Jeff Jones, of Hagerstown, Md., left, goes for the pin against Clint Connelly, of Waynesboro, Pa., on July 15 in Frederick, Md. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Inside a sweltering shed that looks more fit to hide gardening tools than inspire athletic aspirations, Jeff Jones wipes the sweat from his face and discusses the dichotomy of dreams.

He doesn’t use those words, but as he sees it, there are two types in sports.

There are dreams born on fields and courts that belong to the young and the fit.

And then there is the type that he, at 35 and with a bad back, found three months ago in an unexpected place: the backyard shed of a Russian immigrant in Frederick, Md.

Jones walks through the door there first on a recent Sunday morning and slaps chalk on his hands before approaching the waist-high arm-wrestling table that inspired him to set a goal in April. He had never formally practiced arm wrestling before, but after locking hands with several opponents at that table, he decided he wanted to get stronger and better so that, within a year, he could compete in tournaments.

“People don’t view arm wrestling as the sport it is,” Jones explains. “It takes about a year to get your joints and tendons ready. The goal is to get a little better each week.”


Clint Connelly faces off with Sergey Svetlikov on July 15 in the backyard shed that Svetlikov turned into a space for arm-wrestling practice. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)

Sports can be a sorter of shapes. The tall are handed basketballs. The short and quick are fitted for cleats. The brawny are given football helmets.

That’s what makes the group that meets weekly in the shed, under a single fluorescent light fixture instead of stadium bulbs, unique.

Men of different heights, weights and ages come from across the Washington region, and as far as Pennsylvania, to spend an hour or more together there. Among them, the smallest weighs 140 pounds and the heaviest, just under 300. Some of them spend their weekdays sitting behind computers; others sweat through days filled with labor-intensive work.

When they stand at the table, they know what matters more than who is younger or smarter or more trim is strength, skill, speed and stamina.

“I pull with a guy from Baltimore and he’s 69 years old,” says Shane Rollins, 35, of New Market, Md. “He’s incredible.”


Shane Rollins of New Market, Md., left, grapples with Clint Connelly on July 15. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)

Rollins, who is 140 pounds of defined muscle, says his friends used to go up to big guys in bars and bet them that they couldn’t beat him at arm wrestling. He often walked away with their money.

But bar bets are not the same as competitions. In bars, people cry out about rules that don’t exist. You can’t use your whole weight. You’re not supposed to hold onto the table. And surfaces sticky with beer don’t have mats to keep elbows in place and chalk to prevent sweaty hands from slipping.

The first time Rollins entered a competition, he was matched up against a national champion in his weight class.

“He crushed me,” he recalls.

The men in the room nod.

They all know well how within each match, subtle, critical movements can stand between a victory and loss — and how all of that takes place within seconds. If you lift your head to take a swig of water, you might miss it completely.

“There are tiny battles going on in a match,” Jones says. “Little battles within the war.”

It begins with the hands, Rollin explains. Clutch one way and a win will come down to sheer strength. Maneuver your hand higher up on your opponent’s in a technique called the top roll and skill will matter more.

Sergey Svetlikov’s grip is solid as he stands across the table from Clint Connelly. The smile on his face reveals that before a study of his hands. Svetlikov looks straight ahead grinning as the veins near Connelly’s temples begin to bulge.

Svetlikov, a 32-year-old father of an 8-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, used to compete on a team in Russia when he was younger. His family was living in Moscow 2 1 / 2 years ago, when his employer, Hughes, a global satellite technology company, transferred him to an office in Germantown, Md. After arriving, he says he looked for a team to practice with and discovered the closest was near Severn, Md.

A year ago, when his family began looking to move to Frederick, Svetlikov was considering a house with a large basement when he saw the white-paneled shed behind a red-brick house that was available. Garbage and old furniture filled the shed. Svetlikov removed it all, built a wall to split the room and added basic gym equipment and the $550 arm-wrestling table. In April, he opened it up to anyone who wanted to practice.

About 10 men now come regularly but the hope is that more will see the group’s Facebook page and join. More hands means a wider variety of competition.

“Arm wrestling is the kind of sport you need to practice,” Svetlikov says. “Everyone has different kinds of hands. The way I would arm wrestle Jeff is very different than with Clint.”

Connelly, who came from Waynesboro, Pa., that day and lost the earlier match to Svetlikov, explains to the men that his arms have not yet recovered from two weeks earlier.

In the shed, aches and pains are discussed with a casualness that acknowledges that there is no need to show off. Here, there is no judgment when the conversation turns from the duties of fatherhood to the benefits of Biofreeze over Icy Hot.

“It’s like a brotherhood here,” Jones says. “We’re all humble dudes and we’re just trying to make each other better.”

Better and stronger and, he hopes, one match at a time, closer to fulfilling a newfound dream.