The best seat in the house

Sheldon Short (left) of the Lloydminster Arm Benders competes against Clayton Turcotte (right) of the Bridge City Pullers during the Prince Albert Winter Festival Armwrestling Competition at the Alfred Jenkins Fieldhouse. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

For the last thirty seconds, Tyrrell Wojcichowsky has stared at two hands clenched together over a small table on a raised platform.

The two well-built men on either side each have one gigantic arm thrust into the centre, while Wojcichowsky works hard to make sure they both stay on equal grounds. It’s not going quickly, as one man won’t move his massive shoulder and arm into the correct position, forcing Wojcichowsky to tell him over and over to move back.

Once he’s satisfied that everyone’s in their proper place, the match starts. It’s a quick win—over in mere seconds. The pre-match setup has taken longer than the bout itself. Such is the life of a Canadian Armwrestling Federation sanctioned official.

“Officiating any sport, I think, is a little bit of a thankless job,” Wojcichowsky says afterwards with a chuckle. “You can’t make everyone happy, but you grow thick skin in no time.”

Wojcichowsky has seen it from both sides of the table. He started armwrestling as a competitor more than 15 years ago, and has since taken part in competitions across the country. As he gained experienced, his mom suggested he take up officiating too, an idea he was not enthusiastic about.

“I said, we’ll no, I don’t want to. I still want to compete. That’s for guys who can’t compete anymore, right?’” he says with another chuckle. “She told me, ‘well, have you had fun in armwrestling?’ I said, ‘sure, I’ve travelled lots of places, met a lot of great people,’ and she says, ‘well it took a bunch of volunteers to make that happen for you, so it’s time to give back.’”

Wojcichowsky still competes today, although in injury to his right shoulder has slowed him down recently. However, he did decide to follow his mother’s advice and start giving back, although the process took a little longer than expected. It took time to become comfortable and confident up at the table, where referees can and occasionally do award victories and losses based solely on infractions. All it takes is two fouls, and a match is lost.

“The quieter, the better,” he says about his own style. “If I don’t have to decide the matches, that’s better. I like it when there’s a pin. I don’t like fouling people out, but that’s up to the armwrestlers, not me, really.”

Even though Wojcichowsky doesn’t like fouling people out, he’s not afraid to do his job, even if that means making the biggest, strongest guys in the room a little mad. Thankfully, that rarely happens at most tournaments. Instead, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

“I have the best seat in the house,” he says. “I’m the closest guy to the match, right. I get to watch it more than anybody else.”

Although all the entrants in Saturday’s Prince Albert Winter Festival Armwrestling Tournament are intense competitors, they’re also friends. There are no outbursts or complaints. Just a bit of friendly banter, mostly from the older competitors who poke fun at the younger ones for needing a break.

That changes at the national and international level, where competitors unapologetically look for every edge they can get.

“At the world level there’s a lot of cheating. It’s guys trying to get every little grip. It’s worlds, you know what I mean?” level three CAWF official Kayne Hemsing says. “It’s worse there than here. Here everybody knows each other. There, nobody knows each other, so when you come to the table and you’re armwrestling a guy from Russia, they’re going to be trying to take every little inch from you.”

Tyrrell Wojcichowsky (left) and Kayne Hemsing (right) keep a close eye on an armwrestling match during the 2019 Prince Albert Winter Festival. — Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

As a level three official, Kayne Hemsing is qualified to work as the top official at national competitions, but internationally he serves as the downside ref, or spotter, the junior of the two officials.

In Prince Albert, a large part of an official’s job is to make sure the competitors aren’t going to unintentionally hurt themselves, or their opponents. At the international level, it’s a whole different type of intensity.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” says Hemsing, who officiated two World Armwrestling Championships, the most recent being the 2008 tournament held in Kelowna. “There are a lot of refs there. There are a lot of countries there. A lot of them don’t speak English. You just call what you see, be as honest as you can, and people are going to like it or not. At the end of the day, you’re there to ref and keep it fair, so you take it serious.”

Even though Hemsing is in Prince Albert as a competitor, he steps in to ref when Wojcichowsky needs a break. He keeps the amateur competition moving along at a brisk pace, stopping and restarting the occasional bout for a few different infractions, the most common one occurring when a competitor’s elbow comes off the mat.

Like Wojcichowsky, Hemsing stresses the importance of being comfortable at the table. Whether it’s with two big guys from Eastern Europe, or a couple of newcomers trying their hand at the winter festival, confidence is key.

“Get it going and keep your eyes peeled,” he says. “It happens really fast. Everything moves really quick.”