How Wrestling Inspired A New Jersey Teen To Change His Life

How Wrestling Inspired A New Jersey Teen To Change His Life

Max Lopez was a self-described couch potato who weighed 283 pounds as a high school freshman. Then wrestling changed his life.

Jul 14, 2021 by Brendan Scannell
How Wrestling Inspired A New Jersey Teen To Change His Life

Max Lopez was a self-described couch potato who stood 5-foot-6 and weighed 283 pounds as a freshman at Sterling High School in New Jersey. 

He had no wrestling background and knew little about the sport when his freshman football coach told him that most of the other linemen would be spending the winter on the mat, which got Max thinking about joining them. 

Max wanted to be involved and like many kids his age, he wanted to play sports with his friends. The thought that it might help him get fit was a drawing card, too. 

“I was tired of walking up the stairs and not being able to breathe,” he said. “I just wanted to improve. … When you’re big all of the negative [things] people say about you makes you become a negative person.”

Wrestling changed things for Max. It changed his fitness habits. It changed the number that lit up when he stepped on a scale. It changed his outlook. 

It changed his future. 

Pushing himself alongside teammates in two-hour workouts inside a sweltering wrestling room revealed some things for Max. 

“Wrestling is strict,” he said. “It’s not like I could just stop. That’s the thing. You can’t just stop in wrestling.”

Forget about intense conditioning sessions and live wrestling bouts. At first, just running warm-up laps around the room to start practice was difficult enough for Max. But he didn’t let it discourage him. He kept coming back day after day.

It was also helpful to have supportive teammates working out beside him. Wrestling provided Max with the structure and discipline to take control of his life and, perhaps more importantly, his health. On top of working out regularly and eating right, he learned to use his body in different ways, improving his flexibility, and building both his physical and mental toughness. 

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 20 percent of American children and adolescents are obese. The risks associated with obesity are well-documented and include diabetes, heart disease and blood pressure problems. 

Although the mechanism of obesity development is difficult and complex, and there are a number of biological and environmental factors that can lead to obesity in an individual, a combination of a high-calorie diet and limited exercise are the two big ones. 

Moreover, it can be hard to reduce excessive weight once it becomes established. That’s why it’s so important for obesity to be addressed at a young age. It was important for Max to take control of his health when he did.

Practice took care of the exercise part, but next came the diet. Wrestlers, unlike most other high school athletes, have little choice but to stay conscious of their weight and disciplined around their diet. Max was surrounded by the right people, he just needed to be smart about it.

He didn’t starve himself. First, he stuck to a consistent diet of chicken and rice and drank a lot of water — some of the safe weight-loss techniques other members of his team were using. He admitted eating the same meal got old after a while, so he began substituting protein shakes for some meals. He cut out sodas, cakes and other desserts he used to love. 

He became much more aware of portion control and tracking his calorie intake.  He exercised at home with push-ups and sit-ups. For cardio, he would go outside and run a few laps around the block or even just in the yard. 

Soon it became routine.

“The weight just started flying off,” Max’s coach, Will O’Donnell, said.

By the end of his freshman year, Max had lost more than 40 pounds. An encouraging start, for sure, but he was far from finished. 

“He had a more positive attitude and he was trying different sports and activities that he didn’t really show an interest in before,” Max’s mother, Maria, said. 

At the suggestion of coach O’Donnell, Max joined the school’s Navy-affiliated ROTC program, and later joined the track team.

A lot of the structure that wrestling required, the ROTC did, too. It called for plenty of physical training. One of the requirements of the program was the ability to run a mile in less than eight minutes. So, Max had to keep running.

During wrestling season, his schedule sometimes consisted of two-a-days.

“Some days I’d have to do a lot of (physical training for ROTC) and then I’d have to do a lot of wrestling. I’d be doing 100 push-ups and sit-ups at 2 pm, then I’d be doing 100 push-ups and sit-ups at 3 p.m., so that was good.”

According to O’Donnell, he’s also one of the standout marksmen in the program. 

“From what I hear,” O’Donnell said, “he’s got a pretty good shot.” 

Max continued his steady weight decline as a sophomore. By the time he completed his second season on the wrestling team, he weighed 213 pounds.

Weeks after the season came to an end, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a lengthy shutdown around the world. It was a time when it became all too easy for many of us to fall out of our regular health and fitness routines. Stuck in the house and isolated from teammates and coaches, Max was forced to dial up his discipline.

Coach O’Donnell admits he was surprised when he saw Max for the first time after the long COVID hiatus. When the team was finally able to gather in person again, Max’s continued progression blew everyone away.

“He had a full year of no sports, no nothing,” O’Donnell said. “It’s difficult to keep that weight off. And then he came in, jumped on the scale and we were just like, ‘This is awesome!’” 

Now as he prepares to enter his senior year of high school, Max weighs around 170 pounds and feels better than he ever has before.

“I couldn’t have done it without wrestling,” he said 

Wrestling — perhaps more so than other sport — is known for how much it demands from a young athlete. Throughout his weight loss journey, Max demonstrated a level of commitment that most people aren’t capable of. There are plenty of wrestlers in New Jersey who are more talented or more athletic than Max Lopez, but it would be hard to find any more disciplined during the past three years. 

His incredible transformation has been an inspiration to everyone around him. His head coach admires his confidence and fearlessness.

“He sacrifices for the team, not just for himself,” O’Donnell said. “He goes out, he’s not afraid, and he’ll help save us team points.”

Max has even become an influence on members of his family. His brother Oscar, motivated by his little brother’s own weight loss journey, decided to start walking to work as a way to shed a few pounds.

In May, Max was named the ROTC program’s Commanding Officer — the leader. 

“If something needs to be done, I’m like, ‘Let’s go do this. I need you and you now,’” he said in a firm voice.

Max no longer plays football or runs track, but he still finds time each day to get his required exercise. A daily goal of at least 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups and a mile run. He’ll even mix in some jumping jacks, as well. 

“His journey has been really impressive to watch,” his mother said. “If one day he hasn’t worked out yet but his stomach hurts and he can’t do sit-ups, he’ll go outside and run. It’s almost like he needs to do it. He thrives on it.

“I couldn’t be prouder. Hopefully, he recognizes that all of his hard work and determination, everyone else has seen it, too.” 

Max still isn’t sure what his future holds. He may continue down this path that ROTC has paved for him and move onto the Navy – something that’s been a dream for a while. Maybe he’ll go into law enforcement. Whatever step he decides to take next, he’s more than capable of the effort and discipline required to thrive. 

It was wrestling that helped cultivate that.