Gripping action — SA’s top arm wrestlers prove it’s not only about brute strength

Gripping action — SA’s top arm wrestlers prove it’s not only about brute strength
Rosemary Botha, Alec Durand, Verwey Graham, Wilhelm Ruan Bronkhorst, Gary Katzen and Frederick James Kruger with Meri Prinsloo (14) of Team South Africa will compete in arm wrestling at the 13th African Games in Accra, Ghana. (Photo: Roger Sedres, Team South Africa)

Arm wrestling is much more than a bar pastime – it’s a serious sport and it’s being played at the African Games for the first time.

First, let’s dispel the myth and the stereotype. Gert, the burly regular who has his own stool at the counter of the local pub and who can change a flat tyre without needing a jack, might have won a few arm-wrestling contests in his time.

Give him a few doppe and he’s ready for all comers. He gets a double Klippies and Coke each time he does. Which is mostly always.

That’s where this story starts and ends.

“Just because you’re big and well built doesn’t mean you’re strong. You can be a ripped bodybuilder, but if you don’t have the technique you’re not going to win against a competitive arm wrestler. It’s a technical and mental sport,” says Gary Katzen, the coach of five members of Team SA at the African Games in Ghana and himself a national Masters champion.

Then there’s Rosemary Botha, who turns 52 in April. She is an athlete, coach and club owner. Katzen refers to her as the “godmother of female arm wrestling”. She heads Supernova Arm Wrestling, “a self-proclaimed club of champions” in Springs, and also works at a high school as an administrator.

Botha says: “A lot of people see it as a bar sport, a man’s sport, but it’s not. We’re athletes. We train hard, we are disciplined. There are so many different techniques and it’s not just about strength.”

This is where we introduce Meri Prinsloo, who has just turned 14 and is in Grade 9 at Hugenote Hoërskool and is considered one of the gold medal candidates in the over-80kg category at these Games.

She was drawn to arm wrestling just more than a year ago, when she and her friends used to lie on the grass during their lunch break at school and “go for it”. Her friend was a competitive arm wrestler. The rush Prins­loo felt left her on a high. And she was a natural.

I try to get the first grip, let my opponent feel the strength in my grip. That’s when you can psych out your opponent.

“When I told my mom that I wanted to take up arm wrestling, she wasn’t happy,” Prinsloo says. “She thought it’s not what girls do and men only do that in bars.” Still, she went along to Botha’s club to see what it was all about.

“Her primary school friend used to beat her every time. And when she arrived at my club, I also managed to,” says Botha, who’s competing in the 80kg division in Accra, where the sport made its African Games debut. “Now, she beats me every time.”

A stand-up sport

For those still wondering, and Gert, I have news for you. Arm wrestling is a sport played standing up. The competition table, which is 101cm high, has been modified over the years to minimise the chance of injury.

There’s a peg on either side that you hold on to with one hand and then you lock hands with your opponent. Your elbows rest on the pad and you start with a straight grip, knuckles facing the opponent. You stand square and your shoulders are square.

And then, when the referee says go, you go. Speed plays a big part in the contest. “Matches aren’t long,” says Katzen. “Meri is very strong and very quick – she can overpower you in three seconds. Sometimes she goes up to a minute or a bit longer, if her opponent can handle it. You have to be fit, you have to breathe.”

The teenager admits she gets a competition rush. “I try to get the first grip, let my opponent feel the strength in my grip. That’s when you can psych out your opponent. There’s a lot of mental things that go on.”

The contest then becomes pull, as opposed to push.

“That too is a myth,” says Botha. “You don’t push your opponent’s arm down, you try to pull it towards you, closer to your chest. That’s what we call the safe zone. Once you’re in that zone you’re getting on top. But everyone has a different safe zone. It all comes down to style.”

She is built more in the mould of a Bakkies Botha than a Siya Kolisi.

Prinsloo calls herself a “top roller”. In lay terms, the thumb becomes the point at which pressure is applied as you rotate into the opponent’s hand.

She admits there are schoolmates who are wary of her. “Maybe scared is the wrong word, but they know who I am. But I’m just a normal person. I eat ‘normal’ foods, although if there are eggs lying around they will go quickly, and it’s the same with bread.

“I enjoy the sport, but I don’t watch it on YouTube or anything like that.”

Something else that strikes you when you meet the rising teenager, apart from the firm handshake, is that she also disproves the stereotype.

She is built more in the mould of a Bakkies Botha than a Siya Kolisi; her biceps aren’t as chiselled from countless hours in the gym.

“She has natural strength,” says Katzen.

And the event requires her to compete both left- and right-armed. Don’t underestimate her. So, Gert, choose your weapon.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Touch, pause … diarise — catch all the best action on the 2024 sports calendar

She’s also competitive. “Meri was the first person in my club to do side-reps of 30kg,” says Botha. “That was more than the guys in the gym. What it did was inspire them to work harder. After all, how could they be ‘beaten’ by a girl!”

And Gert, if you and your mates at the local pub and grill are listening, please don’t challenge a “real” arm wrestler to a contest. Not even a 14-year-old girl like Meri Prinsloo. DM

Gary Lemke is in Accra as part of Team SA at the 2024 Africa Games.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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