SUNAPEE, N.H. — It began at a little country fair nine years ago when, on a whim, a friend challenged Cathy Merrill to do something she’d never done: enter the local arm-wrestling contest.
She hesitated so he added a tasty sweetener: “If you win, I’ll buy the french fries.’’
“I like fries,’’ Merrill told me the other day as we sat at a picnic table under the shade of a tree. “So I said OK. I had no idea what I was doing. They called my name. I said, ‘What do I do?’ They said, ‘Put your hand here.’ I didn’t know anything.’’
“The very first person was the lady who won the Vermont State Fair. They went, ‘Ready. Go!’ And I just went like this,’’ she said, pantomiming a quick hands-down victory. “There was dead silence. And I said, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ And they went: ‘Winner! Cathy Merrill!’ ’’
What happened that day at the Cornish Fair has led the 53-year-old New Hampshire native around the globe — from Malaysia to Bulgaria to Hungary — and to the top of the arm-wrestling world.
She is 53, 6 feet tall, and weighs 340 pounds. And she is a world champion arm wrestler in her weight class — a title she will seek to renew next month in Antalya, Turkey.
“I’m a big person,’’ she said. “I’ve always been a big person. I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life. My doctor said, ‘If you can get to 300 and maintain it, I’ll be happy with you.’ Well, I’m 40 pounds over that. It’s a joke at the Worlds [championship]. They’ll say step on the scale and I just look at them and I say, ‘Did I make it? Because I’m really worried about making weight.’ ’’
The truth is nothing much worries Cathy Merrill.
She’s the mother of three, the grandmother of five. She drives a school bus for the local school district. And in this little corner of the world where she grew up and has raised her family, she is a beloved celebrity.
“She drives her school bus and she’s very devoted to arm wrestling, but she doesn’t boast about it,’’ said Jim Duling, her longtime friend and the guy who bought her those Cornish Fair french fries in 2009. “She’s not Rocky Balboa. She’s just very calm and cool about it.
“In her class, she’s the best in the world,’’ her coach, Art “Badger’’ Drewes, told me before a recent practice session in Manchester. “She’s also a sweetheart. I will take heart over talent any day. She has a big freakin’ heart to go with the rest of her.’’
There is a gentility about Cathy Merrill that belies the fierce competitor who has conquered her obscure corner of the sporting world.
She was born in New London, N.H., where her father was a truck driver and her family life was not the gauzy stuff of black-and-white TV situation comedies. Her home was a place of abuse and divorce and alcoholism.
She played basketball and softball in nearby Newport, walking 10 miles home after practice if she couldn’t hitch a ride. She worked blue-collar jobs and once owned her own landscaping company.
Brian Coronis was one of Merrill’s 81 classmates in the Newport High School class of 1982. He recalls splitting large pitchers of soda at the local pizza joint with a young Cathy Merrill, the girl he once sat next to in woodworking class.
“She’s a go-getter,’’ said Coronis, who stood behind the counter in his convenience store the other day, chatting with his friend, the local celebrity. “When she sets her mind on something, she’s going to get it done. She’s our little prize. It’s a great story. Who would have thought that this would have happened to you, Cathy?’’
Well, not Cathy. That’s for sure.
Turns out there’s a lot more to arm wrestling than brute strength. There’s intricate technique to master, as well.
But Merrill has a small suitcase full of hardware, medals that she has collected at competitions across the globe. “My percentage rate is pretty good,’’ she said, a master of understatement, too.
“The funniest thing for me about this whole arm-wrestling thing is that people think I feel like a celebrity. I don’t,’’ she said. “I just enjoy my job. I love driving the bus. I’m at a point in my life now where it’s not about the dollar. I’m not raising a family anymore. It’s just the dog and me and it’s fine. My kids are grown.’’
Good thing she doesn’t need the money, because there’s not much of it to be made in arm wrestling.
“Once in a while, you’ll win 100, maybe 200 bucks,’’ said Merrill, who has been single for more than 15 years now since a divorce. “Maybe 50.’’
She does her own fund-raising — benefit chicken-wing dinners at local restaurants — but remains $1,500 short of what she’ll need for her upcoming trip. She may need to take out a small loan.
Along the way, collecting the medals she keeps in that little suitcase, she’s also been collecting the memories of a lifetime — special stuff for a woman who lives where she was raised. And likes it that way.
She’s a world-class arm-wrestler. She’s also a gold-plated storyteller. Just ask her about that time she was competing in Bulgaria, went for a walk, found a delicious bakery. And something else.
“So I sit down in the shade and I look up and, oh my God, I sat right in front of a strip-tease bar,’’ she said. “I’m not kidding you. I was watching these guys come out and they’ve got three-piece suits on. This guy comes up. Average gentleman. He nods at me so I nod politely and he says, ‘You work?’ And I’m like, ‘Excuse me?’ And he says: ‘You want job?’ And I went, ‘Here?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. Yeah.’ And it was on the tip of my tongue to say, ‘I don’t think you have a pole that would be big enough to support me.’ ’’
She laughs. But this is serious work. There’s a championship in Turkey to be won.
And at practice in Manchester with Badger Drewes and about a dozen other wrestlers in the back of a restaurant equipment shop that Drewes owns, the talk is about the technique of arm wrestling where the nomenclature is arcane: top roll, hooks, press, power drag.
“Control the hand and the arm will follow,’’ said Drewes, a world champion arm wrestler and a former professional kickboxer. “If you can’t control the guy’s hand, you can’t control what he does to you. He’ll put you where he wants you to go.’’
Later, Merrill is at work at the 26-inch-by-36-inch arm wrestling table under the corrugated steel roof of a warehouse on a cement floor alongside steel shelving.
For amateur arm wrestlers, working out next to Merrill is like working out next to David Ortiz or Larry Bird.
“I was a gymnast in high school so I never thought this would be a sport that I would ever do,’’ said 29-year-old Kayla Waterman, a mother of two from Newport. “I love it. Cathy is more than just a great person. She inspires me.’’
And then Cathy Merrill approached the table, grabbed her opponent’s hand. She grimaced fleetingly. And then smiled.
As usual, it was over just like that.
Another victory for the reigning champ.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.