NEW YORK -- Last summer, I read a story in the Wall Street Journal about Joyce Boone, a 44-year-old home health aid who also happened to be one of the most dominant arm wrestlers in the state. I knew I wanted to know more and I knew I wanted to explore the world of arm wrestling.
When I joined SB Nation in November, in one of the first meetings we had as a team, I mentioned the story. Immediately, everyone in the room responded emphatically, and within two weeks, we were shooting our first video feature for our SB Nation-YouTube project. I spent some time with Gene Camp, who in 1977 formed the NY State Arm Wrestling Association. He was home one day watching ABC's Wide World of Sports and saw a feature on the wrist wrestling championships in Petaluma, Calif.
"That's when I decided to bring arm wrestling to New York," Gene told me.
And so he started the organization, made himself champion with zero credentials, and got local newspapers -- including The New York Post -- to cover some of the early bouts. These days, Camp lives in Queens with his elderly mother; he's a retired sanitation worker for the city and most of his time is spent living and breathing arm wrestling. Simply, he has made it his life. And he spends thousands of dollars of his own money each year to help fund these tournaments -- particularly when there are no sponsors. Gene invited me into the world of arm wrestling, comprised mostly of everyday people -- many of them European immigrants -- who just love to compete. They are characters, from countries as far away as Georgia to local boroughs like Camp's home in Bayside, Queens.
Boone is yet another one of those unique stories. Born and raised in Brooklyn -- a borough she never left -- she lives in public housing and works three days a week helping elderly people who need home care. Her boyfriend, Harry Wilson, got her into the sport in 1997, and shortly thereafter she broke her arm while wrestling on live TV. It was a brutal, gruesome injury. No one ever thought she'd come back, yet she did. Arm wrestling gives her confidence, makes her feel better about herself, and, of course, it keeps her close to Wilson.
And although Boone is soft-spoken, humble and not one to boast, she also doesn't hide her feelings when it comes to her role in the male-dominated sport.
"I feel that women can do anything they want to," she said. "I believe there are strong women out there, but they just don't know it yet -- until they try the sport."
Bobby Buttafuoco, a longtime arm wrestler and also a referee -- and yes, brother of Joey -- says Boone often competes against the men in practice and what separates her from most is her technique, her attention to detail and her skill. Many nights, Boone will take a bus to Queens where in a basement, she'll spend hours practicing with a community of people who love to compete. Boone takes pride, albeit quietly, in her accomplishments, which culminated this past November at the Empire State Golden Arm Tournament -- the crown jewel event of the sport -- at New York City's Port Authority bus terminal, when she became the first women to be named the arm wrestler of the year.
Boone appreciated the significance of the achievement.
"We can be as tough as the men," she said. "We can be as tough as they are. We might be the other sex, but not exactly the weaker sex."
I saw that firsthand back in November, though I can't say much for myself in my efforts in the tournament. Here is the story of Gene, Joyce and the arm wrestlers.