This Woman's Mission? To Get Other Women to Arm Wrestle

Mar 4, 2016

This weekend, arm wrestlers from around the country will compete in the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio. Both men and women will be competing, but for women, competitive arm wrestling is relatively new, and not without its challenges. New Hampshire’s Debbie Banaian will be competing in Ohio tomorrow, and she’s made it her mission to grow the women’s arm wrestling community in the Granite State. NHPR’s Peter Biello reports on Banaian’s efforts to recruit more women to the sport.

Debbie Banaian is fighting hard.  The Manchester resident, braced against the pink-topped wrestling table, is losing, but fighting back.  Her opponent, UNH student Nate Knauff, falters.  That’s when Banaian rallies and beats him to the crowd’s delight.

The 51-year-old shakes her arm and seems ready to go again.  She’s at UNH Manchester to demonstrate the sport as part of a partnership with the local YMCA.  She calls out a challenge to students huddled on sofas in the student commons near the café. They look up from their books with a blend of confusion and wonder.

"I never hurt anyone, I promise," Banaian says. "We’ll just teach you some things so you can beat everyone else."

But Banaian looks like she could hurt someone. She’s slender and wears a black sleeveless dress showing off her muscular arms.

"You guys, I’m telling you, it’s so much fun!" she calls to the students. 

Students do come forward, including some women. UNH student Bonnie Smith volunteers as a test subject. Banaian lunges and pins Smith’s arm to the table as she shows the small crowd of students proper form.

Debbie Banaian (right) gives tips to UNH staff member Katie Kelly-Patterson.

  Banaian loves a good competition, and she especially loves winning. She was angling for a spot on the television reality show Survivor when she first started arm wrestling. She had been lifting weights, which she still does, and she wanted another activity to help build strength. Arm wrestling seemed like the perfect fit. So she entered a competition and placed second. But she says finding women to compete with in those early days was a challenge.

"I’ve been involved for four years and I would go to meets and there’d be one other girl there," she says. "Sometimes none. I’d drive hours and hours to get there. And I’d have to beg someone in the audience to come arm wrestle me so I would have someone to arm wrestle."

But she doesn’t need to beg anymore. She says more women are taking a shine to the sport. She can tell because membership of her Facebook group, Female Arm Wrestlers United, is on the rise.

But she still bumps up against opposition to the idea of women participating at all—especially from male veterans of the sport.

Banaian wrestles with UNH student Markice Seignious.

  "A lot of name calling," she says. "Like I’m being selfish or how dare I? You’re being allowed to go. And that’s been it. It’s like, ‘You’re lucky we’re even letting women go at all.’"

And while women are now welcome to compete, their cash prizes are often smaller. In one of the most popular leagues, the World Arm Wrestling League, entry fees are the same, but cash prizes for women are much smaller.

Steve Kaplan is president of the league. He blames a lack of interest and on the fact that men are on TV more often.

“There’s five episodes of men on ESPN and one of women," he says. "So it doesn’t equate.”

Still, Kaplan says the league expects to offer equal cash prizes for men and women next year.

Prize money aside, interest in the sport here at UNH this afternoon seems widespread. Nate Knauff—the student who lost his wrestling match—says he did better than he thought he would.

"I mean, when someone has biceps the size of your head, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman," he says. "I thought she was going to put me right on the ground."

And Bonnie Smith, the UNH senior who got a primer on the sport, says it’s good for people to realize women can be as strong as men.

"I think it’s really nice to have women here, kind of up-showing the males a little bit," she says. 

Smith says once classes end this summer, she’ll look into this whole arm wrestling thing—which is exactly the result Debbie Banaian was hoping for.