St. Joseph girl, 12, dominates at state arm wrestling match

Grace Houston
In this Tuesday, July 7, 2015 photo, Grace Houston shows one of the many workout methods she and her father John have discovered that exercise certain hand, wrist, and thumb muscles for arm wrestling in their garage in at their home in St. Joseph, Minn.
Briana Sanchez | St. Cloud Times via AP

Boys tend to make excuses when they lose to Grace Houston.

The 12-year-old from St. Joseph chuckles when recalling some of the things she's heard at school after being challenged to an arm wrestling match.

"They always underestimate girls," she said. "One of them said he had wrestled a week ago, so he was sore now."

No excuses are necessary.

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Grace defeated all comers, of all genders, in the kids' division at the Minnesota State Armwrestling Championship last month in Henderson, southwest of the Twin Cities, the St. Cloud Times reported. She took first place in both the right- and left-hand competitions in the kids' division, and even competed in the women's professional division.

Josh Handeland, who organizes the tournament, was impressed.

"I knew she was strong, but she just smoked everybody," he said.

Grace's dad, John Houston, was not surprised. He is a national champion arm wrestler and was recently the sixth-ranked left-handed wrestler in Minnesota.

Houston, a philosophy professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, started arm wrestling in 2012. A friend encouraged him to try the sport after Houston was done competing in powerlifting contests as a graduate student at Purdue.

Houston built several training tables and pieces of equipment in his garage as he grew more invested in the sport. In 2013, Grace wandered into the garage and asked to join in on the fun.

"He was getting really strong," she said. "And I wanted to be like him."

"It took off from there," Houston said. "I told her, 'You're strong. You could do this.'"

Grace Houston
In this photo taken on Tuesday, July 7, 2015, Grace Houston faces off with her dad John in an arm wrestling match in their garage that doubles as a training center at their home in St. Joseph, Minn.
Briana Sanchez | St. Cloud Times via AP

Competitive arm wrestling is still a fringe sport, but Handeland said it has grown since he started in 2008. Handeland said the sport has been broadcast on ESPN recently. And he said nobody was organizing tournaments in Minnesota seven years ago, but the tournaments he hosts now draw more than 150 competitors.

One of the most surprising and most successful at the state tournament was Grace, who said she doesn't compete in any other sports.

"All weekend long, the competitors and a number of the parents were surprised at how quickly she rolled through the boys," John Houston said. "People noticed."

"It's fun for her to do something kind of out of the ordinary," said Stacy Houston, Grace's mom. "And it's fun to see people's reactions when she proves how strong she is."

It's not all pure strength, though. Handeland said especially in less-experienced groups, technique can make a huge difference. In addition to using resistance bands and other weights to train her arm strength, Grace has spent a lot of time learning technique from a pretty good teacher.

"My dad taught me all the techniques," she said. "It depends what (the opponent's) techniques are. I try to get my hand in the dominant position. Then I like doing the top roll, where you peel their hand open.

"The first thing he taught me was to be safe, because your arm can break."

"I think she could be a national champion someday," John Houston said. "Her form is really good. I'm proud, I'm happy. She can go a long way if she keeps her enthusiasm for it."

Enthusiasm is not a problem for now. Grace said she wants to keep arm wrestling "for as long as I live."

"It makes me feel really energized," she says. Then she grins.

"And it's really fun to win."

This is an AP Member Exchange by Sam Louwagie of the St. Cloud Times.