps in the right direction.” There is even talk of adding urine tests during weigh-ins to be certain that wrestlers are not dehydrated, he said.

“We have rules to protect kids not only from the things that happen around their sport, but also from themselves for those kids who may go overboard,” Barnes said. “Everything is good if the student abides by those rules.”

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