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Why coaches say Delaware high school wrestlers would be safer without wearing masks

Kevin Tresolini
Delaware News Journal

Two wrestlers are tied in fleshy knots, their limbs intertwined as they sweat and strain, breathing heavily in a continuous battle for supremacy.

No social distancing there.

The sustained physical contact – and the grasping that accompanies it – makes wrestling’s designation as a high-risk activity during the coronavirus pandemic obvious.

That makes some concerned about the sport’s immediate future.

Hugo Harp, top, wrestles against Sussex Central's Hiram Lasher in his semifinal match in the 2020 DIAA Individual Wrestling Tournament Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Cape Henlopen High School.

COVID-19 continues to rage, taking down its own victims and putting them on their backs, sometimes in hospital beds and even in coffins.

“I’m worried right now there’s not going to be a wrestling season,” said Kurt Howell, the unbeaten four-time Newark High state champ from 1983-86 who later coached Smyrna to five state team titles.

High school wrestling is still on, with practices beginning Monday for an amended season with fewer competitions all within state borders starting Dec. 21.

Howell and others involved with high school wrestling in Delaware believe their sport is getting a bad rap. Armed with data backing their claim, they say wrestling is actually safer than other sports because it involves just two competitors and a shorter time period.

As in all Delaware high school sports, wrestlers compete wearing mouth and nose coverings that the Delaware Division of Public Health has mandated in return-to-competition regulations adopted by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Appoquinimink wrestling co-capitan Josh Malone helps sanitize the mats before practice Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.

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Yet, the Delaware Wrestling Coaches Association believes its grueling endeavor – often called “the toughest six minutes in sports” – is more dangerous with masks than without them.

Coaches cite the fact that, by the very nature of the sport, a competitor’s breathing is already severely compromised. Also, facial coverings come off repeatedly, perhaps two dozen times in a typical bout, thereby rendering them less effective and extending the time on the mat.

“It’s just not practical,” said Appoquinimink High coach Richard Killingsworth, a health scientist who formerly worked for the state health department and the Centers for Disease Control.

Delaware is one of only two states, along with Michigan, requiring wrestlers to compete wearing masks.

In December, the DIAA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee will seek to have that mask requirement repealed for wrestling.

“I’m worried they’re gonna say, ‘Just don’t wrestle,’” Howell said.

Killingsworth called the mask requirement “a significant hurdle” as the season approaches.

Even with masks, the season will take place, coaches say. But they insist wrestling is much riskier with masks than without.

“The sport itself, wrestling, is already a restrictive sport,” Killingsworth said. “It’s intended to apply holds that may restrict breathing in a number of different ways, whether that’s around the chest or front head-locks.

“By adding another layer of facial covering on a wrestler, it already presents a situation that may present a pathophysiological problem, particularly in those with underlying conditions we’re not aware about. That’s typically evident in heavier wrestlers.’’

Appoquinimink High School wrestling coach Rich Killingsworth

There are 14 weight divisions in high school wrestling. When it comes to masks, Killingsworth and Howell each expressed particular concerns about the 285-pound heavyweight class.

Heavyweight bouts are often slow, slogging duels. Wrestling’s cardiovascular demands severely test its largest, less-fit combatants, especially if one has asthma or another condition. It’s why in football, Killingsworth said, offensive and defensive linemen are the most frequent victims of heatstroke.

But because heavyweights often spend much time on their feet simply pushing and shoving each other, or with their arms locked, some coaches worry more about those in the lighter weights. They tend to dart and scramble in and out of moves and various holds more frequently.

Ben Garland, a senior 126-pounder for Appoquinimink, said facial coverings don’t restrict his breathing too severely. But his mask slips off and sometimes covers his eyes or even briefly strangles him.

“The biggest problem most of us have with the masks is that they come off very often while we’re wrestling,” Garland said. “... Most of us don’t like them, but we’re gonna do whatever we can do to wrestle this year.”

“It comes off all the time,” said 170-pound teammate Josh Malone.

Wrestling is also the one sport in which a trash can is kept within feet of the competitive area because of the frequency with which contestants vomit.

Appoquinimink wrestling co-captain Josh Malone leads exercises during practice Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.

Newark Charter sophomore David Williams III said he has to make use of that trash can frequently, during both practices and matches, because of sinus- and allergy-related breathing issues. That makes him concerned about competing with a mask on and has him considering not wrestling this year as a result.

“Wrestling itself is extremely exhausting, but I’m sure a lot of wrestlers like me have breathing problems that affect them during a match,” said Williams, who wrestled at 138 and 145 pounds for Newark Charter last year. “With masks on, that just makes it even more difficult to the point of being medically dangerous.”

Williams also is prone to nosebleeds. It’s not unusual to see a wrestler competing with cotton balls jammed into his or her nose.

High school wrestling is also the one sport in which the competition can be delayed, for up to five minutes of what is termed “blood time,” so a competitor can have a bleeding wound controlled and cleanup can take place.

Delaware’s mask requirement for wrestlers is actually quite unusual.

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“There’s been no recommendation that [masks] should be required in any of these high school wrestling events, period, from the national [high school] federation to USA Wrestling to the NCAA,” said Killingsworth, “and we’ve worked closely with all these entities in the document we presented to the DIAA. What we presented to the DIAA is probably the most comprehensive restart plan of any state in this nation.”

Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, said all states are debating how to best handle wrestling, knowing that  it appears risky.

He also believes that’s deceiving.

“Everybody wants the same thing, to ensure the health and safety to the extent they can,” Moyer said. “But the best decisions are made on good research and, clearly, I have not seen any research that wrestling is any more risky than most other sports.

“I can understand someone who doesn’t know our sport, their initial reaction is ‘Well, no way.’ But when you start walking them through, and I’ve spent a lot of time doing this the last few months, it’s a lot easier for a wrestling coach at practice to, say, keep the same training partner for a month if need be ... A lot of times in a team sport it would be hard to do that.’’

Few positive tests among wrestlers

In a recent DIAA board of directors meeting in which wrestling’s return to competition was discussed, Killingsworth cited the science behind the wrestling coaches association's stance that competing without masks is a reasonable approach.

A study of 7- to 19-year-olds who competed at five wrestling tournaments where masks were not required this summer in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Georgia found just seven of 690 wrestlers – or about 1 percent – tested positive for COVID-19.

“None of that was traced back to their wrestling environments,” Killingsworth said, “which was very promising for the sport, recognizing that these athletes were the ones who travel a lot, practice daily and are involved in multiple camps and clinics throughout the summer. So it tells me they’re doing the right things.”

The recent Fall National Duals in Ocean City, Maryland, which attracted more than 1,000 wrestlers, didn’t turn up any post-competition COVID-19 positive tests among competitors, Killingsworth said. Masks were not required.

“We’re just not seeing these as superspreader events,” he said.

Delaware’s wrestling season will be significantly cut back in 2020-21. Teams are permitted just 12 dual meets from Dec. 21 through Feb. 6, with no in-state or out-of-state tournaments.

The state dual-meet championships are Feb. 10, with just four teams qualifying in each of Division I and II rather than eight.

The three conference tournaments – Blue Hen, Henlopen and Independent Schools – in which state individual tournament qualifiers are typically determined, will not be held. Instead, an open state tournament is planned for Feb. 26-28 at Cape Henlopen High.

“We believe that we have presented enough evidence to demonstrate that we should not have that [mask requirement],” Killingsworth said. “But if that’s what it takes to get the sport started, we’re going to do that, and we’ll figure how that’s done well.”

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Officials in New Jersey recently moved high school wrestling to March 1-April 24. No such plan has been proposed in Delaware, and wrestling-mad Pennsylvania will launch its season soon with Delaware keeping a close eye.

As practices start this week, Delaware wrestlers will begin applying their headlocks and half nelsons, then pulling their masks back into place, though Newark Charter coach David Williams II worries that “If you were a guy on the fence about wrestling, this might be the year that you’re not wrestling.”

Those who do will make the best of it.

The state coaches association is working with wrestling outfitter Cliff Keen and Under Armour to choose a mask tailor-made for wrestling.

“I’m pretty confident we can wrestle without masks and be safe,” Appo co-captain Garland said. “Wrestlers as a whole are a strong group of people and we’re all young individuals in a low-risk age group. So I don’t believe [the mask] helps that much, especially because it comes off so much.”

Middletown's Willem Carl is held by Smyrna's Amir Pierce during the 132 pound match in the DIAA Individual Wrestling Tournament Saturday at Cape Henlopen High School.

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Garland has delivered and been the recipient of enough crossfaces, a move in which a wrestler folds his arm across the nose and mouth of an opponent to gain or increase control, to believe in the risks and folly of masks.

“Personally, I think wrestling can be done very safely without masks,” Moyer said. “But if the experts in a particular region believe that they’re that important, maybe a compromise is we wear masks in practice but not in competition.

“But I will say wrestlers are very good at adapting and improvising and overcoming. They will do whatever they have to do to get out there on the competition mat. I just feel it’s important all the stakeholders are fully informed on what the research suggests before any decisions are made.”

Grappling infection ‘a normal way of life’

Wrestling has long fought invaders aimed at spreading illness and infection, including five major pathogens: ringworm, impetigo, herpes, scabies and MRSA.

Therefore, its practitioners closely monitor participants for skin infections, emphasize washing with antimicrobial soaps, mop mats with EPA-approved solutions and are equally keen about uniform and equipment cleanliness.

“We’ve been mopping the mat and disinfecting the environment since the beginning of time,” Moyer said. “So these things aren’t alarming in our sport, because it’s business as usual.”

That requires diligence but it's been successful. In February of 2006, a MRSA outbreak among some Delaware high school wrestlers who had taken part in an out-of-state tournament forced the cancellation of several meets until the infection cleared up.

A.I. du Pont's Azeem Bell (right) and Salesianum's Danny Stradley struggle in regulation before Bell won the title at 195 pounds in overtime during the championship round of the Delcastle Invitational Saturday.

DIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee member Dr. Michael Axe called those involved with wrestling the “most conscientious” in Delaware sports during a recent committee meeting discussion.

“They clean their mats,” said Axe, longtime medical director at the Beast of the East high school tournament in Newark. “They do everything they can possibly do to prevent communicable spreads.”

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Newark Charter coach Williams, who was one of St. Mark’s record eight state champions as a senior 152-pounder in 1998, said that, for all the precautions inherent in wrestling, exchanging germs is unavoidable.

“Anybody who knows anything about wrestling knows,” Williams said, “that you can wear a face covering all you want. If you’re wrestling somebody and they have something, you’re probably gonna get it from them.’’

But COVID-19 could be a much more dangerous beast than ringworm or impetigo.

Well aware of that, the state coaches association has implemented procedures that would lessen the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission, spelled out in its 12-page “Returning to Wrestling” document submitted to and approved by the DIAA board of directors.

It includes daily health screenings that include body temperature tests and questions about physical well-being and recent contacts. Blood-oxygen level tests are also recommended.

Wrestlers will also train in pods of four, limiting the number of practice partners. Occupancy will also be monitored and limited in high school wrestling rooms, with team members coming in and out in shifts – with mats swabbed in between.

Middletown's Brian Schneider reacts after beating A.I. du Pont's Azeem Bell for the state title at 170 pounds during the DIAA individual wrestling championships in 2019 at Cape Henlopen High School.

“In wrestling,” said coach Williams, the association's president, “we’re used to all these processes, so it’s just a matter of creating a new routine. With wrestling we’re used to jumping through hoops anyway. We disinfect all the time.”

At matches, it will be one against one for six minutes between wrestlers, Killingsworth said, who “already are heavily screened and are presumed to be risk free.”

It's not the 11-against-11 of football, soccer or field hockey. In a five-versus-five basketball game, players are exposed to a multitude of possible opponents and teammates though physical contact. All those sports have much longer competitive time periods, though perhaps less sustained, than wrestling.

In Killingsworth, Delaware has someone well-versed in shaping wrestling’s health and safety protocols, which began way before COVID-19 arrived.

Killingsworth is an associate professor in the University of Delaware’s College of Health Sciences. His wrestling involvement extends well beyond First State borders. This summer, Killingsworth authored the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s “Returning to Wrestling” advocacy guide, and goes back many years in the sport.

Moyer termed Killingsworth “a rock star guy” nationally in wrestling.

“He’s got the perspective of a high school wrestling coach,” Moyer said. “He’s got the experience with the CDC and public health. He genuinely cares about health and safety. We always say in our coaching development program the number-one priority of any coach is to the health and safety of his or her athletes. And he’s just been a great resource for us and I wish we could clone him.’’

Killingsworth was working as a health scientist with the CDC when three college wrestlers died within a month in late 1997 while cutting weight. Killingsworth played an integral role in creating the subsequent weight-class changes in college wrestling.

“The finding from that resulted in the changes that we see today in high school and college wrestling, with all the rigorous requirements,” said Killingsworth of a system that includes body-fat tests and weight certification so wrestlers stay within healthy ranges.

“We have to keep the sport safe. That’s why I got involved with this one, to go through that same process, to carefully do an analysis about what’s going on and are we in a situation where we’re exposed to risk?”

The answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

But as their season arrives, against the most formidable foe they’ve encountered, Delaware coaches feel they’ve mounted the best defense possible for the state’s wrestlers.

Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at ktresolini@delawareonline.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.