Photo by Chris Smith
A sense of foreboding accompanied Lea Marshall's growing fascination with the raw athleticism of Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers, an organization founded by a number of community-minded and strong-armed women friends from the Charlottesville area. It seemed inevitable that Marshall, a writer and dancer who currently serves as the interim chair of VCU's dance department, would lend her energy and organizing talents to bringing this dubious feat of athletic exhibitionism to Richmond.
Indeed, CLAW's hook was too good to resist: A send-up of the cartoonish soap-opera world of professional wrestling, it gives the cliché new heart by celebrating women and women-focused charities.
"It's a particular kind of empowerment … when you get into your late 30s or early 40s," says Marshall. The competitive sport of women's arm wrestling, she says, can offer a special allure for post-20-something moms who've made the transition from awkward youth to enlightened womanhood. "You have a kid, and you say, ‘You know what? I am actually a badass.' "
Richmond's version of CLAW, the appropriately acronymed RAWFL (Richmond Arm Wrestling For Women), held its first match on Dec. 1, at Balliceaux, raising more than $1,200 for Safe Harbor, a nonprofit serving survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
While it was Marshall's brainchild, RAWFL was finally consummated thanks to a partnership of local women, all of them drawing on backgrounds in the arts. Her co-founders include Emily Smith, head of 1708 Gallery on Broad Street, and Heide Trepanier, a noted visual artist. All are parents of small children and are juggling motherhood with careers. All have hit that zen of female empowerment that comes with age but brings with it wisdom and beauty. Only one — Trepanier — has thus far donned the mask of the arm-wrestling luchadora.
RAWFL events also have a measure of tongue in cheek on full display; contestants adopt fanciful aliases and personas — Camila Toe in Trepanier's case, Patty Cakes, the Swiss MissFit, The Southern Barbell, Bruisin' B. Anthony and Amazonia. It's probably no coincidence that RAWFL echoes the Internet and text-message shorthand for Rolling On Floor Laughing.
Marshall refers to one of the co-founders of the Charlottesville league — which has spawned a national constellation of lady arm wrestling chapters that now operate under the umbrella of CLAW USA — in explaining RAWFL's mission: "She will say that it's one-third sport, one-third theater and one-third philanthropy.
But always, when the dust clears, when the championship belt is awarded and the Bengay is applied to sore forearms, it's the philanthropy that remains the real prize, says Marshall: "As a first run, I'd say [$1,200] is pretty good."