The culture, stubbornness, tragedies and research that resulted in hydration testing
May 11, 2016 | Written by: Editor | Special thanks to Mr. Brian Hendrickson, NCAA Director of Membership Communications, Executive Editor NCAA Champion magazine.  Additional thanks to Ryan Hess and Phil Bode



When I was asked to assist at De la Salle in 2007 I learned quite a bit had happened during my 20-year coaching hiatus.  Two changes stood out immediately.

One was that the term “Jap whizzer” was no longer considered “politically correct.”  I found that baffling as I always considered it a compliment to the Japanese for inventing it (initially as a judo throw).

The next thing I learned was that tests were now required to determine how much and when a wrestler could lose weight to participate in a lower weight class.  The reason for this, I was told, was much more credible than not saying “Jap whizzer.”  I was told it was “because some Michigan kid died while cutting weight.”

The year was 1997, and it was not just a Michigan wrestler who died while trying to cut too much weight too fast.  In the preceding 33 days, two other college wrestlers also died for the same reason.

Billy Saylor of Campbell University in North Carolina died on November 7th, 1997. Joseph LaRosa of the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse died on November 21st, 1997. Jeff Reese of the University of Michigan died on December 9th, 1997.

Saylor, 19, died of cardiac arrest after riding a stationary bike and refusing liquids.  LaRosa, 21, died of heat stroke while riding a stationary bike to lose weight.   Reese, 22, died of kidney failure and heart malfunction while working out in a rubber suit in a room temperature above 90 degrees.

Evidently, it took the death of a wrestler from a Big Ten university to merit the press coverage these deaths deserved. 

December 16th, 1997
December 27th, 1997
December 29th, 1997
January 20th, 1998

While recently researching the Times-Picayune microfiche for the 1997-98 season, I found four little pieces on the death of Jeff Reese of the University of Michigan (images left).  The first mentioned that he died while cutting weight.  The second stated no criminal charges would be filed against the University of Michigan relating to Reese’s death.  The third indicated the Wolverines would resume their wrestling season on December 31st with “weight-loss safeguards” in place. The fourth mentioned that the University of Michigan athletic director considered dropping its wrestling program. This one also mentioned that in January of 1998 the NCAA banned the use rubber suits, saunas, diuretics and other rapid weight loss measures.

In my day cutting weight was considered SOP (standard operating procedure).  I generally dropped 13 lbs. twice a week in my sophomore and junior seasons.  With the aid of a full wet suit, a “normal” plastic suit, plenty of sweats, a bicycle, some running, a nice lawn on which to take a rest (“Carole, is that your friend Martin lying in our front yard?”), I lost 15 pounds in little more than 24 hours.  I weighed 153 lbs. before practice and at 5:30 the next day stepped onto the scale, exhaled, and made 138 lbs.  Granted, I did not win my match against De la Salle that night -  in the last 30 seconds I let some pesky sophomore named Stephen Gibbons score a takedown for a “kissing your sister” tie.  By that time, though, I was pretty delirious, although I do remember my sister yelling at me to “stay away” as I took my last ill-fated takedown shot.

Dramatic weight loss in wrestling has been an issue since the 1930s.  The American Wrestling Coaches Association tried to mitigate the occurrences by adding a suggestion in its 1934-35 guide stating “Any coach who deliberately cuts down the weight of a boy to win a match is committing an unpardonable crime and should be punished.”  Decades later, even after the formation of the NCAA Committee on Competitive Standards and Medical Aspects of Sport (CSMAS), wrestling coaches were still not mandated to follow recommended actions designed to reduce harmful weight-loss tactics.

The reasons were simple.  The wrestlers who cut a lot of weight in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s were the ones who were coaching teams in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970, 1980s and 1990s.  Cutting weight worked for them, in their opinion, so it should work for the wrestlers they now coached.  Their philosophy was “An athlete that has more muscle has an advantage over those who are not willing to cut the extra water weight.”

Debates lasted for years between the CSMAS and the then NCAA Wrestling Committee.  The CMSAS would publish guidelines banning rubber suits, steam rooms and saunas, and they would be backed by research.  Some of the most important research was on the intentional practice of dehydration, as well as hypohydration, the amount of water weight a wrestler gained between his weigh-in and his actual match.  When routine drug testing was implemented at the 1986 NCAA championships, dehydration and hypohydration studies garnered more approval as some wrestlers had so dehydrated themselves that they were unable to provide urine for testing.  Much of the drug testing was performed to find creatine monohydrate, a body-building drug that had recently appeared on the scene.  Creatine caused body cells to retain water at the expense of sweating, which is a body's natural way of cooling itself.  (See "Wrestling Practices and Creatine Monohydrate: A Deadly Combination?")

Yet despite what the CSMAS suggested, the NCAA Wrestling Coaches Association would not acknowledge the current weight loss practices “necessarily constitutes a problem for the sport of collegiate wrestling.”  The improper use of saunas and whirlpools were disregarded on the basis that they served as therapeutic services. 

Wrestling coaches, and not the doctors and researchers, apparently suffered from the “God Complex” as far as their athletes were concerned.

“In 1995 the Coaches Committee decided to comply with the recommendations based on hypohydration, and its cause, severe dehydration.  However, at the 1996 NCAA championships at the Target Center in Minneapolis, a drug inspector looked around the training areas with G. Dennis Wilson, a retired professor of kinesiology at Auburn who chaired the CSMAS from 1994 to 1997, and saw wrestlers still using plastic suits.  Wilson met with some coaches about the issue in a healthy discussion, until one coached summed the situation up as follows:

‘Well, but nobody’s ever died from this.’”¹

Then, in 1997, Saylor, LaRosa and Reese died in the span of 33 days. 

Now with media pressure on them, the two sides worked several things out.  The CSMAS and the Coaches Committee, in January of 1998, banned plastic suits, sauna suits and saunas.  Matches were to be held an hour after weigh-ins for dual meets and two hours for tournaments.

In 1999 Mike Moyer became the director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) and implemented the Optimal Performance Calculator (OPC), enabling trainers and coaches to monitor the amount of weight wrestlers lose per week and can lose during the course of a season via hydration tests.  It took time again to mandate use of the OPC for high schools, but at least no more lives were lost.  Jeff Reese's father, Ed Reese, no doubt was a factor in making that happen via a letter he wrote to Mike Moyer (circa 2005), an excerpt of which is printed below:

"Now that the NCAA has changed their weight classes and weight loss procedures, there is no logical reason for high school wrestlers to continue to subject themselves to antiquated and extreme weight loss measures.

"Unfortunately, the new NCAA regulations came a year too late to save Billy Jack Saylor, Joe LaRosa and my son, Jeff Reese.  Let's not see the high school regulations come too late for some high school wrestler.  "I wonder what a high school coach would tell the mother of a young wrestler who died "sucking weight."  He can't say "We didn't know."  That excuse was used 7 1/2 years ago, when my wife and I buried our youngest son.  "Intelligent men make intelligent decisions based on factual information.  We have the facts.  We have the information.  Now let's make the intelligent decisions."

The Optimal Performance Calculator may be the best thing to enter the realm of competitive wrestling since time limits and officials.  Combining the OPC determinations with a healthy dietary regimen will get you wrestling at your healthiest without the serious and even fatal complications that have arisen via drastic, non-regulated weight loss measures.

One thing the OPC and hydration testing regimen cannot provide, however, is common sense.  Walk into practice complaining to your coaches about not having breakfast or lunch during the day will still probably get you pushups more often than pity.  Just as you prepare to make weight for a match, prepare to be as close to that weight as possible for practices.  The last 30 seconds of a match is not the time to face delirium.

More information on the Optimal Performance Calculator may be found at www.nwcaonline.com/nwcaonline/wrestling.aspx#.


¹  Hendrickson, Brian.  "Wrestling away from a troubled past. www.ncaa.org, October 9, 2013.


Hendrickson, Brian.  "Wrestling away from a troubled past.www.ncaa.org, October 9, 2013.

Litsky, Frank.  "Wrestling; Collegiate Wrestling Deaths Raise Fears About Training.New York Times, December 19th, 1997.

Thompson, Jack.  "Michigan Wrestler Dies During Workout." Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1997.

"No Charges in Death of Michigan Wrestler.Chicago Tribune, December 27, 1997.

"Campbell University Officials Dealing with Questions, Grief after Student's Death.www.wral.com, NC Channel 5 Website, November 7th, 1997.

"Late Wolverines wrestler waited too long to shed weight, school says. The Augusta Chronicle, January 4th, 1998.

Reese, Ed.  Open letter to Mike Moyer, president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, circa 2005.

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