Starvation Is the Diet Plan of Champions

Competitive sports like rowing, wrestling, and MMA fighting involve weight limit pressures that can cause athletes to quickly drop pounds. In rowing, many athletes starve themselves or live on a diet of grapes and Pedialyte to reach their ideal weight...

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May 5 2014, 2:13pm

Photo by Renaud Camus via Flickr

"My coach is going to fucking kill me for telling you this," he laughs, pounding back another beer like the champion he is, "but there were times in season that we would go two or maybe three days without eating." At any place besides a Midtown happy hour on a Thursday, Sam's six-foot-two inch frame and booming voice would have made him an imposing figure. Instead, perched on a tiny wooden bar stool like some sort of preppy, yet highly muscled eagle, his tall and slim figure fades easily into the post nine-to-five revelry. Straightening his ill-fitting suit jacket, he orders himself another beer and eagerly launches into a story about one friend's fabled "Pedialyte cleanse," during which he successfully shed five pounds in three days by only consuming the children's anti-dehydration beverage. When I asked, "why Pedialyte?" he simply responded with, "You just have those electrolytes you know."

Sam, whose name has been changed to prevent his coach from killing him, is an incredibly talented lightweight rower. Having picked up the sport in his early teens, he went on to win national championships in high school and has also competed at the highest level in college with teammates who are now training for the Olympics. Like any individual dedicated to his training, Sam threw himself into the physical rigors of the sport he loved—early morning practices, grueling two-a-day sessions on the erg, and whatever else was necessary to make weight.

Unlike heavy weight rowers, who are able to be whatever size will fit into a boat and still make it go, lightweights must weigh less than 160 pounds in order to be eligible to compete. The average weight of a boat must also not be more than 155 pounds for a competition, which means that some men have to weigh less than others. The difficulty of this situation is physics: the longer a lever is, the more power it generates. Applied to men rowing a boat down a river, the taller you are, generally speaking, the more power you can typically generate and the faster the boat goes. But the taller you are, the easier it is for you to exceed the 160 pound limit.

In order to maintain this competition weight, many people, like Olympian Nick LaCava, can do it the healthy way through proper nutrition and precisely monitoring their calorie intake. But others like Sam do it through virtual starvation and insane diet plans, a practice that teetered on a religious experience. "When you don't eat for [a while], you really learn a lot about your body, like what you should eat and what you shouldn't eat. The freshman would always fuck up every year by binging after their weigh in, which you just can't do because your body freaks out after starving for so long and you get really sick. Everyone has been there where they've just had to lie down and have been sweating in bed for hours after eating too much. It's like fucked up food poisoning. You eventually learn how to take things slow and read your body's signals about what to eat and when to eat it," he told me.

Other sports with similar weight limits, such as wrestling and MMA fighting, have experienced comparable tragedies with athletes trying to lose too much weight too fast with extreme measures.

But you don't have to be a world-class rower to participate in some of the lightweight culture's more destructive tendencies. Julia, who was a coxswain in high school, remembers her male teammates regularly resorting to unusual eating habits during the rowing season. (For those who don't know, the coxswain is that little person in the boat that tells the bigger people to row faster. They are basically the ship's tiny, microphone-wielding/Napoleonic captain.) "It was almost like another competition," she said, "… like they were trying to be the ones who could eat the least and still get the fastest erg score."

For the week leading up to any major race, she says, water and water-based foods were the boy's favorite food groups. "I remember one guy only eating grapes for a few days to make weight, but it ended up making him sick on race day, which was gross because we had to sit out on the river in a boat filled with his grape vomit for like an hour waiting for our turn to race."

While its manifestations are often absurd, not eating and being a competitive athlete can be incredibly dangerous. An otherwise perfectly healthy lightweight rower at Boston College suddenly collapsed and died after a race in 2005. Although medical examiners claimed he had "a responsible and reasonable approach to weight management," many in the rowing community couldn't help but wonder if the pressures of being a lightweight had something to do with his passing. Other sports with similar weight limits, such as wrestling and MMA fighting, have experienced comparable tragedies with athletes trying to lose too much weight too fast with extreme measures.

When I brought these safety issues up in the noise at the Midtown bar, Sam didn't seemed particularly fazed. "Yeah, I know its bad for you, but I did my research a long time ago and knew bad things could happen, but that's life. I did what I had to do to row. Now look at me," he said, patting what I assumed was a relatively new beer belly and whipping out a shiny new credit card to pay for our drinks.

"I turned out fine."