The head of the national governing body for amateur wrestling said yesterday that wrestlers should stop dehydrating themselves excessively to lose weight, after three college wrestlers recently died while engaged in the practice.
On Dec. 9, University of Michigan wrestler Jeffrey Reese, 21, died after exercising in an overheated room for two hours while dressed in a rubberized sweat suit, officials said. In November, two other wrestlers -- Joseph LaRosa, 22, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse senior, who was wearing a rubber sweat suit, and Campbell University freshman Billy Jack Saylor, 18 -- died during workouts to lose weight in their college gyms, officials said. All three were trying to qualify for their first college matches.
In a common practice called "cutting weight," many wrestlers try to lose weight to qualify for a lower weight class thinking they will have an advantage over their opponent.
"The entire wrestling community is both deeply saddened and deeply disturbed by these events," Jim Scherr, executive director of USA Wrestling, said in a statement. "Obviously we are concerned when three student-athletes die. We need to make some changes, but this is a complex issue."
Scherr said a committee of experts, including physicians and high school and college coaches, will review the deaths and look for ways to make the sport safer. "In the meantime, all coaches in wrestling need to understand that the practice of using excessive dehydration to lose weight needs to come to an immediate end," he said.
In Washington, an official of the Food and Drug Administration said the agency will investigate the deaths to see if any dietary supplements regulated by the agency were involved.
Arthur Whitmore, an FDA spokesman, said, "We are looking into some of these reports, into some of the cases." Dietary supplements commonly are used to build muscle and lose weight.
The three deaths during workouts are the first reported since 1982, when the NCAA began collecting data on sports injuries, said Wally Renfro, director of public relations for the NCAA.
As part of its guidelines for championships adopted in 1985, the NCAA prohibits athletes from engaging in rapid weight-loss practices, including excessive dehydration, excessive food and fluid restriction and the use of rubber or rubberized nylon suits and hot rooms, Renfro said.
But that guideline is not mandated, said Bryan Smith, head team physician at the University of North Carolina and a member of the NCAA Competitive Safeguards Committee. He said the NCAA would have to enact legislation to ban the practice.
Smith said that studies have shown that rapid weight loss through excessive dehydration can severely alter bodily functions, which could lead to kidney failure, heatstroke and heart attack.
Though he said he is unaware of the full details of the recent deaths, Smith said that "the types of practices" in which the three wrestlers were involved "are known to create problems with the body functions."
In the Michigan case, Bader J. Cassin, Washtenaw County chief medical examiner, said Reese's death was caused by rhabdomyolysis, a cellular breakdown of skeletal muscle under conditions of excessive exercise that, in combination with dehydration, resulted in kidney failure and heart malfunction.
Michigan Athletic Director Tom Goss said Reese was trying to lose six pounds to qualify in the 150-pound class. He had worked out for two hours and was still 1.7 pounds over the limit, Goss said. Under the supervision of an assistant coach, Reese was riding a bike for 10 minutes and then spending two minutes in the sauna, Goss said.
After taking off the rubberized suit to weigh in, Reese collapsed, Goss said. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
In the Wisconsin-La Crosse case on Nov. 21, LaRosa, 22, of Grafton, Wis., died of heatstroke after riding a bike in a shower with the hot water running, officials said. LaRosa, who was wearing a rubber suit, had been working out from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m., to try to lose 3 1/2 pounds so he could compete in the 150-pound weight class, according to Athletic Director Bridget Belgiovine. He and some teammates were running and riding a bike every 20 minutes in the wrestling room with a 20-minute rest and later moved to the shower area.
LaRosa complained of chest pain and shortness of breath before he collapsed on the bike, according to the medical examiner's report. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 10:35 a.m.
At Campbell University on Nov. 7, Saylor, from Wellborn. Fla., died of a heart attack after riding a stationary bike during a predawn workout with an assistant coach and a teammate, officials said. Saylor had run a lap around the campus in Buies Creek, N.C., then got on an exercise bike in the wrestling room, officials said.
Saylor was not drinking any fluids and had worked to the point of exhaustion in the workout, which he started about 2 a.m., officials said.
Saylor, who had weighed 201 the previous day, wanted to compete in the 190-pound class in a weekend meet. The team was scheduled to weigh in and depart at 6:30 a.m.
Athletic directors at all three colleges said that they are investigating the deaths and reviewing the training regimens. At Michigan, Goss said the wrestling team has canceled practice and meets until after Christmas. Staff writer John Schwartz contributed to this report.