Sports dietitians Rachel Baker and Auburn Weisensale keep Pitt fit


Estimated ranges of calories consumed in a day for Pitt student-athletes. Jordan Mondell | Assistant Visual Editor

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

Rachel Baker sits in a corner of the cafeteria at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Pitt’s football practice facility on the South Side, for an hour-and-a-half each afternoon during football season.

It’s not her break –– though she does use the time to eat lunch. Rather, she’s watching over the Pitt football players as they come and go, providing assistance with anything they need when deciding what to eat based on the day’s activities.

For Baker, making sure the players are fueled, hydrated and recovered is a non-stop occupation.

Baker originally joined Pitt’s staff as the sports dietitian for the Olympic sports programs –– all varsity sports other than football and basketball –– in August 2015, mostly providing 20 hours per week of consulting on sports nutrition information.

She accepted a position last April as the full-time dietitian for the school’s football and basketball teams.

“Working with football is very different,” Baker said. “There’s a lot more work that goes on here than anything over at Olympic sports just because of the amount of time they spend here and the amount of food they need to consume.”

The football team may require more attention, but all of Pitt’s Olympic sports teams have varying dietary regimens depending on the type of sport, size of the athlete and amount of energy exerted.

“Their seasons are different, the type of training that they do [is different],” Baker said. “Are they more skill- or precision-type sports? Are they weight class sports?”

The weight class sport Baker referred to is wrestling, where athletes compete with weight limits ranging from 125 to 285 pounds and must be on-weight on the day of a match. In between matches, it’s crucial for wrestlers to keep their bodies fueled without gaining so much weight that they can’t drop it quickly.

Pitt junior 133-pounder Dom Forys needs to stay between 140 and 145 pounds between match days, dehydrating and rehydrating his body as necessary.

Eating leaner meats and drinking at least a gallon of water per day, Forys said, are critical to helping him maintain his weight without sacrificing his energy.

“It just comes down to drinking more water to get more water out of your system and keep your metabolism running faster,” Forys said. “Just burning more calories than you take in.”

Forys, who finished last season with a 28-5 record and came one win away from achieving All-American status, believes it’s a worthwhile sacrifice.

“In the end it’s worth it,” Forys said. “It’s only short-term suffering for long-term success.”

As a standard calculation for wrestlers, Baker multiplies their weight by 20 to determine how many calories they should consume in a given day. For Forys, that means taking in between 2,500 and 3,000 calories per day while making sure he burns off more than he consumes.

Heavyweight Ryan Solomon, on the other hand, sometimes consumes upwards of 5,000 calories per day. Lucky for him, he doesn’t have as much trouble keeping his weight under the 285-pound limit.

“I walk around about 250 or 255 [pounds],” Solomon said. “I want to lose about 10-15 more pounds to get where I want to be.

Despite facing opponents who weigh as much as 285 pounds, Solomon said 240 is his ideal weight so he can be fast and still have a sizable gas tank.

“I’ll be able to wrestle seven minutes, eight minutes, however long the match goes,” if he weighs 240 pounds, Solomon said. “I want to be able to go even further than that. I want to be the most fit heavyweight in the country.”

Although almost all of Baker’s time now is devoted to working with the football and basketball teams, she’s found a way to stay in touch with Pitt’s newly hired Olympic sports dietitian, Auburn Weisensale.

Working with the Olympic sports teams, Weisensale  — who started in mid September  —  mostly gives team talks about subjects such as pre- and post-workout foods, the appropriate time to have certain foods and how to fuel and recover to get ready for the next day. If an athlete needs additional help, all he or she needs to do is reach out to Weisensale to schedule a one-on-one meeting.

“One thing with sports nutrition — every day is different,” Weisensale said. “That’s what makes it really great, you don’t get stuck in the same thing every day.”

Baker is quick to point out she can’t force anyone to eat or not to eat anything –– she can only recommend it.

“It’s hard unless you’re putting food together and putting the food in their mouth to really make sure anyone’s following exactly what you tell them to do,” Baker said. “And that’s just nutrition in general. You can teach them, but a lot of it comes down to that person’s ability to follow through with the plan.”

To stay on top of athletes’ day-to-day diets, Baker tries to walk around to the tables in the cafeteria and talk to the players as they’re making their food choices. She gives advice on what their plate should look like based on the intensity of the day’s training and leaves handouts close to the line for players to refer to if she’s not around.

But her job doesn’t end there.

“Recovery starts the second you leave the field,” Baker said.

After every practice, Baker sets up a table of snacks for players as they walk off the field on their way to the locker room. The spread varies from day to day, but it usually includes a mix of fruit and protein –– something like bananas or watermelon with a smoothie, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, greek yogurt or chocolate milk.

At halftime she provides apples, bananas, oranges, pretzels and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to refuel the players. After last week’s game against North Carolina, rather than the usual post-game spread, she served barbecue sandwiches and mac and cheese.

“It’s tough to do that and be on the field and try to provide them counseling in here,” Baker said.

For Pitt’s star defensive end Ejuan Price, Baker’s job is pretty simple.

“Miss Rachel makes sure I’m not fat for the most part,” Price said. “I’m a really picky eater, so I’m a hard case for her probably. But she keeps me on the right track and makes sure I’m not eating pizza every night. I love her addition to the team and I love her.”

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