The battle between wrestlers and weight

A look at NMU’s wrestling program, highlighting the sports’ strides in battling unhealthy weight loss methods.
TAKING A HIT — Two athletes on the NMU Womens Wrestling team grapple during practice.
TAKING A HIT — Two athletes on the NMU Women’s Wrestling team grapple during practice.
Antonio Anderson

Cutting weight has long been associated with wrestling, and the two words themselves hold a history of untimely and unnecessary death. Nearly 30 years ago, the nation was reeling as news outlets told the story of three college wrestlers who died by exercising for hours in heat-trapping rubber suits, boiling themselves in steam rooms and trying to sweat off just a few more pounds.

A generation later, students still whisper tales of high school wrestlers sitting in saunas garbed in trash bags, going for long runs before going for even longer swims, or passing up meals and water. Some may wonder if this aspect of the sport has changed.

Tony DeAnda, head coach of Northern Michigan’s women’s wrestling team and an active wrestler prior to and during the deaths of the three collegiate wrestlers, is more qualified than most to answer.

“Does weight cutting go on in some aspects? It probably still does,” DeAnda said. “As a coach I do my best to try and prevent that.”

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DeAnda further explained that he tries to avoid the term ‘weight cutting’ due to its negative connotations, and that his team works on weight management, balancing sound nutrition and better performance. He admits that some still try the unhealthy way of losing weight, even though there are rules against it set in place by the National Collegiate Athletics Association against it.

“We try to educate athletes on nutrition and try to talk to them about what they should be doing in terms of improving. Some people want to cut weight because they think it is a shortcut, and a lot of times can have not so great consequences,” DeAnda said. “During my time that stuff was allowed, but I think it affected people probably very negatively. It caused injuries and it caused burnout.”

Diana Dzasezeva, a graduate teaching assistant for the women’s wrestling team, echoes this sentiment.

“You cannot just destroy your body and get something in return,” she said.

Having started wrestling before reaching double digits and eventually climbing to the rank of Latvia’s four-time national champion, Dzasezeva’s whole life has been spent on the mat. Throughout these experiences and during her first year assistant coaching at NMU, she has developed some opinions regarding the sport’s relationship with weight.

“I think the biggest problem in wrestling is that they don’t have more weight classes, especially for heavier weights,” Dzasezeva said. “I also think it is very unfair to stop it at 191 [pounds]. Guys have it to 200 plus weight classes, and they don’t expect girls to be bigger.”

Dzasezeva elaborated that the women’s weight classes in Northern’s division start at 101, then go up by 6 to 8 pound increments to 143, where they then change to 12–21-pound increments, eventually stopping at 191. This can make it much harder to find and maintain a weight class when wrestling at a larger weight, and much easier at a lower weight.

“I think we would do better if we had a registered dietitian,” Dzasezeva said. “I think that would be so beneficial to so many sports, not just wrestling but track and field I know [also] struggle, many other sports could benefit from that. But I think we are going in a positive way.”

Second year student and Woman’s Wrestling Captain Marisa Angelos also spoke on the benefits that a nutritionist can provide.

“I started seeing my current nutritionist going into my senior year in high school. I had seen other nutritionists before, recommended by doctors, but none of them were a good fit,” Angelos said. “However, my current nutritionist was able to help me get over the mental hump of my eating disorder. With her help, I was able to win state my senior year and have an overall healthy relationship with food.”

“I’ve noticed a lot of extra time being spent in the weight room that isn’t necessarily constructive. There is also this stigma in wrestling that you want to be at the top of your weight class meaning you should be in as light of a weight class as possible,” Angelos said. “This kind of culture takes away the focus from wrestling and puts it on the scale. I’ve noticed this in myself as well. I feel like I need to have abs and broad shoulders in order to feel like an elite athlete. After all, don’t they all have those features?”

Angelos added that there is an expectation for female athletes to adhere to the modern beauty standards of being as thin and small as possible, and that this contradicts the athletic standard of beauty.

“I believe that it is important to address these body standards. I believe that the coaches also play an important role in changing the body norms,” Angelos said. “What the coaches say when you step on a scale, choose a weight class and practice in the practice room [is] extremely important and athletes do remember.”

One thing was clear from the captain and coaches on the women’s team.

“It is definitely getting better, but there is still room to grow,” Dzasezeva said.

In part two of this story, the North Wind will explore the voices and stories from the men’s team.

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