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Vermont armwrestlers flex for the state finals

Karen Curavoo is a hell of a hooker, and she's got plenty of plaques, trophies and medals to prove it. But the term doesn't mean what you think; the 43-year-old Weybridge woman is a world champion armwrestler. And you'd be wise not to impugn her honor -- Curavoo is one tough cookie.

"Hooking" is a technique armwrestlers use to wrest control from an opponent and slam his or her fist to the mat. Wait, you're thinking. Technique? What's so tough about armwrestling? Plenty, as it turns out. At least when you're competing in a tournament.

Curavoo organizes Vermont's competitive armwrestling circuit with her fiancé Bill Sinks, also a champion "puller." The couple met eight years ago at the World Championships in India. Right now they're gearing up for Vermont state finals, which take place this Sunday at the American Legion in Middlebury.

Curavoo says competing in the sport at the tournament level calls for skill as well as strength. And despite the sport's name, it's not just about arms. "Armwrestling," she insists, "is a total body workout." Given her compact, muscular frame, that's easy to believe.

Though armwrestling probably has been around ever since, well, since people have had arms, organized tournaments first appeared in the 1960s. Today there are two national organizations devoted to the sport, and hundreds of competitions all across the country, many of them at county fairs.

But armwrestling isn't what you'd call high profile -- there aren't any professional teams, and you can't win a college scholarship to do it. It's not even an Olympic event -- yet. Arm-wrestling organizations are working on it, though. Perhaps not coincidentally, there aren't even any iconic movies about armwrestlers, unless you count Sylvester Stallone's formulaic 1987 Over the Top, which probably did more harm to the sport's rep than good. Incidentally, Curavoo is in it, as an extra.

Despite its obscure status, tournament armwrestling requires practice. In addition to weight training, Curavoo and Sinks put in several hours each week. And they spend two hours every Saturday afternoon coaching other up-and-coming Vermont armwrestlers. Like all of the organizing they do, it's for fun, not money.

Only four pullers show up for the session the weekend before the state tournament. Curavoo says they usually get a crowd of 10 to 12, but most people don't want to "blow their arms" before the match.

Their workouts take place, as always, in the basement of the Weybridge home the couple shares with Curavoo's three children. Country music rocks the subterranean space, which contains a treadmill, two weight benches and multiple barbells, dumbbells and weights stacked against a wall. Literally hundreds of glittering awards clutter shelves that ring the room. One wall is covered with plaques and pictures documenting Curavoo's 25-year armwrestling career -- in one she's posing with Lou Ferrigno, the Incredible Hulk; in another she mugs with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

One collage of photos chronicles her first-place win in the 2003 World Championships in Canada. The look on her face as she prepares to wrestle a Russian woman is startlingly intense. "You have to be intense against the Russians," she explains. "They're all pumped up."

So it's something of a shock when Curavoo mentions that her day job is working as the Weybridge Town Clerk. "People don't fight with me," she quips. "They just pay their taxes."

Curavoo and Sinks' trophies don't seem to interest the three men and one woman gathered to train; they're all focused on the two regulation-sized armwrestling tables -- 40 inches high and 38 inches wide -- sitting in the center of the basement's concrete floor. Curavoo's father made one -- an Addison County farmer, he brought her to her first armwrestling tournament years ago. Sinks made the other, using heavy black iron supports and a piece of wood that came from a bowling-alley floor.

Both tables feature black vinyl-covered elbow pads in the center of the long sides, and two additional pads where the entwined arms will fall, depending on who wins. The tops of these pads constitute an invisible plane -- contestants win when they force an opponent to break the plane.

There are also two short metal pegs on either side of the table, which contestants must grip with their free hand while wrestling. They also must have at least one foot on the ground at all times. This last rule can be a challenge: arm-wrestling is all about leverage, and competitors contort their bodies in some crazy ways to gain it.

An hour into the practice, Steve Lareau, 21, stands at the table to wrestle Sinks. Both men wear jeans and gray T-shirts. Lareau's has UVM stamped across the front -- he's a student. But that's pretty much where the similarities end. Lareau is a husky lad, but he's nowhere near as buff as the 40-year-old construction worker. Sinks wears his blond hair a little shaggy and resembles Sean Penn as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Except his forearms and biceps are much bigger. And he has enormous hands.

There's a lot of gasping and grunting when Sinks and Lareau face off. Most of it comes from Lareau, who writhes, twining one of his legs around a table leg in a desperate scramble to force Sinks' hand to the mat. Sinks doesn't move much, except when he stops the bout to reposition Lareau's elbow or give him pointers about hand and wrist positions.

A couple minutes into the struggle, one of Curavoo's daughters yells downstairs that Sinks has a phone call. "I'm armwrestling now," he answers politely. "Take a message, please."

Ultimately, Lareau is no match for the highly ranked former national champ -- Sinks took first in the nationals in 2000 and 2002. But the college student says that's not just because Sinks is bigger. "He's amazing at separating my arm from my body," says Lareau, noting that you're always stronger when your arm is close to your torso. "I was trying to use my shoulder to compensate," he adds, "but I can only hold on for so long."

Lareau has been armwrestling competitively for five years. "I beat a lot of people at cafeteria tables at lunch," the Milton native says with a shrug. "People told me I should go to tournaments." Sinks and Curavoo invited him to train after a tournament a little over a year ago.

Lareau reviews some arm-wrestling basics. For example, beginners might think the objective is simply to push the other person's hand straight down. But, says Lareau, that's not how it should work. Ideally, you're also pulling toward your body. "They tell newcomers that you should imagine you're holding a shot glass in your hand," he says. "If it's your right hand, imagine you're trying to put out a fire on your left shoulder."

Lareau also demonstrates hooking -- the act of turning your wrist while wrestling so that you're facing your palm -- and its opposite, called toprol-ling. Both strategies, if executed correctly, increase your leverage. Lareau says it's also important to kink your wrist forward slightly and never let your arm bend too far backward without moving with it. If you leave your arm exposed, bent away from your body, it could snap under a mere 10 pounds of pressure.

Meanwhile, at the other table, Curavoo wrestles and mentors Heather Pembrook, a 34-year-old scientist with the state's water-quality department. "Use your lats," Curavoo admonishes, referring to muscles in Pembrook's back. "Watch these knuckles." Both competitors' thumb knuckles must be visible in a tournament, or an umpire will call a foul.

After Curavoo forces her arm down a few times, they take a break. "It's funny," says Pem-brook. "Have you ever felt like you could watch your forearms get bigger?"

Curavoo nods. "Yeah," she says. "I love it."

Pembrook, who's been armwrestling for about a year, says it's the first competitive thing she's done since high school. She tends to be more the hiking and mountain-biking type, but something about armwrestling appeals to her. Partly it's the egalitarian flavor of the events. "Everybody's armwrestled. Everybody understands it," she says. At local competitions, "it's just regular people who might have a strong hand."

But the attraction is also primal. "It's just so, I don't know

... basic, so physical," she muses. "You're so in the moment. There's nothing else going on in your head when you're armwrestling."

That's certainly the case when she takes on Sinks toward the end of the session. Pembrook gasps for breath, pushing and leveraging with all her might, while Sinks stands immobile. He's not even using two of his fingers -- he's holding them straight up, outside of his grip.

"Are you fatiguing?" he asks her kindly.

"Yes," she hisses from between clenched teeth.

"Don't stop," he instructs her, "don't stop."

"Oh, God, help me," she grunts.

"Come on," Sinks urges, "I'm giving you my fingers, and you're not taking them. Take advantage of them."

The match doesn't so much end as stop; Sinks never forces her hand to the table. Winning obviously wasn't the point. Curavoo says it's good for these athletes to challenge themselves by pushing, and pulling, against someone stronger.

Despite the futility of her efforts against Sinks, Pembrook believes that skill can sometimes tip the grip, and Curavoo agrees. That will be especially true on Sunday, when the wrestlers will face more evenly matched opponents. "Armwrestling," she reminds her disciples, "is all about control. If you can control someone's hand, you can control the rest of him."

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About The Author

Cathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer

Bio:
Cathy Resmer is a former staff writer and currently an associate publisher at Seven Days, and is one of the organizers of the Vermont Tech Jam. She's also the Copublisher and Executive Editor of Kids VT, Seven Days' free monthly parenting publication.

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