Lupkes claims national championship

RUSHMORE -- It seems like nothing can stop Rich Lupkes. Despite suffering numerous injuries and being one of the oldest competitors in the sport, Lupkes recently proved that he still is one of the top armwrestlers in the world. On June 29, in Lit...

Rich Lupkes
Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Rich Lupkes poses after taking a break from working out at MC Fitness. Lupkes recently won the Unified National Armwrestling Championship in Little Rock, Ark.

RUSHMORE -- It seems like nothing can stop Rich Lupkes.

Despite suffering numerous injuries and being one of the oldest competitors in the sport, Lupkes recently proved that he still is one of the top armwrestlers in the world.

On June 29, in Little Rock, Ark., the 52-year-old Rushmore farmer claimed the national title at the Unified National Armwrestling Championships.

"I got lucky, I guess," he said.

Lupkes is as modest as he is muscular. He is 6-foot-2 and 316 pounds, with 23-inch biceps and 20-inch forearms. At 52 years old, he became the oldest competitor to win the open class national title. He also placed first in the master and grandmaster classes, which are reserved for older competitors.


Winning is nothing new for Lupkes, who claimed world championships in 1988 and 1989, but his most recent accomplishments are made more impressive not only because of his age but because of the obstacles he overcame.

At the Unified National Championships in August of last year, Lupkes tore his bicep while competing in the title match.

"The doctor said it looked like a bomb had gone off in my arm; he said it looked like the end of a mop," Lupkes said. "I just tore everything up. He said he had never seen anything like it.

"The surgeon said I'd be lucky if I got 40 percent of my strength back in my arm."

Lupkes was forced to wear a cast, and he didn't start lifting weights again until January. A month later, he and his wife, Shirley, were injured in a car accident while driving back from Sioux Falls, S.D., on Interstate 90.

"All of a sudden, these lights were right in front of us," Shirley said. "A car had come across the median, lost control and came right in front of us. He sideswiped a van in front of us and turned sideways, and we T-boned him at 70 miles per hour."

Rich suffered a torn pectoral muscle. Shirley suffered multiple rib fractures, a fracture in her throat and dislocated vertebrae.

"But we had our seat belts on, which saved us," she said. "The EMTs and the state patrol said we'd be laying in the median if we weren't wearing our seat belts."


The seat belts also inflicted the most damage.

"The seat belt was right underneath my pec and I just hit the seat belt so hard that it actually tried to rip my pec off my ribcage," Rich said. "We were lucky we had our seat belts on in that car accident, or we wouldn't be here."

The injury forced Rich to miss the Arnold Classic, an annual multi-sport competition named after Arnold Schwarzenegger that is considered the largest sports festival in the world. Rich was the defending champion in the armwrestling event. A year earlier, he became the oldest competitor to win the open class in the super-heavyweight division.

Rich recovered from his injuries quickly. Two months later, in April, he won the world title in the super-heavyweight class at the Top Roll Clash of the Champions, earning a championship belt that he is scheduled to defend Saturday.

His victory in June at the Unified Nationals also qualified him to participate in the 2009 World Armwrestling Championships, which will be held in Italy. But Rich and Shirley likely won't make the trip.

"Worlds is in the middle of September, and that's when harvest is for us," Shirley said. "Everybody has been calling and e-mailing us like, 'Come on, you have to go to worlds!' But I don't think we're going to go."

Instead, Rich has his sights set on the 2010 world championships, which will be held in the United States. Returning to the sport's biggest and brightest stage has been his goal ever since suffering the injury to his arm.

"I told the surgeon that was my goal," Rich said. "He thought it might be possible, but he didn't know. He said nobody ever had (an injury) like that, with the severity of the muscle tear and stuff. He really couldn't give me an honest answer."


It wouldn't be wise to count out Rich.

After dominating the sport in the '80s, injuries forced Rich to retire in 1991, and he said he never thought about returning to the sport during the ensuing 15 years. But a back injury forced him to rehabilitate by lifting weights. Soon thereafter, Shirley made an online discovery that sparked Rich's interest.

"My wife just happened to find something about armwrestling on the internet, that they have masters classes," Rich said. "And that's about the only thing that could have drew my attention back to it, that maybe I could still compete against guys my own age."

He didn't just compete, he dominated -- even against guys half his age.

Rich's success after such an extended absence, along with his most recent success after recovering from serious injuries, has solidified his status as an armwrestling legend. The Northeast Armwrestling Message Board, which is one of the most popular armwrestling Web sites, features a thread devoted to Rich's success -- "Rich Lupkes is a LEGEND of our sport!!! - that has three pages of replies from fans and fellow competitors who confidently assert Rich's legendary status. Two YouTube videos featuring Rich's most impressive victories have been viewed a combined 16,748 times, and the armwrestling Hall of Famer gets recognized at nearly every event he enters.

"When you go to one of these tournaments, you have all of these people coming up to him, the young guys, saying, 'I've heard so much about you. I've read about you. I just had to shake your hand. It's so awesome to meet you. Will you take a picture with me?'" Shirley said, laughing. "The respect there is so awesome. And Rich is a very humble man, and he gets embarrassed. But he is so gracious.

"But then you get some of the younger ones: 'Ah, well, he's 52 and I'm 30-something; I'm in my prime.'"

Said Rich, referring to the attention he receives: "Sometimes it's a little embarrassing. I'm an old guy; I don't know what they're so worried about an old guy for."


Along with Rich's success and status, there is a target.

"Any time you get some guy -- I don't want to say he is a no-name, but he's a beginner -- and he beats you, that's a feather in his hat," Rich said. "Everybody has a bad day, so you're never at your peak at every tournament. You probably do have a target on your back.

"It seems like the older I get, it's a little easier to lose. When I was younger, you had to win no matter what. Now I'm just kind of back in the sport to have a good time. I like lifting weights and spending time in the gym, and armwrestling is just kind of a byproduct of that; I can go to the table and have a little fun with it. But it's not the most important thing in the world."

Rich works out every day at MC Fitness in Worthington, and Shirley said he consumes "8-10,000 calories in a day -- good carbs and lots of protein." He never has had a sponsor; instead, he has payed for every trip and every competition out of his own pocket. And he doesn't know how long he will continue to compete.

"I told Shirley it would be fun to win one more world title in the open class -- I don't think anybody has done it over 50 years old, so it's kind of something I'm thinking about maybe trying to do yet before I give it up," said Rich, who currently is ranked No. 7 in the world in the super-heavyweight division. "I don't know. We'll have to see how everything goes, see if my body holds together."

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