'A different kind of strength': First Nations arm wrestler teaches respect, healthy living

A Mi'kmaw arm wrestling champion from Eskasoni First Nation in Mi'kma'ki (Nova Scotia) says he hopes competitive arm wrestling training can help First Nations people, young and old, find success in unexpected ways.

Mi'kmaw arm wrestling champion says accessible, affordable sport often misunderstood

Mi'kmaw Arm Wrestling Champion Trevor Sanipass says, with the right guidance, competitive arm wrestling can change a person's life. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

​Mi'kmaw arm wrestling champion Trevor Sanipass says he hopes competitive arm wrestling training can help First Nations people find success in unexpected ways. 

Sanipass, from Eskasoni First Nation in Mi'kma'ki (Nova Scotia), was ranked eighth in the world in his division of the World Arm Wrestling Championship in Budapest in 2017. He has been taking his arm wrestling table on the road for the past five years, sharing techniques and guidance with Mi'kmaq communities.

"I encourage them to live a healthy lifestyle, and to make proper life choices," said Sanipass. 

The 42-year-old probation officer worked with individuals in correctional facilities for a decade, and said helping people find a way to focus their energy into self-improvement translates well into training new "pullers" (arm wrestlers). 

Trevor Sanipass has been travelling to First Nations communities around Mi'kma'ki (Nova Scotia) to encourage people to lead healthier lifestyles. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

"I tried to help my 'brothers and sisters' from the inside," he said. "It's about making [a] change. If I can help them just a little bit, that's really important. I'm passionate about this."

Sanipass said that while competitive arm wrestling has been around for a long time, he's seen a renewed interest since competition footage and information has been circulating more on social media feeds. He said misconceptions about arm wrestlers being burly, mostly Caucasian men challenging each other in bars are changing.

Like any competitive sport, Sanipass said, arm wrestling requires a lot of training and practice, but it's more accessible than team sports like hockey because it doesn't require much money. A special arm wrestling table costs $500-800.

Learning the techniques of arm wrestling is straightforward, Sanipass said, and winning an arm wrestle isn't completely dependent on brute strength.

Throughout the month of July, Sanipass is holding weekly arm wrestling training sessions at Sipekne'katik First Nation's recreation facility.

He's held similar sessions at 10 of 13 Mi'kmaq communities in Mi'kma'ki (Nova Scotia) and has received requests from communities in New Brunswick for sessions later this summer. The turnout for the training has been positive, which is encouraging, Sanipass said.

Eleanor "El" Michael of Sipekne'katik First Nation has been attending the training sessions for the first time. Having little athletic or strength training, Michael said arm wrestling has offered her a new passion to pursue.

Now in her 2nd week of arm wrestling training, El Michael says she was surprised she took to the sport so quickly. SIPEKNE'KATIK FIRST NATION July 2018 (Nic Meloney/CBC)

"[One] of the misconceptions about arm wrestling is that you have to be a big burly guy," Michael said. 

"I have a mental illness and … I have to try to go past what my anxiety won't let me do. I figured arm wrestling in the safe zone of my home community with my friends, peers, cousins — it could offer me a new avenue to explore." 

Michael said the youth in her community have what she calls "square eyes" — addictions to their phones, tablets or computers. She said she hopes they can find the same physical and mental strength she's found after just a few weeks of training. 

Trevor Sanipass at the Sipekne'katik First Nation Community Centre gym. SIPEKNE'KATIK FIRST NATION July 2018 (Nic Meloney/CBC)

"I don't see myself as a strong person, but then I tried out and they said 'Wow, El, you got some muscle behind you,'" Michael said.

"For me, it's a personal thing. Seeing my own limits … my inner strength and my outer strength might be at two different levels, but finding that balance is what arm wrestling is helping me do."

Michael said she'd been surprised by seeing average people win gold medals for arm wrestling at the Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Summer Games in years past. Arm wrestling is one of the most popular and well-attended sports at the annual event. 

Trevor Sanipass recently announced plans to host the first North American Indigenous Invitational Arm Wrestling Championships during the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) in Halifax in 2020. 

He said the event is being promoted by NAIG, and that in 2024, arm wrestling will be introduced to the games as a potential official event.