In a northeast Calgary gym, two men sit opposite a plank of wood, holding a stick in between them.
They each pull as hard as they can, until one lets go and tumbles backward to the ground.
This is mas wrestling, a traditional stick pulling game that has roots in the Sakha Republic, in northeastern Russia.
It isn’t very common in Canada, but Andrew Bolinger hopes to change that. The Calgary man owns a gym that’s home to a small but growing community of mas wrestlers.
“It’s kind of starting from scratch here,” said Bolinger, owner of The Strength Edge. He estimates about 50 people in all of Canada mas wrestle, about three dozen of them in Calgary.
“We’ve been pioneering the sport,” he said.
‘Got my ass handed to me’
Bolinger tried the sport for the first time in 2017 when he was invited to a competition in Russia.
“I went over there and basically went up against, like, the 10-time world champion and got my ass handed to me,” said Bolinger.
“But I fell in love with the sport and the culture, and since then, I’ve been trying to build a team.”
Among his recruits to the sport are Manraj Singh Sekhon, 20, and Courtney Hollihan, 26.
Both have a background in strength training, but they say mas wrestling offers a little something extra.
“When you’re lifting, it’s fun as well, but that’s just you alone,” said Sekhon.
“This kind of gives you competition against somebody else, right? It gives you that edge on performance, basically makes you perform a little bit better.”
Hollihan also believes the sport pushes her to improve in a way that solo weightlifting does not. It’s much more difficult than it looks, she said.
“When you’re looking at this sport, you don’t really think much is happening,” said Hollihan, who has competed in mas wrestling twice. “But when you try it out, it’s a really fun, dynamic sport, there’s a lot to learn.”
Aside from Alberta-based competitions, Bolinger said most mas wrestling events take place internationally.
He hopes to grow the sport to the point where he can host a national competition for mas wrestlers throughout Canada.
In the meantime, he encourages anyone interested to visit his gym and give it a whirl.
“You never really know if you’re going to be good at it until you try,” he said.