It was just another Thursday evening in the suburban living room of Ken Colao, the wrestling coach at Ossining ( N.Y.) High School. Strewn across the floor were five sleeping bags, each containing a teenage wrestler. On this winter night the kids watched TV, practiced headlocks on each other and talked about girls. But mostly they fantasized about food as they endured what has become an Ossining wrestling tradition: the last-minute weight-loss sleep-over at Coach's house.
For dinner, lettuce and dry tuna fish were the specialties of the house. Wrestlers who are just a pound or two overweight may be permitted to feast on half a grapefruit; egregious offenders eat nothing and are sent out for roadwork under the streetlights. Craig Rowe, a sophomore 119-pounder and notorious junk-food junkie, once slipped into the Colao kitchen in the middle of the night and stole a banana. He was nabbed the next morning when Colao's five-year-old daughter, Julie, found the peel.
The sleepovers are just one reason the 33-year-old Colao has become a wrestling legend around Ossining. Since 1987 his teams have amassed a 66-1 dual-meet record, and as of Dec. 13 they were riding a 28-meet unbeaten streak. In 1990 Ossining was champion of New York's tough Section 1 and was ranked No. 8 in the state. Wrestling USA, the sport's leading national high school publication, named Colao the second runner-up for its Coach of the Year Award that year.
Colao's style is that of the old-fashioned disciplinarian dad. To a visitor watching a recent after-school practice session, he seemed a stern taskmaster indeed. As one young man fumbled with his ear protectors, Colao snapped, "You've got 99 years to fix your headgear. You're supposed to be working out!" To another who botched a takedown drill, he sneered, "I know it's tough, but can't you be stupid only half the time?"
As his sleepover "guests" are only too aware, Colao does not tolerate excess poundage. "Get out of here," he growls after practice to a wrestler who hesitantly says that he's a little overweight this week. "That's your problem, not mine." But when Craig Rowe, weary of struggling to make weight in the 97-pound class, quit the team last year, Colao let him move up to the 105-pound class. Craig, though, doubted his chances against heavier foes. So the coach went over to his house, sat down on his bed and read him a list of all the 105-pounders in the section. "I told him there wasn't one guy on the list he couldn't handle," says Colao.
Colao works full-time as a recreation supervisor at Sing Sing, the maximum-security prison on the Hudson River 20 miles north of New York City. Starving wrestlers incarcerated in Colao's living room may view that as an appropriate job for their coach, but inside the prison walls Colao's tough-guy image quickly evaporates. As he leads a visitor down a clamorous, echoing hallway of tiny cells, inmates shout friendly greetings and Colao banters back. One prisoner, graying at the temples, stops him and says, "Hey, man, I need some new shoes for the football game this afternoon, not these raggedy old things." Colao retorts, "You're a raggedy old dude, you need raggedy old shoes." The prisoner walks away smiling, hardly aware that he has been rebuffed.
Colao is not above a little frivolity, particularly if it psychs his high school kids to win matches. Take "the sticks," a taped-together bundle of 14 wooden tongue depressors—one for each member of the squad—that serves as a talisman of team unity. "The idea is that it's easy to snap one tongue depressor in half, but the 14 together are unbreakable," says Colao. At meets each Ossining wrestler holds the sticks while waiting for his match. As he steps onto the mat, the wrestler hands the magical bundle to the next boy in line.
But the members of the Ossining team realize that it takes more than a lucky charm to win a match. "Coach can be hard on us sometimes," said senior 126-pounder Mike Artis one night last season as he pulled on a third layer of sweat clothes in Colao's living room before setting off on a three-mile run. "But at the end of the season, it all pays off."