As long as there are weight classes in high school wrestling, or at any level of the sport, athletes are bound to try to shed pounds to gain a competitive advantage.
The theory is that an athlete who loses weight to wrestle in a lighter weight class is superior to an opponent who naturally resides in that weight class.
The wrestler who lost the weight is more likely to have a lower percentage of body fat and a more muscular frame, and thus the potential to assert him or herself physically.
Beginning with the 2007-2008 school year, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) implemented a wrestling weight management program to make sure athletes who choose to lose weight during the season do so as safely and responsibly as possible. The system uses fixed data points to remove any subjectivity or gray area from the process.
The program uses an Optimal Performance Calculator (OPC) developed by the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) and hosted by the TrackWrestling website to create a “descent plan” for each individual wrestler. Wrestlers and their coaches follow this plan, which mandates a maximum weight loss of 1.5% of the athlete’s body weight per week.
Using the wrestler’s weight and body fat measurements from a preseason weigh-in conducted by a certified assessor — typically the high school’s athletic trainer or nurse — as a baseline, the OPC projects what weight he or she will be at when they reach the nationally mandated minimum of 7% body fat for boys and 12% for girls.
An athlete generally cannot wrestle below that minimum wrestling weight, but those wrestlers whose physique is naturally below the minimum body fat percentages may provide a letter from his or her doctor affirming that in order to compete.
Passing a hydration test — a maximum specific gravity of 1.025 percent urine density is the national standard — is a prerequisite for the initial assessment, and athletes cannot compete unless they have been assessed.
In the state of Washington, there are 14 weight classes for boys (106, 113, 120, 126, 132, 138, 145, 152, 160, 170, 182, 195, 220, 285) and girls (100, 105, 110, 115, 120, 125, 130, 135, 140, 145, 155, 170, 190, 235).
The weight classes represent top-end weights. Athletes can compete above their respective weights, but not below them.
Each wrestler is eligible to compete at two weight classes at all times — the one which corresponds to his or her present weight, and the next heaviest one.
For example, if a male wrestler weighs 167 pounds, he is eligible to weigh in at 170 and 182 before a dual or tournament. If that wrestler follows a descent plan, losing 1.5% of his body weight each week, the weight classes at which he is eligible slides accordingly: When he reaches 160 pounds, he is eligible at 160 and 170.
However, if a wrestler weighs in at a weight that exceeds the two weight classes for which he or she is eligible, that wrestler is locked in at that weight for the remainder of the season.
For example, if a female wrestler’s descent plan prescribes that she is eligible at 120 or 125, but she weighs in at 130, she would be locked into eligibility at 125 for the rest of the season at that point, and could not go to a lower weight class.
Of course, not all wrestlers have to lose weight. An athlete can lock him or herself in to a weight class at any time, while preserving the option to weigh in at one weight class above the one at which his or her weight has stabilized.
The one bit of wiggle room provided to wrestlers involves reassessment, which is aimed at athletes whose weight stabilizes in a weight class outside of those prescribed by their plans.
Athletes may undergo the same testing as in the initial assessment (hydration, weight, body fat) three additional times during the season, provided the first reassessment takes place 21 days from the initial assessment. Each successive reassessment much be seven days removed from the preceding ones.
Reassessment could potentially appeal to athletes who have been building mass while playing football, but want to aim for more of a toned physique for wrestling.
An informal poll of several area wrestling coaches concluded that two or three wrestlers per team typically go through the reassessment process.
The weight management system also provides for a growth allowance that applies only to the postseason. All wrestlers participating in postseason tournaments are afforded two-pound weight allowances that increase to three pounds if the tournament is a two-day affair.
For example, at Mat Classic XXXII, slated for Feb. 21-22, 2020, a male wrestler would be able to weigh in at 108 pounds on Day 1 and be eligible to compete in the 106-pound weight class. If that same wrestler reaches Day 2, he could record a weight of 109 in Saturday morning’s weigh-in and be eligible.
Carl Wenham, a retired wrestling coach (Forks, Quincy, Thomas Jefferson) and the Mat Classic tournament director, oversees the weight management system for the WIAA.
“I coached for many years, and when I retired, the assistant executive director for wrestling at the time (Jim Meyerhoff Sr.) knew that I had some free time,” Wenham said. “I work with the assessors to get them logged in, and help them understand how the system works. It’s a lot of computer time.”
“Our system mirrors the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) standard, and the primary reason that came into effect was that we lost three college wrestlers in a short period of time from hydration issues.”
In November and December 1997, the deaths of wrestlers at Campbell University, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the University of Michigan jolted the sport’s governing bodies into needed action.
Before protocols such as Washington’s weight management system became standardized across the country, wrestlers and coaches were largely left to their own devices, often to the detriment of all involved.
Mark Dalbeck and Ray Mather, the wrestling coaches at Monroe and Stanwood High Schools, respectively, know this better than most.
Dalbeck wrestled at Willapa Valley High School in Raymond and has been leading the Bearcats’ program since 2011 after five years as an assistant. He began his coaching career in 2001.
Dalbeck says he doesn’t delve into the weight management system as deeply as some of his coaching colleagues, but believes it has simplified what can be an uncomfortable issue.
“I think it’s helped our sport in that it’s been very helpful for parents and athletes,” he said. “I want our kids to be healthy. The days of playing football at 220 and wrestling at 168 are done.”
Dalbeck remembers those days, some of which he spent sitting in Willapa Valley’s boiler room with garbage bags taped to his body, a not-uncommon — and unsafe — technique of sapping the body of moisture weight in less-enlightened days.
“We’ve always let our kids kind of dictate things and wrestle where they feel healthy,” Dalbeck said. “We want them to go home and eat a balanced meal and not feel like they have to live off salad and rice during the wrestling season. We tell them, ‘Here’s where you can go, and anywhere in there, we’re good with it.’”
Mather, who is entering his 14th season at Stanwood, attended Arlington High School in Arlington, Nebraska, a small town northwest of Omaha. In a delightful coincidence, Mather wrestled for the Arlington Eagles, which is, of course, the same nickname as Stanwood’s Stilly Cup archrival. He continued his wrestling career at Buena Vista College (now University), an NCAA Division III program in Storm Lake, Iowa.
With all of that wrestling experience, Mather said he feels a little constrained by the strict nature of the weight management system, but acknowledges its benefits.
“I don’t think the system can get any more convenient for kids, coaches and families, and it doesn’t compromise what the sport’s all about. I think if they made it any more strict, it would take away from part of what I think the whole meaning of the sport is,” he said. “I’ve always been taught that as a wrestler, you want to be as big as you can be and as light as you can be and still have your energy. I’ve got an old-school mentality of things. I would never put a kid into a spot where bad things could happen, but I know I can get a kid down to another weight class (beyond his or her descent plan) and they would still be healthy. I feel like the system takes my experience level out of the equation. That whole portion is taken out of it, but I understand that there’s some bad seeds that are taken out of it, too.”
Mather’s confidence about being able to help his wrestlers navigate weight loss safely is forged from his own experiences.
When he was a junior in high school, Mather said he cut 23 pounds in two weeks, from 155 to 132, while following a diet created by his grandmother.
“I know I did it the right way, even though it was a hard and fast cut,” he said. “It took a lot of discipline, but I still got my nutrition.”
Today, administrators say anything they can do to make wrestling more accessible and appealing to the widest possible swaths of potential student-athletes is to everyone’s advantage. Strictly regulating weight loss and emphasizing healthy training methods should be an easy sell.
Wenham recalled the satisfaction of the student-athletes when the system was first implemented, energized by their newfound agency in the weight-loss process.
“When we started this process, I remember we had a lot of happy wrestlers,” he said. “They went through the assessment, they knew where they were at and they knew the coach couldn’t tell them to go down any further. The system took that away. I don’t know if that happened a lot, but I do remember the wrestlers were happy.”