by Abby Gray and Rachael Feinberg

Junior RC Brandes knew something was wrong in the last minutes of his regatta race. He felt ill. He couldn’t stand up. An ambulance had to be called to whisk him away to the emergency room, all because he had pushed himself to fall into the advantageous “lightweight” category of rowers.

Since Brandes is in a sport that has divisions based on weight class, he
frequently fights against his body weight to make his way into categories where athletes’ opportunites to succeed are greater. This sometimes leads to pushing his physical limitations beyond reasonable expectations and harming his personal health.

It isn’t just Brandes. Many athletes feel stress over making a lower weight class and use unsafe methods to get there. Weight classes in sports such as wrestling and crew put pressure on some students to lose weight in unhealthy ways without much guidance from coaches or trainers.

Weight classes exist in high school wrestling and rowing to give athletes the opportunity to compete against other athletes of similar build. In rowing, there are two weight categories: lightweight and open weight. For high school girls, the lightweight category is open to rowers 130 pounds or less, and for boys the weight cap is 150 pounds.

Wrestling weight classes are more specific. ere are 14 weight classes with weight caps ranging from 106 pounds to 285 pounds. Junior Andrew Shimp wrestled as a freshman and understands the purpose of having separate weight categories.

“The purpose [of weigh-ins] is just to make sure that everyone has an equal chance,” Shimp said. “You won’t have a guy that weighs 200 pounds wrestling a guy that weighs 130, so it’s just there to make everything a little more fair.”

Girls varsity crew coach Michael Rice finds weigh-ins beneficial in more ways than one. He not only uses them to determine if an athlete is a lightweight racer or not, but also to analyze what different athlete’s rowing scores mean.

“In crew [a weigh-in] also gives an indicator of strength to weight ratio, which gives an indicator of boat speed, for evaluating,” Rice said. “So, when we use our rowing machines to look at scores, not everyone’s score means the same thing.”

For some athletes, making their goal weight class is not an easy task. Many use harmful approaches to drop weight quickly, like severely limiting how much they hydrate and nourish themselves, so they can participate in an advantageous weight group.

“I know that some of them really have to moderate what they’re eating and their water intake, because that’s directly related to weight,” Rice said.

High school wrestling coach Matt Stout has seen athletes losing weight in dramatic ways and gaining it back the next day.

“Generally, you see kids not eating at all or cutting a lot of water weight in a short period of time. Basically, yo-yoing their weight from weigh-in to weigh-in rather than getting their weight under control and stabilized,” Stout said.

For athletes in sports with weight classes, making the next lowest weight class becomes a burden as soon as an athlete signs on. Many athletes go on extreme and even unhealthy diets for their entire sport season, since they tend to be the quickest and most effective ways to see numbers on the scale go down.

“[Coach Stout] encouraged me to cut weight,” Shimp said. “Even as a freshman you cut weight. I got my weight down to 132 pounds and I gained back 30 pounds when the season was over. Kids eat flax seeds and sun flower seeds. I chewed a lot of gum to satisfy hunger.”

Stout admits to giving athletes guidance concerning which weight class a wrestler will do best in.

“I will offer advice on what weight class I believe a wrestler could have the most success at or be in the varsity line-up,” Stout said.

In the time leading up to an athlete’s weigh-in, dropping poundage becomes
a top priority. e weigh-ins become a constant burden as athletes battle their hunger in order to prepare for the climactic occasion which decides whether or not they’ll reach their weight goal.

“[Weigh-ins] are stressful,” Brandes said. “It’s like the whole week you’re trying to cut weight, preparing, and when the weigh-in comes it’s like make or break it; it’s definitely a heated moment.”

For some, dieting and limiting water intake in the days leading up to weigh-ins doesn’t yield the level of necessary weight loss. But steps are still taken if the scale doesn’t originally show the number an athlete needs.

Senior Madison Rose is a lightweight rower and has seen the ordeal of last- minute weight loss firsthand multiple times in past seasons.

“There have been some experiences where my teammates haven’t made lightweight, and they’ve done last-minute sweat runs,” Rose said.

A sweat run is an option if an athlete’s weight is just barely above lightweight. During a sweat run, they will jog wearing sweatshirts until they sweat enough to drop to their desired weight.

Student athletes’ authoritative figures, while intending to help, have not directly addressed the fact that students are starving and dehydrating themselves to make a lower weight class.

Athletes go to Coach Rice and ask for help with safely dropping weight, and he will usually advise them to see a trainer for help.

“I actually haven’t dealt with it too much directly, but whenever an athlete is not a lightweight and asks to race lightweight, I have them working with our trainers here, so that they’re doing it in a smart way, making sure they’re getting the calories they need, and making sure they’re getting the hydration they need, so that they’re informed about what that does to their body if they’re cutting [weight],” Rice said.

Rice’s suggestion to his athletes that they consult with a trainer in their weight loss efforts may not be that helpful. Jenny Brantingham, a trainer at UAHS, recommends that if an athlete wants to learn how to safely lose weight, he or she should schedule an appointment with
a specialist.

“I don’t give them [advice] because I don’t feel that it’s my job,” Brantingham said. “These kids, you know, they’re minors, they’re under 18. We tell them they can talk to their doctor, you know, try and and someone, a nutritionist, but I don’t tell them how to lose weight.”

Although an athlete trying to drop weight might have trouble finding counseling on healthy and effective strategies, Coach Rice doesn’t want to pressure the athletes to drastically lose weight and tries to create an atmosphere where it’s not important whether or not an athlete is lightweight.

“I’ve worked hard to create a culture that is: If you happen to be lightweight, we’ll race you lightweight, and if you’re not, I’m not going to ask you to be a lightweight,” Rice said. “If you happen to be lightweight: great. If not, great. It doesn’t matter.”

“Generally, you see kids not eating at all or cutting a lot of water weight in a short period of time. Basically, yo-yoing their weight from weigh-in to weigh-in rather than getting their weight under control and stabilized,” Stout said.

For other coaches, the go-to response on how to lose weight may not entail the healthiest strategies. Without the guidance of a coach or trainer, athletes turn to fellow teammates for help.

“My coach told us things, [that] weren’t exactly healthy, I don’t think. Just ways to get down there fast,” Shimp said. “I was on my own, so I just asked other seniors and people that had been doing this for four years. They told me I shouldn’t eat much, or drink very much water, and to wear sweatshirts so I could sweat more.”

Stout denies giving unhealthy advice to his athletes, attributing unhealthy dieting strategies to athletes’ lack of discipline.

“[I tell my athletes] to lose weight gradually through diet and exercise,” Stout said. “ is includes eating smaller portions, eating low fat foods, and cutting out junk food. As to exercise, this probably involves getting in at least one extra workout during the day in addition to practice.”

According to Rice and Brandes, prominent negative results can occur
as a result of unhealthy weight loss, including irritability, mounting pressure, stress and having too little nourishment. Unfortunately, the side e effects of such actions can have harmful repercussions on athletes, such as losing strength, inability to do well in one’s sport and even passing out.

Brandes has experienced some of these side effects when attempting to drastically alter his weight for a weigh-in. “I fainted because of a mix of being undernourished and not having enough food in my system, and also being dehydrated and not having enough water in my body,” Brandes said.
The lack of nutrients and hydration in athletes’ bodies lowers their blood sugar and makes them hungry, leading to annoyance and impatience, as well as a decreased athletic performance. Coach Rice sees this as a common issue among his rowers.

“[Dieting] causes a lot of stress,” Rice said. “You tend to be shorter on your nerves. Especially if you’re cutting a lot of weight, it really affects your ability to get along. It has a direct physiological impact.”

These problems are caused by the pressure some feel to lose weight for athletics, which comes both from external figures, as well as the athletes themselves. It’s a matter of making a lower weight class in order to demonstrate higher achievement and effort.

“If the coach wants you to [lose weight], you feel like you have to,” Brandes said. “If you’re lightweight you have a chance to do better, and you yourself want to do better, and your team wants you to do better.”

The challenges athletes face when trying to live up to the expectations of others and themselves compel them to lose weight by being continually undernourished and dehydrated, triggering unwanted side effects. Brandes sums up the burdens of weigh-ins.

“The pressure of making weight and not disappointing your coach, peers, and even yourself is a very stressful process, and can lead to unhealthy consequences,” Brandes said.

Following the issues caused by unhealthy weight loss, Brandes decided not to race lightweight for the remainder of his season. He felt this was the best decision for his health and will leave the category for athletes that fall into it naturally.