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by Marty Goldstein on 2001-09-13

Here in the excited states the recent tragic deaths of NFL lineman Korey Stringer, Northwestern DB Rashidi Wheeler and at least 6 others has put the pre-season training methods of the game under scrutiny.

The deaths have happened all over the country and at all levels. Two high schoolers from the same school in Alabama, 2 college kids in Florida, a semi-pro DE in Las Vegas, 3 in the midwest. All the deaths seemed on the surface to be connected to overheating, or hyperthermia.

I was immediately struck by the question of whether pro wrestlers were at a similar risk to the players. However before I even wrote that story, more and more details have emerged about common denominators in the deaths, so the question about wrestlers' risk has to be evaluated under more complex circumstances than I first thought.

A couple of the victims were asthma sufferers. Wheeler had suffered 30 attacks in his 3 years at college, but delays in making the call for an ambulance and questions about the emergency treatment he recieved cloud the issue.

One victim this year and 2 deaths in prior years appear to have had an undiscovered heart condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle that affects 1 in 500 . The disease killed basketballers Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers. They could have died during any activity. This finding has led to a groundswell of support for heart screenings to be a mandatory part of the routine/mundane physicals performed by under-equipped and harried team doctors.

What HAS emerged in many cases as a possible factor is the use of dietary supplements. It is a widespread practice among student athletes despite being banned by both the NCAA and many high school athletic associations. USC estimates half their football squad last season popped pills such as Ripped Fuel and Ultimate Orange, trying to boost their metabolisms. In the old days, we took caffeine pills or speed. Now the athletes take the powder or eat power bars with ephedrine in it.

Wheeler had consumed some form of ephedrine ,and had a slightly elevated count of 110 nanograms/ml. of blood. One of the Florida deaths also showed ephedrine. It is suspected to be involved in other cases.

Since 1994, products containing ephedrine have been linked to 80 deaths in the US. Side effects include high blood pressure, paranoia, heart attacks, insomnia, nervousness and strokes. Past endorsements (since banned by the league) from NFL runners Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James, popularized their use.

So how does this relate to wrestlers?

In some ways, quite a bit. Medical screenings at the indy level are rare, and my experience with Athletic Commissions has proven that they are often corrupt, stupid bodies with little understanding of what health issues are and aren't important for our hybrid psuedo-sport. So a good piece of advice for all new workers would be to get a heart screen for your own protection.

As for ephedrine, I myself have taken it in GNC's Hydroxycut, which is banned in Canada and for the life of me, I can't figure out why. It works for me. By the same token, the allergy medication Claritin, which I also swear by, is a tightly controlled prescription drug in the USA, and that ban makes no sense to me either. But common sense should prevail, there is no use in overdosing on any supplements, legal or otherwise.

In my opinion, wrestlers should carefully evaluate their program and make sure they get treatment for the side effects they might notice. Those who are asthmatics generally understand how to take care of their condition. Now, for how this relates to my first premise, the danger of wrestlers dropping dead from heat prostration, I can happily report that I think that risk is quite LOW.

Remember, wrestling is a work, football is a shoot. Wrestling training is often indoors, and at a controlled pace, wearing little padding. In football there are arduous repetitive sprints and contact drills and pads which get soaked in sweat and hamper the bodies ability to cool.
In a wrestling match or drill, you can control the pace, ie-grab a hold and catch your breath. In football, if it's time for the 2 minute drill, you're done.

So given the lack of restrictive clothing and pads, the ability to pace a match and similar factors, it appears that there are good reasons why death by hyperthermia is to my knowledge, unheard of in the business. That does not mean that some past in-ring deaths attributed to, say, heart ailments, weren't hastened by the exertion or heat of wrestling a bout, but it appears unlikely to have been the actual cause of death for a wrestler, and that risk should remain lower than that of footballers, even if everyone involved is hooked up to an ephedrine IV.
Still, drink lots of fluids, keep hydrated and if your extremities begin to tingle, it may not be from a bad bump, but a warning sign to ice yourself down.

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Quotes from the boys: Notorious T.I.D. says "Well, I guess it's time to start naming some names. Sweet Daddy stink.....go wash. Jamie stink.....go wash. Magnus.......quit shitting yourself."
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