When I started wrestling my freshman year of high school, I was in search of change: I wanted to lose the weight I was getting bullied for.
At the time, I was relatively short, severely overweight and not too athletic at all. Between peer pressure and a fragile sense of self, wrestling became a means for me to make up for what I saw as my shortcomings. I had to compensate for my lack of natural physical gifts with extra work, but I did see results from my efforts.
After having a losing junior varsity record my first year, I went on to start in every dual meet for the next three years, eventually becoming a captain and the city’s wrestler of the year. By the end of my senior season, wrestling had given me a new perception of myself. I had lost over 40 pounds between my freshman and sophomore seasons, finally becoming healthy and fit, and then carved away an additional 15 pounds by the time I graduated two years later. Though I had always eaten a lot, I finally found something to do with the weight I was gaining: Cut it.
Weight cutting is the process of shedding water weight to compete at a certain weight class in mostly combat sports. Weigh-ins typically happen every wrestling session and are daily during tournaments (up to four days in a row). Beyond the standard health tips and horror stories, there are no questions asked when it comes to making weight. You just do it, and however you do it between the end of practice and the beginning of weigh-ins is up to you.
Coaches say the process helps toughen you up for actual competition. Teammates laugh off the lingering dredges from it at the post-match buffet splurges. Your partner grazes your cheek and asks you about where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. Your teachers let you chew gum in class to get over the cottonmouth. The red hex-code digits of a weight scale dial over and over in place of the letters on the page while you try to read. It’s an obsession.
Once I got “good” at cutting after a few years, it became a quick fix: Suddenly, instead of worrying about gaining weight when I’d eat, I just thought of how many miles I’d have to run to forget about the meal. This developed into a problematic gorging-fasting routine. Though my physique lost more and more spare weight over the years, I kept descending in weight classes, finding harsher methods to chisel more of myself away until my body wouldn’t let me go any further.
The red hex-code digits of a weight scale dial over and over in place of the letters on the page while you try to read. It’s an obsession.
In the summer between high school and college, I had the chance to travel with my state’s team to the Junior National Duals in Oklahoma City, where I’d spend a week practicing twice a day with enough dry heat to sweat away anything that the workouts didn’t catch. In high school, there are 14 weight classes, determined according to body weight differentials calculated by the NFHS ― with one wrestler per team occupying each weight in a dual meet.
I was registered as the team’s only 152-pound wrestler, with a vacancy at the weight class below me. Halfway through the week, the team coach unexpectedly urged me to drop an additional seven pounds so I could take the vacant spot at 145 pounds for the second part of the tournament, which began the next day. This doubled the amount of water weight I initially set out to cut and gave me half as much time to do so.
I grabbed my sweatsuit, my iPod, my lucky jump rope, and looked around for the longest road outside of our hotel. The next afternoon, I found myself disoriented and slumped into a corner of the tournament venue’s main corridor. I hadn’t eaten anything solid for the past two days and was severely dehydrated.
I didn’t qualify for the lower weight class and had to wrestle for my original spot anyway, somehow feeling heavier after trying so hard to lose so much of myself. After that particular week, wrestling became less and less fun. Two years later, halfway through college, when I had to go through another severe last-second weight cut, I completely stepped away from competing. I couldn’t handle it anymore.
When I left wrestling behind, my eating habits stayed with me, and my extra weight came back. For years, I’d go through a sporadic routine of disordered eating that mimicked my cutting patterns. I was so afraid of becoming the bullied kid I’d been before I started wrestling. My body couldn’t handle the dangerously irregular eating habits at all, and my health sharply declined.
The hardest part of admitting that I had a problem was seeing that so many around me had the same problem. I didn’t want to consider that I’d been dealing with an eating disorder, because I had only cut weight like everyone around me. I wasn’t sure if I was a product of my sport or a product of my own decisions, and that paralyzed me from getting help.
The hardest part of admitting that I had a problem was seeing that so many around me had the same problem.
If I wasn’t running toward my goal, I was closely monitoring how much each bottle of water weighed, and if I wasn’t hyper-attentive to the portions on my plate, I was senselessly computing mounds of food into hours of running in my head throughout a meal. I dealt with this all through college until my senior year, when an athlete at my university revealed their problems with gorging and I didn’t feel like I had to hide it anymore.
I told some family and friends about the problem, explaining missed friend dates at restaurants and disappearing meal points. Since publicly admitting that I had a problem, I’ve been able to get the help I need. Now, on the good days, I treat myself to an overpriced burger and a milkshake, and I genuinely enjoy it. On the bad nights, I wake up in the middle of nightmares of running toward the Oklahoma horizon, the sweat on my face feeling all too familiar.
Though wrestling and its practices came into my life and left their mark, I and my body remain, and the relationship between the two is growing back into something healthy.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
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