My high school’s wrestling team was one of the top programs in our state. Student athletes from around our region moved to our school district just to wrestle on our varsity team. We won the state title twice between 1980 and 1984. I didn’t wrestle, and no girls to my knowledge wrestled on the high school teams, but I knew a lot of the boys who wrestled. I knew that many of them faced enormous physical and psychological challenges during wrestling season when staying within one’s weight category was essential. I knew that wrestling also seemed to attract a certain type of athlete: intense, sensitive, introspective and moody.
My best friend dated one of the top-ranked wrestlers during our senior year of high school. On the surface he was kind and sweet, but he harbored some deep demons that none of us knew about until it was too late.
His close family became his teammates and coaches. Practices were long and at times quite grueling. Wrestling demanded a high level of fitness: strength, endurance and aerobic capacity. Mental toughness and tactical intelligence were also required of the wrestlers, especially at the elite levels.
Over time, the physical and psychological demands took a toll on my friend’s boyfriend. While the wrestling team offered him the emotional support his family could not always provide, the psychological pressure and physical regimens took their toll. Weekly weigh-ins, followed by fasting and long practices most likely exacerbated his deepening depression. None of us knew he was suffering a mental health crisis. That is until he called my best friend one afternoon and said goodbye.
At his funeral no one talked about the possible link between depression and the physical and psychological demands of wrestling. It was the eighties. Young people didn’t talk about depression. Emotions were something you were expected to cope with on your own, silently. This was especially true for wrestling, a sport that prided itself on mental and physical toughness above all else.