Saturday, September 08, 2007

Food and the Wrestler

You never stepped onto the scale with any clothes on. You were always naked. You never weighed in with wet hair. Water was dead weight—even the dozen or so droplets that clung to the spiky part of your hair that grew down along the back of your neck. That’s, of course, if you had any hair. If you knew you were close to being over, you spent the whole bus ride with a lip full of Skoal Wintergreen, spitting into a Dixie cup. If you were lucky, you might fill half the cup with that pasty, frothy type of spit that can only be produced from a water-starved mouth. That could be a quarter of a pound right there. But after a week of intense dieting and water restriction, it was often impossible to muster up any saliva in your mouth, and the plug of chew just sat there, leaving its foul taste somewhere deep inside of you. About two minutes before I weighed in, I would always find an empty corner of the locker room and stand on my head until I almost passed out. This brilliant discovery of mine somehow made you anywhere from a quarter to a half pound lighter (but only for five minutes or so), and was quickly stolen and copied by team mates, all of whom were looking for that extra edge that would help them make weight.

Such is the life of many high school and college wrestlers everywhere. The one thing that I left out above is any mention of food, or the lack thereof. Years later, I still find it hard to sum up exactly the effect that fifteen or so years of competitive wrestling had on my relationship with food. One thing is for sure, though—I’m not like everybody else.

In season, I was motivated and chiseled. In summer, I was sloth-like and chubby. There was absolutely no happy medium. Tragically, this radical polarity seeped into every arena of my life—especially food. While cutting weight in high school and college, I was ascetic in my food intake, eating only enough to meet my body’s energy requirements. But when the day’s match was over I became voracious, often entering a food store and emerging with an over-stuffed bag of junk food that was instantly consumed.

My friends were always amazed by my capacity to eat in moments like these. Seth’s dad, the legendary Ira Pollins, used to invite me to his Labor Day picnics for the sole purpose of watching me eat his watermelon and ribs. Seth was no better. Like his incredulous father, he too would often challenge me to public displays of gluttony. And like the fool I was, I always acquiesced. On a dare by Seth, I once ate a McDonald’s #2 value meal in less than 90 seconds. That’s 2 cheeseburgers, 1 large French fries, 1 apple pie, and a whole lot of soda. This, of course, occurred in the days before I decided to keep kosher.

In junior high one year, they had to switch the lunch line salad bar from a pay-by-the-plate system to one that was pay-by-the weight. The reason? The lunch ladies were complaining that I was stacking my plate too high, thus confounding the economics of their system. A scale was quickly introduced and I lived out that year in the lunch room as a celebrated champion of the commoner—one who found a way to beat The Man at his own game. But my peers had no idea that I wasn’t in it for the politics. It was all about the food.

While my binge mechanism has been somewhat subdued in the past decade or so, other idiosyncrasies remain. When I eat, I have to eat to the point of being completely full. This is a non-negotiable. Out of food? Make some more dammit! Is the deli still open?

Still, I often skip breakfast, and then forget to bring my lunch to work. When I realize this mistake of mine as I walk down the stairs, I almost never go back into my apartment to get some food for the day. The wrestler mentality immediately kicks in and says “No big deal. I’ll eat when I get home.” Even though I haven’t competed as a wrestler in over ten years, I often still go an entire day without eating a single thing. Then, at about 11pm I attack the fridge like a wild animal. When that is conquered, I turn to the freezer. When that too is depleted, I go into scavenger mode and make whatever is in the cupboard. Some of my most creative recipes were born in fits like these.

I have little hope that this will ever change. I can only try to accept it and deal with it. I even have a hard time writing about it, as if my relationship with wrestling and food is some skeleton in my closet. Writing this blog has been a bit cathartic for me in that way. It’s funny though, because as a wrestler I enjoyed great success and national recognition. My career in high school earned me a scholarship to an NCAA Division 1 program, yet when the conversation turns to high school or collegiate sports at work, I leave the room. When people ask me if I was any good, I usually say something vague like “I won more than I lost.” It makes me uncomfortable because I know that, deep down, I have some major food dysfunction that has metastasized to other areas of my personal life, and wresting was a big part of it.

Now I’m really hungry.


Seth said...

Your painful catharsis has given me much pleasure this morning. Sorry, I suppose it has always been this way.

Of course this story is the prelude to The Farmer's Market Collosus. Who writes that?

Actually, even if you write it I'll be forced to offer my own rendition.

Steve said...

you write it. you could do it better anyway.

Karen said...

I was always astounded by the mysterious ways of the wrestlers spitting into bottles during class before weigh-ins.

The adverse effect wrestling would have on your relationship with food seems to make complete sense--especially when this encouraged (I assume) behavior coincides with your "formative years." Thank you for sharing this, Steve.

I wonder, how would you advise your son if he told you he wanted to wrestle?

Steve said...

since my father's dying wish was for me to let him wrestle, i'm going to oblige him. but hopefully i'd be able to help him be sensible about it.

Karen said...

I think you could certainly honor your dad's wish and still help him find some balance.

scott said...

i remember you running around the block in the heat of summer with all those sweatsuits on. that was surreal.

Steve said...

surreal is right.

i always felt like an alien running around in those rubber suits. or like a time traveler in some x-file epsiode, running to catch the mother ship.

Ryan said...

I am currently a high school wrestler and I know exactly how you feel.

I am always on the scale checkng ym weight, and if I am over weight even a few days before the match I feel beaten and ashamed, forcing me to go run in layers upon layers of clothing. Then trying to sweat it out in a sauna.
And as for food, I am the same way. I could go a day or two without eating before the match, but after when I take a few bites of sometihng. I go into an eating frenzy and inhale eveyrthing in site.
After the season and during the season when I do eat, I eat until it hurts. Or until I feel that my stomach is compeltely full. I don't eat just to satisfy the hunger. I eat to completely fill my stomach, and five minutes later when my stomach calms down, I eat again. Wrestling has done this to me and I wonder how it will affect me once my Senior year is over.

Steve said...


Thanks for sharing. Where do you wrestle?

I know what you feel is pretty common. All the guys on the summer national teams I travelled with as well as my college team were all in various stages of eating dysfunction/disorder.

Many of them also developed substance abuse problems as well.

I think the two are inextricably linked- binge eaters are binge often binge drinkers and druggers. It's a personality type that finds a safe haven for expression on wrestling teams and college frats.

The sport also does well to develop this characteristic with people as well.

I wish you well.

Thanks for reading.

Ryan said...

Well first I apologize for my typing haha, I lack the motivation to revise what I type.
But I wrestle in New Jersey, the Shore Conference.
And lately I've been pretty good with the whole eating thing. As long as I don't binge after my matches my body gets used to eating this way and I find it easier to turn away from foods that would not necessarily be good for me.
As for when the season ends... well... that's a different story haha

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