NORTH BERWICK — Craig Keisker is proud that his sons, Otto and Hil, are wrestlers.

He is proud they have the discipline to handle the rigors of the demanding one-on-one sport at Noble High.

He’s also glad his sons compete within the guidelines of the Maine Principals’ Association’s weight management program. They have learned to handle diet and weight loss in a much more sensible way than he did at Wissahickon High in Ambler, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1970s.

“Back in those days we’d put on snowmobile suits and get in the (locker room) shower, put big drapes in front of the shower and the steam would run,” Keisker said. “We’d be busting weight. And you got out of class to do it.

“There was no hydration test. We’d bust (the weight) all that day, jump on the scale, and then put it right back on. We were like yo-yos. We’d eat whatever was in front of us, not like these kids today. Now they have nutritionists right here at the school that talk to them. It’s really a wonderful thing.”

Radical, dangerous weight-loss techniques are a thing of the past. Rules implemented over the past decade make losing weight much safer for high school wrestlers – yet keeping weight off remains a challenge for many adolescents determined to wrestle at their targeted weight class.

Cutting weight is a long-standing practice in wrestling at all levels. The belief is the leanest wrestler in any weight class will have the highest percentage of muscle. Thus, he or she will be the strongest, baddest and toughest on the mat.

“A kid who’s cutting weight always seems to be that little mentally tougher than the kid who isn’t,” said Noble Coach Kip DeVoll.

The unhealthy processes of starving and denial of fluids showed up in studies of wrestlers dating back to the 1950s. Adding over-heated, vigorous workouts created a recipe that stripped pounds but put wrestlers at risk of serious health issues and even death.

“Kids were trying to lose an excessive amount of weight over a very short time,” said Dr. Frank Kieliszek, an internist who lives and practices in the town of Norway. Kieliszek’s son wrestled at Oxford Hills High, graduating in 1998. “They might do things like starving themselves, or find ways to get dehydrated, and in rare instances we heard of kids taking medicines to give themselves diarrhea. Kids who want to compete will do what they need to do to compete, and wrestlers are pitted against each other by weight class.”

IT STARTS WITH AN ALPHA WEIGHT

When three collegiate wrestlers died within six weeks during strenuous weight-loss workouts in 1997, the debate over weight-cutting practices renewed in earnest.

The National Federation of State High School Associations, which sets the rules that govern Maine wrestling, required all state organizations to implement a weight management program by 2006-07.

Maine began studying the issue in 2004 when it formed a seven-person weight management committee. Twenty schools ran a pilot program during the 2004-05 season. The policy was adopted statewide the next season.

The program requires each wrestler to be weighed prior to the season – called the Alpha weigh-in. Wrestlers must be properly hydrated at the time. Hydration is measured through a urine sample. Wrestlers not sufficiently hydrated must wait 48 hours to try again.

In addition to the Alpha weight, body fat is measured by a registered assessor using skin-fold caliper tests. Schools are responsible for the cost of administering the hydration, weight and body-fat testing.

Marshwood Athletic Director Rich Buzzell, the chair of the MPA wrestling committee, said the cost is about $50-75 annually for urine cups and litmus strips for the hydration tests. He said most school athletic trainers, who often serve as the assessor, already own skin-fold calipers.

The assessor (not coaches or other school officials) then uses the skin-fold measurements and Alpha weight to determine each wrestler’s minimum allowable weight if they reached 7 percent body fat for boys or 12 percent for girls. Each wrestler’s data is submitted by the assessor to the MPA.

Further, wrestlers can only lose 1.5 percent of their Alpha weight per week.

As an example, Wrestler X’s Alpha Weight is 200 pounds. Because he is well above 7 percent body fat, his minimum weight is determined to be 182 pounds. Wrestler X wants to wrestle in the 182-pound class. Since he can lose no more than 3 pounds per week (1.5 percent of 200 pounds), he won’t be allowed to wrestle at 182 for six weeks after the Alpha weigh-in.

“Now, as a coach, you’re not worried about kids going crazy trying to lose weight,” said Matt Rix, coach of Marshwood, the three-time Class A champion.

TARGETING A WEIGHT CLASS

Each coach is required to have updated documentation of his wrestlers’ minimum weights and when those weights can be reached. Called the Match Date Minimum Weight Class list, it must be presented at every competition.

“From a coaching standpoint it’s made it a lot easier for us,” DeVoll said. “Now it’s right there on paper. That’s your minimum weight.”

That doesn’t mean reaching the desired weight is easy.

“All the time you have to be watching what you eat,” Marshwood senior Sam Hebert said. “It’s not just the three hours in practice. When you’re trying to make a weight you’re thinking about wrestling 24/7.”

Hebert recently reached his goal of wrestling in the 145-pound class. He wanted to wrestle at that weight for two reasons that are typical motivating factors.

First, by being leaner, the 5-foot-11 Hebert feels stronger at the lighter weight.

“I’m probably one of the weaker guys, so if I get down to a lower weight, I won’t get pushed around as much,” Hebert said. “I’ve felt a difference already. I feel stronger at this weight.”

Secondly, if Hebert stayed at 152, either he or teammate Justin Stacy likely wouldn’t be wrestling at the varsity level. Neither is going to supplant Marshwood’s multi-time state champions Jackson Howarth, Cody Hughes and Brett Gerry in the 160, 170 and 182 classes. Having both Hebert and Stacy in the lineup strengthens the team.

“I have a lot of good kids above me – and below me, too,” Hebert said. “My spot’s right here at 145. This is where I need to be.”

Hebert said he’s learned what to eat and what to avoid, a key element to effective weight loss.

While the MPA weight management program protects wrestlers from going below safe body-fat levels, it cannot curb all of the unhealthy practices.

THE YO-YO EFFECT

Colin Sevigney, a 2014 Wells High graduate, was a two-time Class B champion and a dedicated wrestler who often traveled out of state for competitions and training. But he said he struggled as a sophomore. He naturally weighed around 140 pounds, but his minimum weight was determined to be “121, 122.”

That meant that once the growth allowances were factored in (one pound in December and a second in mid-January), he could compete in the 120-pound class.

“I was doing it the wrong way,” Sevigney said. “I was binging and then starving myself for two days to make weight for a Wednesday match, then Wednesday night I’d eat myself sick and be 12 pounds over for Saturday, and would have to do the same thing.”

Kieliszek was the physician on the original weight management committee. He said the current program does a good job of addressing two key concerns: making sure wrestlers don’t get lighter than what’s regarded as a healthy weight, and that the rate of weight loss is gradual.

“The thing it doesn’t address is the sort of yo-yoing of your weight,” Kieliszek said.

Kieliszek said when his son wrestled they had an agreement. His son had to be within a pound of his desired weight two days before an official weigh-in.

Sevigney said that during his junior season he was still making a “pretty big cut,” to get down to 126 but “I wasn’t going up and down a lot in between meets. I was managing it better.”

Sevigney won the first of his two state titles that season.

“I was managing my diet better and being more healthy about it, and it definitely impacted my wrestling in a positive way. I was able to wrestle better and longer,” he said.

BENEFITS OF DISCIPLINE

Camden Hills Coach Patrick Kelly is a staunch believer that wrestlers benefit from learning to control their weight – on the mat in high school and in their future lives.

“The nature of what this sport produces is strong-minded, strong-willed, healthy athletes,” Kelly said. “Look how they perform. Brilliantly. One-on-one.”

The challenge is getting young people surrounded by poor dietary choices – fast foods, sugary drinks, bread with every meal – to change their eating habits.

“You like soda? So do I. Don’t drink it. Drink as much water as you want,” Kelly said. “Cut out as much sugar as you can. People see that as an anomaly. ‘Oh my gosh, (the wrestler) is dieting.’ Well, they’re making weight.”

Mt. Ararat Coach Erick Jensen has experienced wrestling and weight loss from a variety of perspectives – as a wrestler at Michigan State University, as a high school coach and as a parent, having coached his sons, Jared and Christian.

He’s glad his sons and wrestlers didn’t compete in an era when dangerous weight-cutting practices were routine.

“I’m not sure I even want to tell you what I would do,” he said. “I know there was one point in college when I almost was hospitalized.

“It’s a different world and I agree with the system 100 percent. It keeps kids from getting stupid like we used to.”