John Parton, 11-time world arm wrestling champion and Kake minister, holds medals he has won in past competitions. "I feel privileged to be able to take something I love and have it be a vehicle to give new opportunities and insight to both young and old by showing them Christ in me, the hope of glory," Parton said.
Story last updated at 11/18/2009 - 11:59 am
KAKE - Most people live their entire lives without ever having a revelation. Although John Parton of Kake, Alaska is only 53-years-old, he's already experienced three.
The first came in 1975, when, during his very first arm wrestling tournament, he "pulled" Dennis Anderson-at the time, ranked among the world's best-and won. So, John Parton went professional.
His second came 10 years later: working in the woods one day at Alaska Pulp Logging Camp in Roland Bay, he felt the sudden epiphany to quit "the hard life" and "find Jesus." So, John Parton became a preacher.
Ten years after that, "the Lord said: 'move to Kake'." So, John Parton moved to Kake. And that's where lives today along with his wife (and coach) Christine, as a 21-time national and 11-time world champion arm wrester and elder preacher at Kake Assembly of God.
"Everything I do is about Jesus," Parton said one morning recently, between helping customers at Arrowhead Transfer/AML LP Gas.
Apparently, arm-wrestling preachers still need a day job-or is he a preaching arm wrestler? Whichever one he is, when John Parton says "everything," he means everything: preaching, community leadership, mentoring youth, subsistence hunting and fishing, collecting seaweed, even managing freight and propane.
It comes as little surprise, then, that Parton approaches arm wrestling the same way. Despite having suffered several serious injuries, John Parton still competes-because tendons and ligaments thicken with age, arm wrestling is one of the few sports in which athletes actually improve into their 40s and 50s.
Of course, these days, he arm wrestles as a self-appointed Christian ambassador.
"Pulling in a tournament is just presenting a different face of Christianity," he said. "Sounds weird, but that's why I still do it."
Of course, it wasn't always easy for Parton, who was plagued by substance abuse as a younger man. An itinerant logger, it went with the territory. But interestingly enough, so did his salvation-tournament arm wrestling has long been a staple of lumberjack contests across the country. Though Parton had "messed around" as a kid, he began getting serious about arm wrestling in his early 20s while working the forests of Idaho.
"I was good at it, and I was hooked," he said of his early experiences as a "puller," the term professional arm wrestlers use to refer to themselves.
In fact, Parton credits arm wrestling as one of three primary forces behind his "redemption." As he puts it: "Eventually, I decided to stop trading my talent for something that wouldn't ever give anything back."
Another powerful influence was his boss at Alaska Pulp Logging Camping, a man by the name of Louis Lee, who Parton characterized as "one of the greatest Christians you'd ever meet." Lee turned Parton on to reading the Bible. Soon, they started the first church at Roland Bay.
John Parton came to Kake in 1995 with his wife, Christine-"I could never be a great arm-wrestler without her; she also keeps me in line," he said. To hear Parton tell it, one day, out of nowhere (he'd never been to Alaska before), he told her "the Lord wants us to move to Kake." Kake called the very next day.
At the time, because of all the traveling involved-arm wrestling enjoys greater popularity in Europe than the U.S., and California more than any other state-he thought he'd never pull professionally again. But when Kake's logging dried-up, Parton didn't leave.
"I got to love the community so much, I stuck around," he said. Shortly after, some friends from pro arm wrestling coaxed him back to the circuit, despite the fact living in Kake means not training with other pullers. What lured him despite this enormous disadvantage: the prospect of rebuilding the professional arm wrestling community and providing a positive example for young up-and-comers.
Parton fills a similar role as "The People's Pastor" of Kake. Most notably, he works with at-risk youth, teaching them arm wrestling basics: technique ("In arm wrestling, muscle alone is nothing-it's like being able to do a cartwheel and thinking you can be an Olympic gymnast."); safety ("It's a regular thing to break bones if you're not careful); strength training and diet. By his count, he's taught 28 kids, which is a lot, considering Kake's population barely tops 800. However, none of his students has pursued it professionally (although his eldest son occasionally competes in Anchorage).
"Arm wrestling is just part of what I do," Parton said, explaining that he also takes kids out boating, hunting, fishing and gathering.
And even though he tries to keep a low profile, John Parton doesn't mind if his world-class status brings Kake a little notoriety.
"It's as if God has used arm wrestling to bring us together as a community."