'Blond Bear' ready for World Championships

2014-08-08T23:15:00Z 2014-10-19T15:39:03Z 'Blond Bear' ready for World ChampionshipsBy JOHN LETASKY jletasky@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

SHEPHERD -- Jim Wright is a study in contrasts.

On one hand, he enjoys writing poetry, studied art in college and has pet birds and a garden at his 2 1/2-acre spread in Shepherd. He has been known to grow pumpkins weighing more than 200 pounds. 

And there is the 5-foot-7, 165-pound Wright who more who lives up to his nickname of "Blond Bear" when using each of his larger-than-life hands on the arm-wrestling table.

Those hands have earned him a spot at the 36th World Armwrestling Championships next month in Lithuania. They have undoubtedly been strengthened by his lifestyle, which includes cutting his own wood to heat his home. 

Country living is perfect for Wright, a 1967 Billings Senior graduate who captured a Montana state wrestling championship at 138 pounds as a senior.

Wright, who will retire as a custodian at Billings West after 10 years in December, said he enjoys the daily commute to Billings. It gives him time to think and listen to Christian radio. And when he's home, Wright enjoys gardening. He has corn, peppers -- for making salsa -- sunflowers and pumpkins. Wright also has plenty of trees planted, but said sometimes the soil is challenging.

"I spend a lot of time in my yard taking care of trees," he said. "I have a little vineyard of apple and cherry trees, grapevines and chokecherries. It's always been a passion of mine to take care of trees."

Gardening and taking care of his assorted pet birds -- consisting of ducks, peacocks, chicken and guineas -- are just two of his passions. Wright, who turns 65 on Sept. 6, is chasing and conquering his other dreams as well.

Since 1975, when he started arm wrestling, Wright has won five national championships and competed at the World Championships 10 times, all in the United States or Canada.

In June in Reno, Nev., Wright made reservations for the World Armwrestling Federation Championships in Lithuania Sept. 14-21. He qualified by placing first in the left-handed Grand Masters (age 50-plus) at 165 pounds at the United States Armwrestling Federation National Championships, and by finishing first in the right and left-handed Ultra Grand Masters (60-plus) at 165.

"It's really an opportunity you won't get again in your lifetime," he said shortly after giving a demonstration of his daily workout routine. "It's a chance for me to spread my wings and let it go hang out. This could be my last hurrah. It's getting harder and harder to stay in shape and get past the injuries and get mentally prepared.

"You have to peak at the right moment. You are up at the table and all the months and preparation is there. You have to be ready on the go. The go is everything. There are cameras and people are screaming and you have to focus on the guy in front of you. You have to have blinders on. You have to stay focused and you have to be prepared once you step up to that table. The referee can say go anytime."

Scattered in front of a garage and inside the structure are several dumbbells, a railroad bar converted into a weight, a couple sledgehammers and two homemade exercise machines. One is a pulley machine that helps develop forearm strength. The other is a spring-loaded machine that develops inside power and strength in the hand and fingers. Another piece is Iron Mike's Bar, which weighs 77 pounds. It belonged to the late Michael "Montana Star" O'Brien, who started Wright in arm wrestling.

The weights and machines are just the start of Wright's workout.  He also roll an old tractor tire end over end. When finished, he'll grab a 12-pound sledgehammer and start pounding the tire.

"I'm in the prime of my life," he said. "I'm 66 years old and I'm just getting going."

A trademark of Wright's when competing is his worn white cowboy boots with brown tips. "Blond Bear" is penciled on the back of both heels. Wright has worn the boots, which were custom made, to every tournament since 1975. The soles are about an inch deeper than normal for cowboy boots, giving him leverage.

He's also sported his cowboy hat at every tournament since 1978. When he purchased the hat, Wright reshaped it. It has a rattlesnake hatband and feathers from an old rooster Wright once owned.

"The reason I had the boots made was I needed the elevation. They help you get elevated on the table. You need leverage," Wright said. "I wear the hat, too. I like to dress western."

Win or lose in Lithuania, Wright isn't sure when he will retire from the sport he loves.

"I'm getting my second wind," he said. "I took one-and-a-half years off and started back and am pulling better than ever. I was blessed by the Lord with good genes and youth to my body and the ability."

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