In the spring of 2009, former Oregon wrestler Kenny Cox sold his house, gave away the last of his belongings, and took a plane to Kauai. From the airport, he caught a bus to the remote Kalalau Valley. Carrying enough food for ten days, he walked into the jungle determined to stay. As his supplies ran out, he gathered fruit and edible plants, ate grass to dull the hunger and drank from volcanic streams. He slept on the ground in the open air, under the stars. On the 70th day, tanned and gaunt, his halo of hair bleached white by the sun, he left the wilderness. He found a payphone, called his parents in Oregon and begged them to come to Kauai. He wanted to show them the peace he'd found. When they arrived, he was in high spirits and terribly ill: weakened by starvation and exposure, his immune system had been severely compromised. He fell into a coma, and en route to the hospital over the rugged backcountry roads, he died of acute hemorrhagic pneumonia. He was thirty-one years old.
Kenny Cox taught me the art of cutting. He swore by Saran-Wrap, which he used to wrap his feet—it helped him shed an extra pound an hour, but left awful blisters. By the age of seventeen, Cox was the best prep wrestler in the United States. He was the Asics Tiger All-American chosen for the Asics poster his senior year, and he won five Junior National Titles.
Kenny carried a cookbook with him when he was cutting weight; he read the recipes while resting. He focused on hunger because it was easier to endure than thirst. His senior year, at Nationals in Fargo, he cut to 114.5 pounds from 130. He and I cut about the same amount that year, and were workout partners throughout National Training Camp. I was proud of that; I remember thinking I'd arrived.
Kenny ate strange things: dry, instant oatmeal straight from the package. Sunflower seeds with barbecue flavor. Artificially sweetened chocolate syrup smeared on Melba toast. Only after weigh-ins would he really eat. After his weigh-in for Nationals one year, at an all-you-can-eat buffet in Vegas, he ate nine plates of food, puked in the bathroom, and returned for six more.
As for me, I weighed myself twice a day on the doctor's scale I had in the basement, and recorded the results on a chart. In a notebook, I listed every mouthful of food I'd consumed and how many calories it contained. I broke energy bars into twenty or thirty pieces so that they would last longer. I boiled heads of cabbage and ate them with salt and pepper just to experience a full stomach.
Fasting was supposed to an ancillary discipline. The numbers we needed to achieve were arbitrary, but magical on the tongue: 100 pounds, 105.5, 106, 112, 114.5, 119, 125, 126, 127.5, 133. I made all those weights in different years. The numbers meant freedom and release, that I was all right, I'd made it.
At the 1997 Junior National Championships, I made 105.5 pounds. In a picture taken of me at the tournament, I stand alone at the center of a white and black wrestling mat. I am sixteen years old and too small for my green Team Oregon Nike warm-ups; they drape and pool about me. My eyes are sunken and my cheekbones protrude; my mouth is pinched as I attempt a smile. Beneath the warm-ups, I look like an anatomical model, tendons and veins straining against my skin. Weighing in, I'll register 105.4 pounds, down from a hundred and twenty-seven the month before. Within a mere three weeks, nearly 20% of my body has vanished.
The first five or six pounds of water weight weren't hard to lose. In a silver plastic suit and sweats and a wool hat, I shed them in practice drilling and wrestling around for an hour and a half. A bit warm inside, but otherwise easy. (When fully hydrated, the body loses a pound of water every fifteen minutes of vigorous exercise.) After a while, I needed to change clothes: the sweat was leaking from the sleeves and legs of the plastics.
After stripping them off, I took a break and let my skin breathe a bit in the echo-chamber of the locker room as the plastics dried. Plastics were illegal, but everyone used them, and nobody would rat me out. After a time, I put them back on with new sweats and a fresh hat, then ran indoors where it was warm, circles and circles around the wrestling mat. The first ten or twenty minutes weren't bad, though I had no wind. Then the weakness set in, rendering my muscles sluggish and unresponsive. It was hard to breathe, and moving my legs was difficult—the body doesn't work well without water. Eventually the heat became unbearable, all-enveloping, distorting my vision, a state like a high fever. That was when the thirst began. My throat dried up, and all I could think of was water. I panted, let out little whining grunts of effort, staggered a little. Within two hours, I lost another five pounds. Afterward, in the shower, I stuck out my tongue and let the water course over it, careful not to swallow. My skin was dry and papery, and my muscles felt shriveled and shrunken.
Many high school wrestlers stop at that point—at ten pounds. But the best, those of us who were winners, cut more. Our will was stronger, or at least, that was how I saw it. I scoffed at the wrestlers who “spit off”-- chewing gum and spitting the saliva into a jar—any of their first ten pounds. But once I'd gone beyond the first ten, cutting that was “effortless” began to sound good. That was where the sauna came in.
I'd put on the plastics and a down winter jacket, take a few packs of gum and a cup to spit into, and go to the sauna at the YMCA. Some guys jumped rope, but I preferred to run and jump in place. The body fought for those last pounds, and time stretched into a nightmare of heat. My skin burned and my stomach ached and twisted, as though my guts were being torn out. The gum summoned only a little spit, which eventually dehydrated and surreally drifted as a mist through the hot, still air. Once I got the sweat going, I stopped moving; I had to, for it was a strain by then to stand. The air felt thin in the lungs, and the edges of things went dark. Once or twice I passed out, though I don't remember losing consciousness, just waking on the sauna floor.
When I was within a pound or so, I was assured of making weight. The body, hydrated or not, loses a pound of water weight for every ten hours of respiration. But the night before weigh-in was agony. The slightest touch was painful to my skin. I lay in the dark with an empty, aching stomach, meditating on different flavors of Gatorade, Powerade, Crystal Light and fruit juice. The most seductive was blue-green Powerade, a color that embodied ocean depths, vast, cold pools of refreshment.
Wrestlers know well that water is more essential to life than food. The first drink after weighing in, the wet on the tongue, the feel of it on the throat—it is better than anything I've felt before or since. Only from the depth of suffering and deprivation can you taste the ecstacy of reprieve. My God: water.
The food, too, was gratifying, but I had to pace myself after days of starvation. My main objective was to fully rehydrate. If I went slow and steady, over the course of three hours I could recover enough to compete. But if I wasn't careful, too much cool liquid too soon could overwhelm the body's core temperature: my lips would turn blue and I'd shake even beneath three or four sweatshirts.
My lifetime prep record was 137-13, and most of those losses came my freshman year. The truth was that the wrestling itself was easy, at least for me. Yes, there was the jittery anticipation of the match, and the demands of competition: instinct and execution and all-consuming focus. But I had natural ability and agility and balance. The training and the actual matches didn't demand half the will and devotion that cutting weight required. Cutting was the essence of the sport.
The change in the NCAA Weight Class policy was inspired by the death of three college wrestlers the year before. All had died cutting weight. One was wearing layers of sweats and plastics while riding an exercise bike in a sauna. After cycling for two and a half hours in temperatures exceeding a hundred and fifteen degrees, he suffered heat stroke.
The other two died of a condition called rhabdomyolysis, a failure of the kidneys. Both were working out in plastics; neither had eaten for several days. Dehydrated and starved, their muscles began to consume their own tissue for energy. The waste products from that process proved fatally toxic.
I cut harder in high school than any of them. And as it happened, I was luckier.
The new policy mandated competition within an hour of weighing in, leaving no time to rehydrate sufficiently. I tried. I went on wrestling scholarship to Stanford, was behind an older All-American for two years. Then a week into practice my junior year, I tore a ligament in my knee. In my absence, a freshman stepped in and became a star, finished high in the Pac-10 and returned the next year ranked. Good as he was, I was given a chance to compete. The problem was that I weighed a hundred and forty pounds.
I was in the Stanford wrestling room the midnight before the UC Davis meet, and I was hurting. There was no sauna to use—Stanford didn't have one; they were illegal after NCAA reforms. I'd run off twelve pounds, and had just three to go—an hour if I could get the sweat coming. The overhead halogens threw long, deep shadows in the empty room. When I tried to run, my pulse became thunderous, pounding in my ears; after a few staggering circles about the mat, I tripped and fell, lay panting. I hadn't broken a sweat. I'd pushed beyond that point before, had done so perhaps a hundred times, but that night in the dim gymnasium, twenty-one years old and nearly half my life given to a sport I'd loved and had come to hate, I couldn't go on. I stood, stripped off the plastics and went to the water fountain and drank.
Kenny Cox couldn't keep it together in college either. He'd been the most decorated prep wrestler in U.S. history, the most celebrated recruit ever to come to the University of Oregon. But he never wrestled varsity. The reason was clear: with the altered weigh-in rules, he could no longer cut weight as he had.
Kenny took the failure of his college career hard. For a few years, he tried competing in other styles, where he could still cut for a single weigh in. He didn't do well, not well enough to satisfy him. For a while he coached at my old high school, then I learned he'd quit, had decided to hike the entire Pacific Coast Trail starting in Washington. That was the last I heard.
Last Fall I was walking in downtown Eugene when someone called my name. I didn't recognize the fellow: his blue eyes glittered from behind a Jesus beard, and he had a great tangled mane of blond hair. His arms and hands were tanned, and his clothes were faded and full of holes. It took me a long time to realize it was Kenny. When we embraced, I felt how slight he'd become, this man who once had been solid with muscle. I asked him how the Pacific Crest Trail had been.
“Great,” he said. “Pretty easy. But then I kept going in Mexico, and got robbed.”
He explained that after those thousands of miles on foot, after all that country, he hadn't been ready to stop, hadn't known how. He kept walking the coast, on roads, trails, along the playa whenever possible. Then in a little fishing town one night, he was held up at gunpoint, stripped of his cards and driver's license, his money and gear, everything but his shoes. He thought of quitting, then realized how relieved he felt that the last of what he'd had was gone. He kept walking, dove dumpsters in tourist areas, begged pesos, picked up occasional work on fishing docks and construction sites. He made it all the way down the Baja archipelago over the red dirt and yellow sand, reached the end of that land and stood looking into the vastness of the ocean and wished he could keep going. But there was nowhere else to go, so he turned back. It had taken him a long time to return, a lot of strange towns and strange jobs, a lot of good and bad people and lean, lean living.
I stood there taking it in. Finally I asked, “What were you trying to—get to?”
He thought for a while, shook his head. “I don't know. Something. Just—something.”
I didn't ask any more questions; I didn't need to. And when I heard what happened to Kenny in Kaui, I wasn't surprised. I understood.
Sometimes I run ten miles in the heat of the day, just for the exertion and the first water after. Though it is no sauna, and while the first drink is cold and good, it's not the same. When I hiked sixteen miles of the Rogue River Valley this past August, I took no water or food, and by the end I was hungry and thirsty, but it was insufficient. Cutting weight was religious, like a fast and then the feast and mass: you abstained from something essential until the experience of it became heightened and holy.
What haunts me about Kenny isn't his death, but the idea that he finally went far enough and found a relief I never will. I've retreated too far from such extremes, abandoned my place at that altar. But that's a loss as well, a sorrow that's finally inseparable from my sorrow over Kenny, so that I will always mourn them together: the sport that showed me how far I could go, and the friend who confirmed the necessity of turning back.
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This essay originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Gulf Coast. It is dedicated to the memory of Kenny Cox.