Earl Wilson rolled up his sleeves to represent Canada on the arm-wrestling world stage for years, but multiple world and national titles later, he now enjoys working away on his hobby car in his garage in Nottawa.
For this week’s edition of People of Collingwood we spoke with Wilson, 62, mechanic and arm-wrestling champion.
Q: For how long have you lived in the Collingwood area?
A: I live in Nottawa, but I was born and raised in Collingwood.
Q: What schools did you attend?
A: I went to Mountain View Public School and Cameron Street Public School. They were both new schools; I was there the first years they opened.
I went to Collingwood Collegiate Institute. I didn’t do much in terms of sports there, growing up.
Q: After graduation, where did life take you?
A: I did some work around the neighbourhood, but then a few years after high school I moved out to Alberta to work there. I lived in Toronto for a while. I started my family there.
I eventually moved back to the area after my father got ill. This is where I was from, and where my wife’s family was from. I met her in Collingwood during high school, but we met up again later.
That didn’t work out, but we tried.
I went to Owen Sound for work. I worked as a mechanic for a number of years. I worked for myself for a number of years in transmission trade. I got a transmission technician license.
Q: You had an active career as an arm wrestler. How did that start and when?
A: When I was away from home in trades school in my late 20s, there was a gym in the basement and I was looking for something to pass my time.
That led me to competing in bench press tournaments. I thought it was just great exercise.
In my early 30s, I came across an arm wrestling contest at the Mountain View Hotel. I decided to enter the event for the fun of it.
I got second place.
I continued with the power-lifting events, and the following year it came back. I tried again, and that year, I entered both hands. I got a couple of third (place finishes).
I found out there were teams across the province of people who trained specifically for the sport. Some of the guys at the event said I might have a talent for it. I wasn’t so sure. I’d be sore for weeks after.
I had no idea it was such an organized sport. I gave it a shot.
At first, I was losing to much smaller men than me. My personality was not satisfied with this because I needed to know how a man half my size was able to beat me.
I became kind of obsessed with that.
I did both power lifting and arm-wrestling events. In power lifting, I benched 440 pounds. The Canadian bench press record at the time was 424 pounds. However, it wasn’t an official meet, so it didn’t count. I still thought it was pretty cool.
In arm wrestling, at my first national competition outside the province, I brought home two silvers.
I seemed to climb that ladder pretty quickly.
Q: Where did arm wrestling take you after that?
A: I was hooked on the arm wrestling.
The driving force behind me competing in both sports is, I was told by people in each sport that it was impossible to do both and win.
They said I had to make a choice.
Without even really thinking about it, I decided to prove them wrong.
Which I did.
I was also told I was too old. I was 32 when I won my first national. I was also told I was too small at 240 lbs. The biggest man I ever competed against was 411 lbs. I won the match.
I managed to gain their respect as a competitor.
I went to the nationals. I competed at the worlds, and won a gold medal there in 2003.
Q: Do you still compete?
A: No. I packed it in a few years ago.
My family weathered some storms for a while. I didn’t want to quit but I retired at the top of the game. I’m the first man to win three golds and a silver medal at the world championship, which I did in 2000. At my last world championship in 2009 in Italy, I won three gold medals at the age of 50.
I packed it in with 32 national titles in four different divisions, and 19 medals at the world table.
Now, my daughter competes in this too. She’s a five-time national champion. She’s ranked number two left-handed in North America, and number three overall in North America.
Q: Your family has a long history in the Collingwood, which was recently highlighted through the naming of the new park adjacent to Admiral Collingwood Public School as Wilson-Sheffield Park, after your aunt and uncle Yvonne Sheffield and Herbert Wilson. The park name was chosen to acknowledge that Herbert, a Black man, died under suspicious conditions while working for the town in 1955. Can you talk a bit about how that impacted your family?
A: The way my family has been treated over the years...as a kid growing up, that was something I dealt with regularly, the discrimination stuff. It didn’t come from everybody, just a select few.
I never got to meet my uncle. The only stories I know about him are ones my father told me.
My father and uncle were Second World War veterans. The story my father told the most is, they were both in Holland. Neither knew the other was in Holland. My father was on patrol and walked around a haystack. He heard a noise and hollered out, “Who goes there?”
The voice hollered back, “Is that you, Earl?” I’m named after my father.
They found each other in Holland at a time of war.
For my dad to lose his brother like that in a work accident... I don’t know all the details. My father never talked about the details surrounding my uncle’s death.
I did grow up in the (Heritage Community) church my aunt started with her daughters. I sang in the choir until I was 21. It was a major influence on me back then, and still is.
I was married and baptized in that church. It’s important.
With the park, it seems they’re trying to right a wrong. It never should have happened, but it is part of the history.
Q: Do you have any other hobbies or interests?
A: I like messing around in the garage with cars and motorcycles.
I’m trying to put an old car together right now. It’s an old Chevy sedan. It’s a process.
I was looking for something to bomb around in with my grandkids. I can’t bomb around with them on my motorbikes.
I lost my sister in a motorcycle accident where she was a passenger. She’s the one who got me involved in bikes in the first place.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like people in Collingwood to know about you?
A: I had a great time competing and travelling the country. I took great pride in representing my community and country. I’m in the Collingwood Sports Hall of Fame, the Ontario Arm-Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Canadian Arm Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Men like my dad and uncle represented Canada in a time of war. The least I could do is uphold that and represent Canada in a positive light.
For our feature People of Collingwood, we’ll be speaking with interesting people who are either from or are contributing to the Collingwood community in some way, letting them tell their own stories in their own words. This feature will run on CollingwoodToday every weekend. If you’d like to nominate or suggest someone to be featured in People of Collingwood, email firstname.lastname@example.org.