Healthy Diet Helps Ohio State Football

Posted: 7/31/2012

Posted July 21, 2012

Originally from The Columbus Dispatch

Sarah Wick probably doesn't look like a transformational figure for Ohio State football.

She's a congenial 49-year-old mother of two teenage boys. But "Miss Sarah," as the Buckeyes players call her, is leading a quiet revolution in the program.

For as many ways as the Buckeyes have spared no expense to build and maintain an elite program, one of the most basic building blocks to success went neglected until Urban Meyer was hired as coach. His holistic approach to player development includes proper diet. As hard as it may be to believe, Ohio State did not have anyone dedicated to that for its football program.

"I was just surprised that a nutritionist didn't work with football," said Mickey Marotti, assistant athletic director for sports performance. "I was like, 'Well, we're gonna have one.' "

Marotti, whom Meyer has described as his most important hire, approached athletic director Gene Smith, who quickly gave his approval. Enter Wick, an OSU dietician who has worked with athletes in other sports since 2003.

"We have wanted to be in there," Wick said of working with football. "We have put posters in the strength room. We have tried to put the foot in the door, but it was just not something that was embraced, I guess."

Since Wick was hired, the results from players' improved diets are dramatic. Wick said the Buckeyes have lost a combined 457 pounds of fat and gained 520 pounds of muscle mass since she started her program.

Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said he has lost about 25 pounds and added muscle. His body fat has dropped from about 28 percent to 21.

"Once I knocked off my first 10 pounds, I felt comfortable that I could keep going," he said. "As I kept going, my body changed and I felt better each day."

That has been crucial, because Marotti's offseason workouts are designed to push players to their limit.

"I feel more energized," Hankins said. "I'm never tired anymore. After workouts, I always have a little more in the tank. When I was a little heavier, I was always exhausted."

NCAA rules place strict limits on what a school can provide its athletes. During the season, training table is limited to one meal per day. The school can provide snacks at what's known as a "fueling station," but mostly Wick educates players about what and how often to eat, and how food should be cooked.

Wick has not banned any particular food. Even something like french fries are OK on occasion. But she stresses the importance of a balanced diet heavy on fruits and vegetables.

"We really worked on, 'How can we make it for you?' " she said. "We did everything from grocery store tours to cooking classes."

The program is individualized. Each player had his body composition analyzed to see how it fit with the physical requirements of his position. Then each player was given a detailed plan to get into optimum shape. For some, like Hankins, that meant losing weight. For others, such as linebacker Ryan Shazier, the goal was to add bulk. In every case, though, it started with diet.

"What we had to do was change a lifestyle of how you think about food --for muscle building, for weight loss, for energy and for recovery and rejuvenation," Marotti said. "That's what we're trying to accomplish. We know what it's going to take to play at the level we're going to play at in coach Meyer's system."

Hankins, for example, now eats six times a day, though the portions are smaller.

"I never knew that if you eat six times a day, you'll lose weight," he said. "I always thought, the more you eat, the more you gain. But with smaller portions, now I'm feeling 10 times better than I did last year."

He, like the rest of the Buckeyes, start the day with what's called Breakfast Club at Kennedy Commons on campus. Before Wick's program, Hankins usually didn't eat breakfast. Now, he'll typically start with an omelet, a bagel, fruit, water and orange juice.

Hydration is stressed. Marotti said he wants players to drink about 75 percent of their body weight in fluid ounces per day. For Hankins, that means drinking at least a gallon and a half of liquid.

Hankins has tried to eliminate fried foods from his diet. If he has chicken, it's baked. He has developed a fondness for salad.

"I never really ate salads," Hankins said. "Now on my salad, I want onions, tomatoes or cucumbers."

Hankins said he and his teammates have adapted easily to the dietary changes. Part of that is because of Wick's calm manner. The players get plenty of testosterone-fueled barking from their coaches. They appreciate Wick's gentle approach. Players will often just come to her office, pull up a chair and chat.

"She's a great woman," Hankins said. "She's very exciting to be around, very positive. She really cares about everyone. We kind of look at her like a den mother or stepmother."

Wick grew up in Worthington as a gymnast, so she understands what it's like to be an athlete. The Ohio State graduate also is a seven-year breast-cancer survivor who credits proper nutrition as an essential tool in her recovery.

"It empowered me more, I guess," she said of her cancer fight. "It's pretty obvious that to come back from something like that, with all the chemo, you go to the deepest, darkest place and have to build back."

She said that working with the football team is fulfilling, and she believes the changes they've made in their diet will be reflected in their performance this fall.

"I think it's going to make a huge difference," Wick said. "They're stronger and faster already. There's definitely a difference from an energy standpoint."


©2012 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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