Competitive armwrestling is extremely popular in countries like Europe but has not seen as much traffic in the United States. Yet, there is a growing community of armwrestlers in the US, including the Buetts family from Pocatello who recently competed in the International Federation of Armwrestling World Championships in Orlando, Florida.
40-year-old father Kevin Buetts has been armwrestling for around 20 years. He earned silver medals for the left and right arm, wrestling on the world championship stage. His children Madison, 18, and Austin, 16, both earned gold medals for left and right arm in their divisions at the international competition. In an interview with BYU-Idaho Radio, Kevin described the origins of his passion for competitive armwrestling, a passion he later passed to his children.
“I had just completed and LDS mission when I was walking through the Idaho State fair (and again no one had ever beaten me), and they had an armwrestling tournament,” Kevin recalled. “I didn’t know that was a thing. I just thought it was something I enjoyed doing with my friends and folks who wanted to try it, so I thought for sure I’d win this event.”
Beginning at age 14, Kevin’s dad would encourage him to armwrestle grown men who were surprised at the strength of this young teen. He credits some of his early victory to strength gained from laboring as a fence contractor. After entering the competition at the fair, Kevin advanced to the top three in the novice division. However, his win streak ended when a 15-year-old kid defeated him.
“They destroyed me,” Kevin said. “My ego was a little bruised, but I was intrigued. I felt like I was stronger than these guys when I grabbed onto them, but I felt like I was missing something. So, the gentlemen that actually wound up winning the event in the pro division, his name is Bod Wardrip, taught me how to armwrestle and subsequently I actually had the opportunity to teach and assist in his baptism.”
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kevin and his children look for opportunities to share their faith with people like Bob who they encounter at competiotns. Armwrestling has introduced them to people from all over the world, including competitors from Taiwan, Bulgaria, Bolivia and Costa Rica. This is especially significant for Madison who gets the opportunity to meet other women who compete in this predominantly male sport.
“It is very unique,” Madison said. “You don’t come across a whole lot of female armwrestlers. It is definitely growing...The girls that I’ve come across, we’ve made friendships and stuff. You don’t get to meet people who arm wrestle very often, so it’s kind of cool to meet ladies that like to do what I like to do.”
Madison and Austin both exprienced the satisfaction of winning a world title while still in their teenaged years. This is no small feet. Austin shared how he felt when his name was called as the champion armwrestler for this international competition.
“It almost feels a little unreal at first,” Austin said. “You don’t really feel it until you walk off that stage and everyone’s kind of looking at you like, ‘Oh my Gosh, that dude just won first!’ I thought it was cool, especially when I got bumped up the age group,…I was also going 18–21 because they didn’t have anybody in my age group for right-handed, so to be able to say I won not only in my age group left-handed but in one above it was totally unreal, and to see Madison also taking home a gold and my dad also taking home medals was super, super, super cool.”
After winning gold in their age divisions, both Madison and Austin have goals to win awards in upper level armwrestling divisions like pro division. They will continue to train with their dad at home and at the gym to hopefully maintain their titles and progress. Kevin believes his approach as a coach goes against the grain.
“I’m a weird coach,” Kevin said. “A lot of guys say that winning is everything. I disagree with that. I think how you arrive is everything. I could truly care less if they take first, second, third, or last. I care how they show up. I care how they get there.”
Kevin’s long-term goal has been to win gold. Despite, having experienced extreme challenges as a result of back injuries, he has continued to train and lead his children on the armwrestling path to success. Participating alongside his children in the sport he loves gives him great joy and gratitude.
“The neatest thing for me was watching my kids,” Kevin said. “When they got up there, they were so excited. That was my gold metal, watching those same kids that I was terrified how I was going to feed them, stand up there, represent not only their country but their God, and they did it with class. That’s what mattered to me as a father.”
Madison and Austin recognize the years of work their dad has put into this sport and marvel that he can be so supportive and loving at their success even when his aspiration remains unmet. Madison expressed how she feels when her father gets emotional while describing their achievements.
“He’s been doing this for 20 years, and so when he says that he would much rather watch us win and watch us up there, my dad’s my hero. I’ve always looked up to him. He’s my best friend and so he’s very selfless. That’s what I’ve always loved about him. Whenever he says things like that, it just makes me feel loved and that he cares about me,” Madison said.