There is far more to armwrestling in Sudbury than just simply high-school bragging rights on the line as testosterone-filled teenagers battle it out in the cafeteria. And though it may not have quite the glamour portrayed by Sylvester Stallone in Over the Top (1987), the sport is not to be taken lightly, at all, by the devoted members of Team Arm Machine.
Gathering once a week for their practice rituals in Coniston, the group has experienced growth in recent years, all while building a resume as home to an increasing number of provincial and national champs.
And almost to a person, the athletes who partake in this long-standing tradition travelled a path that would see competitors somewhat stumble into the world of competitive armwrestling, citing their start in the sport to a far less structured environment.
"I started in high-school because I could beat most people, even though I was small," said recently crowned 70 kg Canadian champion Brad Wade of Lively. "I didn't really get into the sport, then, as a sport, but if you wanted to challenge me at my house, that was fine."
Now 37 years old, Wade suggested that at the time he was introduced to tournament armwrestling, there were two driving forces that served as motivation. "I think that armwrestling is a sport that everybody has tried at least once," he said. "Or at least almost everybody, whether they are strong or not."
Interestingly enough, a highly unscientific random survey of high-school and post-secondary students, both boys and girls, in Sudbury, would suggest that his statement remains 100% accurate. "And then there was the movie, "Over the Top"," Wade added.
"That certainly got a lot of people to look on the internet and see if there are tournaments out there." In March of 2008, at the urging of a friend, Wade would enter his first true tournament in Oshawa.
"There were a couple of other guys in Sudbury who were "pulling" (slang for armwrestling) at that time. I got in touch with them two weeks before my first tournament, I had maybe two practices under my belt, and I just jumped in." Wade would finish fourth in his weight class, competing in a field of 20 competitors or so.
While strength and technique will emerge as keys to success, at least to some extent, with most armwrestlers, Wade credits a whole different form of strength, altogether. "There's a lot of hands and wrists, but most of all, for me, it's confidence," he said.
"You have to know that you're going to win. I guess my claim to fame is that I never have really been in my life. I hang out with the boys and I armwrestle. I was born strong, so for me, it's a mental game."
A veteran of ten years in the sport, Brian Desormeaux felt a connection, almost from the get-go, with the family angle of the plot in the afore-mentioned movie that prompted his entry to armwrestling.
"My daughter actually got me into it," he recalled. "She picked out the movie, Over the Top, in a bin at Walmarts." Like Wade, Desormeaux was not completely new to the battle of strength. He reminisced about impromptu tournaments organized by his older brother at Ecole Secondaire Hanmer, events which vaulted him into the limelight as a high-school freshman who routinely knocked off his more senior opponents.
Roughly a decade ago, Desormeaux would make his way to North Bay, taking the plunge into the tournament setting. "The family aspect connected with me," he said. "My kids were there, my wife was there. Now, we tie most of our trips to events across the country into family visits and vacations."
A bronze medal winner at nationals, the 42 year old Health, Safety and Training Supervisor reflected on the myths that were destroyed as he took his first few steps along the arm-wrestling pathway. "It's about learning that as strong as you are in the weight room, it's totally different when it comes to armwrestling," he said.
"When you're young, the "hit" (rapid arm movement to put down your opponent) seems to be where you want to go. As you develop, you concentrate more on the position, studying your opponent. It becomes a chess game. I constantly watched videos for technique, seeing where the feet placement was, where their elbows are. I wanted to study to become the best."
At just twenty years of age, Cole Leclair is fresh to the scene, three years into formal competition. "I got into it because my father used to do it," he said. "He used to go all over Ontario to compete, so I kind of grew up doing it."
Though family might have provided the spark, Leclair can relate to the same initial setting where Wade, Desormeaux and countless other first embraced their passion. "In high-school, in the cafeteria, in the gym, they still do it," he said.
"It was certainly the more alpha kids, the kids who were in the gym all the time, even some teachers, that were more likely to do it. But in my opinion, it wasn't just a matter of seeing if you were stronger than the other guy. It was as much about trying to out-smart him, get your hand in a better position than his hand."
"A lot of my friends beat me growing up, because they were just a lot stronger, but once I learned how to control his hand, they had nothing." In fact, Leclair suggested that the first few seconds immediately following the referee's release of the competitors locked hands is critical to the final outcome.
"You're trying to cheat as much as you can, get that better hand position, get that wrist curled in, your grip higher, before the referee releases. You want more of an advantage." Of course, the very goal of the match official is to try and ensure a level playing field, right out of the gate.
With that in mind, Leclair continues to work on perfecting his technique with his Team Arm Machine teammates, a group for which the silver medal winner at nationals in Laval holds a great deal of respect.
"Sudbury has one of the best, if not the best, group of pullers out there," said Leclair. "They are not as celebrated as they should be." Until now.
Team Arm Machine, in conjunction with the Arm Melter Armwrestling League, will be hosting the Northern Ontario Armwrestling Championships on Saturday, September 22nd, at Overtime Sports Bar and Grill in Sudbury.