Long Story Short: The ladies of LUEWWD

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It was an idea “marinated in bourbon.” After a night of dinner and drinks, six friends—Diana Barden, Jana Bradley, Kristin Lukasiewicz, Tonya Van Deinse, Sara Venables, and Emily Williams—decided to organize a women’s arm wrestling competition to raise some money for a local nonprofit. Seven years and 22 events later, the League of Upper Extremity Wrestling Women of Durham (LUEWWD, pronounced “lewd”) has raised more than $100,000 for groups that benefit women and girls in the Durham community. We sat down with three of the founding members to learn how it all began.

How did LUEWWD get started?

Tonya: A group of us used to have date nights, where we’d sit around and have some bourbon and hang out. One night in 2010, we were at Shevy’s [Kristin’s] house and our friend Dirty [Diana], who was notorious for running late, was running late that day, and she came bouncing in and said, “We have to do this, we absolutely have to do this.” 

Kristin: She had found a Washington Post article about a league for women’s arm wrestling that had started in Charlottesville, Virginia. Having had a couple of drinks, we were all like, “Yeah we can totally do this.” So then we decided on who else we could bring in.

Tonya: By the end of the night we had a venue, a date, a name, and probably several wrestlers as well.

A lot of people have fun ideas that never come to fruition. Why do you think the idea stuck?

Kristin: Most of us are in the helping field in some way as professionals, and some of us were new to the community of Durham, and we wanted to give back in some way. It was just this idea of, “How do you do it in a way that’s really different and can catch people?” I think that’s what stuck for us. All of us had this same idea and energy behind it.

How did you decide on the name?

Kristin: That first night, we just started trying to figure out what acronyms we can make to come up with a women’s arm wrestling league. The one in Charlottesville is CLAW—it’s Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers—so we were trying to think how we can work in Durham into this. We were all thinking of different words that we could come up with.

Jana: It’s “upper extremity” because we were trying to think of a catchy acronym. There are a lot of other groups that use “arm” for the A, but we thought LUEWWD was the best option.

Kristin: That’s all kind of our humor and personality. We were like, “This is perfect for us. We need to stick with LUEWWD.”

What was your first event like?

Jana: We had it in this tiny little space in the back of the James Joyce. We thought maybe 50 people would come out and that would be awesome. But it happened to be during the World Cup, so there were a bunch of people in the bar drinking, and they all came in. It was packed—you couldn’t move.

Everyone was really fired up. It was a great crowd, and everyone was excited and happy and throwing money around. We ended up with 200-something people, and we raised a bunch of money. Then we thought, “Well, maybe we could do this again and plan a little bit more. Maybe we could have it be as—or even more—successful.”

Two women arm wrestling
A scene from LUEWWD I at the James Joyce on June 12, 2010

How would you describe one of your events? What’s happening?

Tonya: There’s a lot of new experiences for folks walking in the door. It’s really exciting. It’s loud. People are dancing a lot. There are a lot of antics that happen on stage, and I like to think that there’s a good element of unpredictability for the crowd that comes from our stage personalities, because they’re really good at being creative and mischievous.

Kristin: We have all of our contestants come in costumes. And they have entourages that are in costumes. And as the events have gone by, the costumes and the theatrics have gotten a lot more advanced, and we have some return contestants who, every time they come back, want to develop things a little bit more.

Arm wrestling contestant dressed up like Snow White
Snow White and the Savage Dwarves (LUEWWD XV)

Tonya: We randomly pick two of the women’s names out of a hat, and those are the first two to wrestle. They first wrestle with their right arms, and obviously then whoever wins that, wins that bout. And then they wrestle with their left arms.

If they need to go to a third time, we flip a coin to see which arm they’re going to wrestle with. If there’s not a winner after about 20 seconds or so, then we call a stalemate and spin the stalemate wheel. When that happens, we change the competition from arm wrestling to something totally unrelated and fun, like lip syncing contests or full-body rock paper scissors or thumb wrestling.

Jana: It’s sort of organized spectacular chaos. With costumes.

What does the winner get?

Tonya: The winner gets to take home a championship belt that’s handmade by one of the organizers, Shevy. And then also bragging rights.

Talk about the fundraising aspect of these events.

Kristin: First and foremost, it’s a fundraiser. So the biggest thing for us is: How do we raise the most money for our community partner? We partner with different nonprofits in Durham that either have a program that’s specifically geared towards female-identifying individuals or that’s what the nonprofit itself is about.

Jana: We enjoy supporting smaller community groups that are sort of under the radar. And those groups are the ones that tend to need the funding. Sometimes they’re doing really interesting things—sometimes they want to do a pilot, and it’s hard to get money for that. And the money that we give them may only be $4,000, but that could be a third of their year’s budget.

How has your relationship changed over the years with the nonprofits you’re raising money for?

Jana: At the beginning we basically said to them, “We want to raise money for you.” We did all the marketing, found the volunteers, found sponsors. It was a little bit overwhelming. That has changed now to where we hope for a partnership with them. And so now they typically provide at least one contestant. They provide a judge. They will do more marketing on their part. So we work much more closely with them now.

Tonya: We went from having fundraisers for an organization to now having fundraisers with and co-partnering with that organization to create an event. We’ve just reached $100,000, which is fantastic and I’m not going to downplay how amazing that is. But I think in terms of sustainability and long-term plans, the lasting piece of that—what’s left over after the money is spent—are the relationships.

A lot of fundraising events require donors to spend a lot of money, but LUEWWD seems to take a different approach.

Jana: Yeah, we definitely aren’t the $50, you-need-to-wear-a-big-fancy-outfit event. That was actually a conscious decision. We wanted to make something that everybody could go to. We definitely encourage people to bring a lot of cash and spend it. But if you only have $5, you can come in. I mean, really, if you had no money would probably let you in anyway.

Beyond fundraising, do you have a broader vision?

Tonya: My vision may be different than other organizers’ visions, but I think we know we’re doing a good job if our community partners are engaged in the planning process with us and if we raise an amount of money that we’re proud of and that they’re proud of. And if we have people continuing to come back and to volunteer and to give back.

Kristin: The biggest thing that I would like to see is for more areas of Durham to know who we are. I feel like we’re kind of still in this bubble, even though we’ve been doing this since 2010. And the fact that we’ve raised over $100,000 in that time period—I think there’s still a lot of people that can benefit from it. And there are a lot of local nonprofits we can still partner with to help them get their goals met.

Jana: I think we just want to continue doing this, helping these groups around town and discovering the things that make Durham an interesting and great community. Also, it’s just really fun to run around in costumes and throw arm wrestling events.

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