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For as long as there have been wrestlers and ways to measure them — either with rudimentary scales or sophisticated hydration and body-fat analysis — athletes have taken steps, sometimes drastic, to make weight.
So it wasn't shocking when nearly a dozen Portland-area high school wrestlers were punished recently for tampering with urine tests, one of several phases in a weight-certification process required by the Oregon School Activities Association. The Oregon Wrestling Weight Monitoring Program (OWWMP) is in place to prevent rapid and dangerous weight cutting, long a stigma of the sport.
Eleven wrestlers at Glencoe High, in Hillsboro, came forward and admitted to wrongdoing after their coach became suspicious following two testing periods shortly before Thanksgiving.
Last week, the OSAA suspended the six varsity and five junior varsity wrestlers for nearly three quarters of the season. The school is appealing the length of the suspensions.
"You know (cheating's) going to happen," said Eagle Point coach Kacey McNulty, who was at North Medford 10 years ago when the Black Tornado was a pilot program for the OWWMP. "This is the first I've heard of it happening. When I was in high school 25 years ago, there was cheating on weigh-ins."
Back then, kids would slip paper under the scale to affect a lighter result, he said.
"If there's a way to get around the system, people will try to," said McNulty. "It sounds like those kids figured it out."
Phoenix coach John Farmer wasn't surprised to hear of the case and praised Glencoe coach Jason Harless for following through on his concerns.
"Anytime there's any kind of system in place that's going to hold somebody back from doing anything in life," said Farmer, "someone's going to try to find a way around it."
McNulty, Farmer and first-year South Medford coach Greg Bryant don't condone the kids' actions. They agree that a system to protect wrestlers as they strive to reach their optimal competitive weight is a good idea.
It's not a perfect system, and there are challenges to adhering to it. But the alternative could be deadly.
Rapid weight loss through dehydration became a national issue when three college wrestlers at different schools died in the winter of 1997. All went to extreme measures to lose water weight — the quickest way to shed pounds — by restricting food and fluid intake and sweating profusely, according to a morbidity and mortality report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
They wore vapor-impermeable suits under cotton warm-ups and exercised vigorously in hot rooms, resulting in hyperthermia.
The NCAA promptly put restrictions on methods to lose weight, and the movement led to the OWWMP.
The OSAA certification process has been in place for nine years and begins with the start of each season, in this case, Nov. 18.
Phase I is taking urine samples to determine hydration. If that test is failed — perhaps an indication of unhealthy weight loss in order to record a low starting weight for the season — the athlete must wait 48 hours to do it again.
There are supposed to be trained assessors and coaches at each step of the testing process to prevent tampering. But at Glencoe, according to reports, there wasn't a coach present to monitor the sample-taking process, allowing offenders to add water to their urine and make it appear to be hydrated.
When the sampling took longer than usual, Harless became suspicious and confronted the team.
The severity of the OSAA's punishment — the suspended wrestlers can practice with the team but can't compete until Jan. 20 — was in part due to the number of athletes involved and the organized effort to cheat over two testing periods, according to reports.
Once the hydration phase is completed, height and weight are measured.
Participants then proceed to the Bioelectric Impedance Assessment to be tested for body fat. Males must have at least seven percent body fat and females 12 percent.
From the time they are certified, athletes can lose no more than 1.5 percent of their assessed weight per week through the season. Their personal information is fed into a computer and a spread sheet is produced that outlines the two lowest eligible weights at which each can compete each week.
An example on the OSAA website shows that a boy whose certified weight is 141.4 pounds can lose up to 2.121 pounds per week. His first eligible weight classes would be 145 and 152 pounds. He could gradually work down to a minimum of 123.8 pounds, ultimately allowing him to compete as low as the 126 class.
The OSAA site outlines the program and includes a vast amount of nutritional and training information to assist coaches, parents and athletes with weight loss.
The pros of the system are obvious: the regimen promotes a healthy competitive environment.
There are cons, too: It takes time to do the testing, particularly if it must be done several times, and coaches are sometimes restricted as they try to field complete lineups for 14 weight classes, especially early in the season.
"Wrestling has always been a sport where too many people focused on getting too low on weight," said Farmer. "This is a step in the right direction. I'm not sure it's perfect, but I'm not sure how to fix it. It's the only sport where you have to go through that. It's a hard sport to keep kids involved in and dedicated to, and with all these other requirements, it's even more difficult."
As a new coach, Bryant said he was "a little nervous about the hydration testing."
He researched it and tried to educate his wrestlers and their parents, some of whom expressed concern about weight-cutting during a meeting.
"It's a good program and it does have its benefits," said Bryant, "but it makes things frustrating when you know kids can wrestle at a certain weight and certification but because of mismanagement or you didn't plan ahead, it's not gonna happen."
Ideally, every team member would know what weight they should compete at and would work toward that end well before the season.
"Most high school kids aren't mature and disciplined enough to hold a nice diet throughout the season, so they fluctuate," said McNulty.
Yet, he added, "They don't want to get stuck at a weight class well above what they'd normally be wrestling. (The testing program) works if you have kids come into the season in shape and ready to go. The reality is, you don't have a lot of kids training a month or two before the season."
It helps to educate the kids about the OWWMP and direct them to appropriate resources.
"I talk to my kids about discipline, action and responsibility," said Bryant. "This is one of those things where you eliminate the shortcut to rapid loss. You teach kids to be responsible and plan to take action toward the things they desire."
When he heard about the Glencoe situation, Bryant spoke to some of his kids and reiterated the need to do the right thing.
"Integrity is something athletics teaches you," he said. "One of the most important things in our sport is development through competition, and that's competition those kids are going to miss out on. Some of them are seniors. It's a hard lesson to learn."
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email firstname.lastname@example.org