Weekend Warriors: Cathy Merrill, 51, Is One Of The Best Armwrestlers In The World
Cathy Merrill has been in the landscaping business for 15 years. She clears brush, tosses hay bales and carries slabs of granite. She wields a mean chainsaw against stubborn trees, shovels snow in the winter and sets bluestone driveways in the summer.
Merrill, 51, runs a small company with a partner in her native New Hampshire. It's mostly a two-person operation, so for the past decade and a half, she has been on the front lines, digging, hauling, lifting, chopping and planting. She describes the work as "dirty hands on."
So when Merrill and her business partner, Jim Duling, attended a small fair six years ago near her home in Newport, Duling encouraged her to sign up for the armwrestling contest. She'd never tried the sport, but Duling had faith in her strength.
"He just thought it would be really fun," she recalls. It was. She walked away with a victory and a granite trophy.
"I ended up beating the Vermont state champ at the time," Merrill says. "She wasn't very happy."
A year later, she won the same contest again. That's when she decided to get serious. She contacted Badger Drewes, a five-time world champion who founded the Granite Arms armwrestling team in Manchester, and began regular practice with teammates while being coached.
Four years later, Merrill has won 10 national championships, along with a title at the World Armwrestling Championship in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in October. Competing in the Masters Heavyweight division (185 pounds and over), Merrill took gold in the left-hand competition and silver in the right-hand.
In four years, she's 40-2. Her only losses were to 7-foot-2 Egyptian Gihan Moustafa in the right-handed world finals in Kuala Lumpur and to Graceann Case of Massachusetts, a multiple world champion. Merrill then used the matchup with Case to improve her game.
"It was a good loss for me in the respect that it showed me what I needed to work on," she says. When they met again, six months later at the New Hampshire state championships, Merrill came out on top.
In high school, Merrill played basketball and softball. But as she moved into her 20s, she had little time for sports while working and raising a daughter and twin boys. Instead, the outdoors was her gym. She did farm work and landscaping and drove trucks. Over the years, she built strength in her hands, forearms and shoulders. When an armwrestling opponent once asked her how she got so strong, she joked it was from "cow tipping." Even today, she doesn't do any sort of traditional strength exercises.
"She's strong," says her Granite Arms teammate, Nick Huckins. "Incredible. Her hands and fingers is what gets me, how strong she is. Her grip .... you would think you were gripping up with a guy when you grip up with Cathy."
Merrill puts in long practice sessions every Wednesday night at Granite Arms. She's most often paired against her male teammates in the 25- to 30-member club, because they better match up with her size and strength. She's six feet tall and weighs about 320 pounds.
"She holds her own," coach Drewes says. "She has no choice. She's not going to be pulling with my super heavyweights, but she'll get into the 160-, 170-, 180-pound guys." Merrill says she can beat about a third of the men on the team in practice.
"She's not easily put down," Huckins says. "Even if a guy can beat her, they have to work for it."
Merrill says armwrestling isn't all about strength, though. It's experience, technique and strategy. It's getting the right position and the right angle. Drewes estimates success comes from technique (60 percent) over strength (40 percent). The technique that best works for Merrill is the power drag, "Where I kind of drag my opponent toward me and then pin [her]," she says.
In June, Merrill won four gold medals at the U.S. Armwrestling Federation nationals in Las Vegas. That's when she started thinking about the World Championships. "I came home and said, 'Now what do I do,' and the community support ... they said, 'Cathy, you've got to go. We'll help you go. You have got to do this.'"
Friends, neighbors, relatives and acquaintances began a fundraising campaign. They also put on a big barbecue, with the proceeds going toward the trip. The event helped raise more than $5,000. "Before I knew it, I'm headed off to the worlds," Merrill says.
She took gold in her first event, the left-hand competition -- not her strongest side -- beating Tatiana Vasilyeva of Russia in the final. Merrill had beaten Egypt's Moustafa in the left-handed competition, but lost to her in the right-hand final. "She was 14 inches taller than me," she recalls. "I said, 'Holy cow.'"
And going home with two medals felt like a nice response to a little "pep talk" that had been given to first-timers by a veteran Team USA armwrestler. "He said, 'Look, don't get disappointed. You're not going to medal this first time,' " she recalls. " 'You guys are rookies. You've never done this. At this level, the best of the best are here.' And I got to thinking, 'Well, we're not chopped liver. We made it, too.'"
When she returned home, her hometown put her on a float in the Newport High homecoming parade. She spent the day waving, getting her picture taken and throwing candy to the kids. At the Granite Arms club, Drewes had a banner made with images of her medals and the words, "Home of World Champion Cathy Merrill," and "BFE 603" -- a nod to her nickname, Beast from the East, and her area code.
It has been quite a ride, and Merrill has no thoughts of slowing down. Drewes believes she'll become even better. "She's a hell of a student with a large amount of determination," he says.