By Megan O'Neill
On a recent Thursday evening, Mirline V. Berrouet lugged mats, Velcro straps and tables into a fourth-floor studio in a New York City gym. With a high ponytail, pearl studs and a collection of silver necklaces, the petite 18-year-old Queens College freshman looked a bit different from the other arm wrestlers in the mirrored room, most notably because she's a she.
With only one year of competitive arm wrestling under her belt, Berrouet is the female Empire State Arm Wrestling champion in her weight class. And while she enjoys the sport and looks forward to the Thursday night training sessions and future competitions, she says there is one thing she would like to see change.
"It would be great to have more female arm wrestlers," Berrouet said. "Sometimes I show up at tournaments and there are only three other women to compete against."
There are more than 10,000 competitive arm wrestlers in the United States, according to Leonard Harkless, the president of the U.S. Arm Wrestling Association in Billings, Mont. While interest in the sport has grown with televised competitions on ESPN and Fox Sports and amid rumors that the sport may join the Olympic roster, women account for only about 10 percent of the competitors--a percentage that has held steady for the last two decades.
Mary McConnaughey is the president of Heartland Arm Wrestling Inc. in Omaha, Neb. Her organization holds weekly training sessions and hosts regional competitions. Her 1983 indoctrination into arm wrestling, like that of many women, was literally a joke: a co-worker secretly registered her to compete in a local tavern's contest while she was having a beer. Today, McConnaughey, 46, holds 26 national titles.
"They're all very supportive," Berrouet said of her male training buddies, "It's like they all have a tip. They know the tricks and secrets and they encourage me to come to the table."
For women, the competition is divided into two categories determined by weight. Generally, there is a 143-pounds-and-under class and a 144-plus class.
SACRIFICING TO COMPETE
Male and female arm wrestlers alike make a lot of sacrifices to compete. Yerby, a 53-year-old Seminole Indian, mother of two and an academic counselor at Seminole State College, sold tacos and handmade purses to subsidize her passion for arm wrestling in the beginning. Today, as a world champion, she is sponsored by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
"Since I started winning world championships, it's been easier to get sponsors," Yerby said. "But you can't make a living arm wrestling."
For that reason, some arm wrestling legends have had to step away from the table. Dot Jones of North Hollywood, Calif., recently retired from the sport. At 42, she had competed for more than 23 years, won 15 consecutive world championships and broke two other women's arms pulling.
On the other hand, there are a few female arm wrestlers like Karen Cooley of Chelsea, Mich., who have successfully muscled up their marketing and publicity campaigns. Cooley, 40, has come a long way from the raffles held at Dino's Dugout and Campfire Restaurant in Milan, Mich., to raise money for her when she started.
SOME WRESTLERS GET SPONSORS
Today she is sponsored by Champion Nutrition, attends trade shows, appears on programs like "The Maury Povich Show" and was a TV commentator for the Ultimate Arm Wrestling Challenge in Las Vegas.
Arm wrestling's accessibility and simplicity are its most attractive qualities, competitors say.