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When boys hold hands with Grace Houston, they often walk away with awe, respect and sometimes a few tears.
The 12-year-old girl from St. Joseph, Minnesota, is emerging as a petite arm wrestling star with a little help from her father, a champ in the sport himself.
Last month, Grace won the kids’ division of the Minnesota State Armwrestling Championships, taking home trophies for both the right- and left-handed competitions in her weight class.
At her age, girls compete with boys in tournaments, so plenty of young gentlemen gripped her hand with all their might and quickly lost. Talk about girl power.
Grace’s dad beamed with pride.
“Grace is fearless. She never suffers from nerves. She just goes to the table and pulls with great focus and intensity, no matter who is across from her,” John Houston told TODAY Parents.
“It’s kind of fun to see their faces when I defeat them,” Grace told NBC affiliate KARE 11 with a laugh.
The 95-pound blond girl who loves to sing, read, cook and babysit isn’t what you might picture when you think of an arm wrestler, but she’s had plenty of chances to watch her dad in action.
With Popeye-like biceps and a bodybuilder’s physique, John Houston has been arm wrestling most of his life, though he didn’t start competing until 2012. He’s taken part in 22 tournaments, winning national amateur titles and at one point ranking No. 9 in the United States in the professional left hand super heavyweight division. He was No. 4 in the Midwest.
Grace began showing interest in the sport at 9, putting her arm up on the table to test out her strength with John.
“I was thrilled to teach her and it became obvious pretty quickly that she had not only unusual strength, but very good form,” he recalled.
“I wasn't surprised that she was good at it. Even though she's always been petite, she has always been unusually strong in comparison to others her age, boys and girls.”
Houston, who works as an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, said strength runs in the family. Grace’s uncle lifts cars and trucks for fun, while Grace’s aunt is one of the strongest and most athletic women Houston has ever met, he noted.
Houston knows arm wrestling can be a dangerous sport, with arm breaks happening fairly frequently. So when his daughter wanted to compete, Houston focused on form to show her how to avoid arm break positions and stay safe at all times.
“As a father, I get far more nervous about her safety than she does. But I refuse to be ruled by fear. As parents we cannot Nerf the world for our children and it's silly to try,” he said.
For training, Houston has lots of “odd pieces of homemade equipment” available, plus weights, grippers, bands, and two arm wrestling tables. He doesn’t want to push Grace too hard or take the fun out of the hobby, so he avoids putting the girl on a strict training regimen.
At first, neither Grace nor her dad knew she’d be competing with boys at tournaments, but the news didn’t faze them.
“It doesn’t really matter what gender, as long as you have the strength for it,” Grace told NBC affiliate KARE 11.
Video from the tournament last month showed the girl calmly eyeing her opponents before quickly overpowering them. Some boys cry when Grace defeats them, but they usually just take it in stride, Houston said.
“I also try not to cheer too loudly when she wins because I don't want to cause more humiliation to her opponents than they already are experiencing,” he added.
“When she beats the boys in her class at school, they often have ready excuses on hand — ‘I wasn't ready,’ etc. She always gracefully receives such excuses with a sideways smile.”
Grace is so good, in fact, that she competed with adult women last month and came close to winning in those divisions as well. Her dad hopes she continues to have fun with the sport and becomes a national champion one day — if she wishes.
“She knows what she can do — it’s only her opponents who have a hard time facing the facts,” Houston said.