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Original Issue


He died crawling to the scale. Glassy-eyed and pale, his legs
too weak to hold him after he had shed nearly 17 pounds in three
days, Jeff Reese collapsed and expired on the cold floor of a
locker room in Crisler Arena on Dec. 9 in Ann Arbor.

Reese, a junior at Michigan trying to make weight in the
150-pound class for a wrestling meet against Michigan State,
spent the last two hours of his life in a plastic suit, riding a
stationary bike in a room in which the heat was cranked up to
92[degrees]. He was the third college wrestler to die in 33
days. Billy Jack Saylor, a freshman at Campbell University in
Buies Creek, N.C., and Joseph LaRosa, a senior at Wisconsin-La
Crosse, died in November while cutting weight. Though the
official causes of their deaths varied, Reese, Saylor and LaRosa
died of the same thing: the self-inflicted torture of drastic
weight loss, college wrestling's ugly secret.

For me--as for most former or current college wrestlers--Reese's
death serves as a horrible reminder of the many times during my
career I peeled off my plastic suit and slumped near a scale,
too exhausted to move. Once, after cutting 16 pounds in two days
much the same way Reese had--through starvation and
dehydration--I was hospitalized in Rochester, N.Y., with a
clogged salivary gland that had swollen to the size of a
grapefruit. To prevent that from happening again, my coach said
upon my return to campus that he was putting me on the Jesus
Christ diet. "Forty days and 40 nights in desert conditions
without food or drink," I remember him saying. "That ought to
get you down to weight."

Dangerous weight loss has long been the norm in college
wrestling. In fact, the amount of weight you can cut is a
wrestler's warped, macho badge of honor. During my four years at
Miami of Ohio, I saw wrestlers using laxatives and diuretics,
while others suffered from bulimia or starved themselves. It was
not uncommon for some of them to work out to the point of
delirium. The only time I witnessed a coach supervising
wrestlers' cutting weight, it was my impression he was there not
as a precaution but to make sure we kept working out.

In its wrestling rule book, the NCAA strongly recommends that
such practices as fluid deprivation and the use of diuretics,
impermeable suits and hot rooms "should be prohibited," but it
doesn't ban any weight-loss techniques. That fecklessness,
coupled with a shrinking number of scholarships (in the last 15
years, 48 Division I schools have eliminated wrestling) and an
already intensely competitive sport, fosters risk taking. Reese,
a natural 170-pounder who was a highly successful high school
wrestler in Wellsburg, N.Y., hadn't been able to break into
Michigan's lineup this year until a spot opened at 150 pounds.
So he killed himself trying to make that weight.

A week after the third death, five organizations active in
wrestling, including the NCAA and USA Wrestling, did the typical
public two-step. They held a 21-person conference call during
which a joint committee was formed to address weight management
in the sport. (A day later the FDA decided to look into whether
the use of the dietary supplement creatine played a role in the
deaths.) This lack of immediate action is cowardly. It's time to
admit that if wrestling didn't all but encourage participants to
exercise and diet to exhaustion, all three of these young men
would still be alive.

For starters, the NCAA must ban plastic suits. Also, college
wrestlers must no longer be allowed to weigh in 24 hours before
matches, as opposed to the day of the match, because having a
day to recover from excessive weight loss only encourages them
to lose pounds in less time. Finally, the NCAA should institute
random specific-gravity urine testing at weigh-ins, which can
detect dehydration.

For the most impact, though, the NCAA should follow the lead of
some state high school athletic federations. In Michigan, for
example, all high school wrestlers must have their body fat
calibrated before the season. Then, using a medical formula, a
wrestler is given the minimum weight at which he is allowed to
compete. Schoolboy wrestlers in Michigan are no longer
emaciating themselves. The sport is thriving.

On the other hand, college wrestling is gradually disappearing.
If schools continue to drop wrestling at the current rate, the
sport will be finished at this level within 15 years. I used to
think that would be a tragedy. But if wrestling can't do a
better job of protecting its own, then maybe it deserves to
perish. Better an entire level of competition than one more
college athlete.

B/W PHOTO: ANN ARBOR NEWS/AP (2) For Reese (in action in 1995) 150 was a deadly weight. [Jeff Reese wrestling opponent]

COLOR PHOTO: ANN ARBOR NEWS/AP (2) [See caption above--Jeff Reese]