Armed conflict comes to Winnipeg

More than 500 competitors gather to test strength, renew friendships

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It’s often seen as a way to prove physical dominance, but there’s more to arm wrestling than meets the eye.

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It’s often seen as a way to prove physical dominance, but there’s more to arm wrestling than meets the eye.

The Canadian national championships in Winnipeg this past weekend drew a record number of over 500 entries. Competitors looked to reach the top of their classes and also rekindle relationships impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I missed this so much,” said Portage la Prairie’s Ryan Espey. “It’s like a big family reunion, these people… I consider them to be family, not just friends.”

Participants from all over the country competed in the Canadian Arm Wrestling Championships at Canad Inns Destination Centre on Sunday. (Ethan Cairns / Winnipeg Free Press)

A sea of eyes followed Espey everywhere during the event’s finale Sunday with spectators stopping him for handshakes and photos. Cell phones launched into the air with fingers ready to record his matches and many stopped what they were doing to see him in action.

Espey commanded the attention of the room and not just because of his big biceps, broad shoulders and mountain-like frame, but because he’s a legend.

The 45-year-old has been arm wrestling since 1997, is hailed as the best in Manitoba and a top super heavyweight in the country. He also gets sought out by competitors worldwide for high-stakes supermatches, which have taken him to the U.S. and overseas.

He fell in love with the sport 25 years ago after competing in a tournament at a bar in Portage la Prairie, but said it’s evolved beyond just a bar sport.

“Everybody has that friend that’s never lost right?” he said. “I’ve met a ton of those guys and given them their first losses, they don’t realize that there are people that do this professionally out there.”

Espey was a star attraction at this year’s tournament, but the field featured a plethora of rising talent.

Alberta’s Laya Cornelson is someone to watch in the world of arm wrestling. The 17-year-old has been at it only two years, but is already a decorated champion with a blossoming collection of medals and title belts.

“I go around telling people I’m an arm wrestler and they’re like ‘oh let’s arm wrestle,’ it’s usually the guys of course,” said Cornelson with a chuckle. “I just kind of beat them and it’s awesome.”

Cornelson said the 2022 national championships featured the most women she’d ever seen at an event, adding they gave her great competition.

“The camaraderie I say is amazing,” said Santos. “You may be enemies at the table, but when you come off, you’re your friends and that’s what’s so great about this sport.”– Point Douglas city councillor and arm wrestler Vivian Santos

“I like the pressure on my back and I bet other people do too,” said Cornelson. “That’s top of the class, you’re the best. You got to hold your belts, you got to be ready and always be the best and keep learning.”

The formula for becoming a championship arm wrestler isn’t all about steaks, weights and protein shakes. Competitors of all ages focus on technique, stressing it’s hard to succeed without a sound fundamental base.

“The biggest key to arm wrestling is table time,” said Point Douglas city councillor Vivian Santos. “Practicing table time, two to three times a week is super important because you can do stuff at the gym to perfect your strength and your arms and your hands and your fingers, but nothing beats table time.”

Arm wrestling opponents go from fierce battles on the table to exchanging friendly pats on the back and fist bumps in an instant. The sportsmanship is part of why Santos loves it.

“The camaraderie I say is amazing,” said Santos. “You may be enemies at the table, but when you come off, you’re your friends and that’s what’s so great about this sport.”

Event organizers weren’t sure how many participants would show up for nationals, but the smiles on their faces when talking about the turnout might as well have been as big as some of the biceps in the room.

Manitoba Armwrestling Association president Josee Morneau said nationals is important for the current crop of athletes and the fast-rising new generation, which includes her 11-year-old daughter.

“I started in 1995 and that’s been 27 years… I still have the passion for it,” she said. “Now my daughter’s got the passion for it, it gives me a challenge because my daughter’s dream is to beat me.”

Espey said over the last few years there’s been a shift where competitors started to prefer the supermatch events since nationals couldn’t be held. But he felt any worries about the national championships still being a premier event could be put to rest.

“There was some doubt on will they come back to the nationals… would the nationals still draw a crowd,” said Espey. “I think the answer is pretty clear that ‘more than ever’ is the answer to that.”

Gavin.Axelrod@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: Gavin77axe

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