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Rich Lupkes: A modern man of steel

Rich Lupkes entered his first arm-wrestling competition in the mid-1970s for "something to do on a Sunday afternoon." Nearly 40 years later he is bigger, stronger, and winning championships on a world scale.1 / 2
Arm-wrestling champion Rich Lupkes displays the medals he won at the U.S. Nationals in Eau Claire, Wis.2 / 2

WORTHINGTON -- Last weekend in Eau Claire, Wis., Rich Lupkes won another national arm-wrestling championship.

Let's see, how many is that now?

"Oh, boy," the champ wondered when asked the question. "I think I've got maybe five world titles. I can't even tell you how many nationals I've won."

His training partner, Erik Youngblom, answered the question for him.

"I think it's 19."

Lupkes entered his first local arm-wrestling competition in 1975. He weighed about 180 pounds at the time. Thirty-eight years later he has added considerably to his six-foot two-inch frame. The 56-year-old tips the scales at 325 pounds.

In Eau Claire, the middle-aged Lupkes won another U.S. national tournament, this time in the super heavyweight open class --a class where participants of all ages weighing 243 pounds or more vie for personal glory. The second-place winner was 6-10, 440 pounds.

Lupkes, of rural Rushmore, also won the grand masters 50-and-over heavyweight class --both right and left-handed.

When you're this successful, why retire?

"I have no idea (when I'll quit)," Lupkes explained this week while taking a break from his regular workouts at Prairie Rehabilitation Services in Worthington. "I was supposedly supposed to quit a long time ago."

He actually did take some time off from arm-wrestling from 1993 to 2006. Then, in 2008, he sustained a torn bicep during a national competition at Salt Lake City, Utah. The injury was major. His right bicep was literally ripped into two pieces. His surgeon told him he'd be lucky to get 40 percent of his arm strength back.

Today, the mountainous yet soft-spoken retired farmer says approximately 90 percent of his strength has returned.

For a man like Rich Lupkes, 90 percent is quite strong enough.

It all began rather innocently in the mid-70s when a 180-pound Lupkes noticed a poster at a gas station advertising a small contest at Valhalla Ballroom north of Slayton. He wasn't training at the time, but he decided to check it out.

"It was something to do on a Sunday afternoon. You know, you arm wrestle people for fun."

He won the tournament in his weight class, and went on from there. A state tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., then another state tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.

"In Sioux City, I took second, I think. So I thought I'd better lift some weights," he said.

Not one to enjoy being a runner-up, Lupkes developed both his muscles and his desire to win. The results are obvious.

To look at Lupkes today is to witness a modern Superman. It is rare enough to see such a well-defined 56-year-old man. But Lupkes' muscles are extraordinarily large and rippling. When he tells you he enjoys working out, you know it. He eats every two hours and he takes in between 10,000 to 12,000 calories every day, which he has been told is crucial to maintaining his Incredible Hulk-like bulk. He augments his meat-and-potatoes diet with supplements and protein shakes.

He credits Max Muscle of Sioux Falls for helping him with nutritional guidance.

It's hard to argue with Lupkes' recent arm-wrestling successes. Among his most cherished accomplishments occurred about five years ago when he won the Arnold's Classic in Columbus, Ohio -- an elite event that featured just one open class including the country's best competitors from all age groups. He became the only entrant over the age of 50 to ever win that tournament.

He won his last world championship in 2010, in Nevada.

When prodded to explain his remarkable success, Lupkes points to the gym.

"I spend a lot of time in a gym," he said. "Most of the guys nowadays practice arm-wrestling, which is not what I do."

The retired farmer, who now works part-time as a personal trainer, says he will probably need to find opponents to practice with in the future. The arm-wrestling world has become increasingly technical, and Lupkes sees the need to improve on his technique to keep up with an expanding list of rules, very strictly enforced.

Until now, he has relied on his strength to overpower opponents.

"If you both have the same technique, it's still power on power," Lupkes explained, pointing out that a skilled technician will still beat a stronger person more often than not.

Lupkes, of course, is the exception to the rule.

"He is probably the strongest arm with the worst technique," said Youngblom, "and he compensates by getting stronger. But this last tournament he really did have some technique working for him. So he actually looked pretty good."

Lupkes prefers to play down the fact that he regularly throws down the arms of much younger men. But he will admit that there's a certain satisfaction in scoring points for the old guys.

"As long as nobody gets hurt, it's fun," he said.

Youngblom, not bound by humility when speaking for his friend, adds, "He doesn't really want to play against people his own age. He wants to go against everybody. ... He still thinks he's 25."

Lupkes' Eau Claire success qualifies him for three classes of competition at the world championships in Poland during the first week of September.

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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