Robert Lear discovered his arm-wrestling talents much the same way that most shoppers discover a sale on a garment.
Browsing through Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie one Saturday afternoon in 1986, Lear came across an arm-wrestling competition. With a formidable record against opponents at school and local skating rinks, he decided to bend elbows in a more formal setting.
To the surprise of many, including himself, the Glen Burnie resident took home the second-place memento. Six years later, Lear, a carpenter for Aegis Estimating and Construction of Glen Burnie, is slowly running out of room in his home to store his trophies, which exceed 100.
"It's a problem I can live with," he said with a laugh. "I put the real nice trophies on this one shelf, and the rest I just store in boxes."
Lear's most recent arm-wrestling display took place at the Yukon Jack National Arm-Wrestling Championships last week at the Westshore Marriott in Tampa, Fla. Lear, 30, took a disappointing fourth at the competition, just missing the cash prizes awarded to the top three finishers.
The 6-foot, 188-pounder attributed his lackluster (by his standards) finish to the birth of his daughter, Courtney, seven months ago. Lear said he was unable to train during those anxious months and paid the price for his inactivity.
"I just didn't have time to mentally or physically prepare myself, but my family comes first," said Lear, who qualified for the national tournament through his performance at a regional qualifier conducted at L.T.'s Sports Bar in East Rutherford, N.J.
"Next year will be a different story."
When Lear is on top of his game, few can pin him down. In 1990, he won his first national title at the National Stand-up Arm-Wrestling Championships in Atlanta, Ga.
That year, the 1980 graduate of Glen Burnie High captured an international title at the World Sit-down Championships in Houston, Texas, followed by a third-place finish at the Yukon Jack nationals that earned him a $250 check.
Last year, he took second place at the Yukon Jack competition and collected $750.
Lear credits his success in the sport to his technique, which has been refined through training with one of the nations premier arm wrestlers, Dave Patton.
Lear spends most of his Tuesday nights in the basement of Patton's Centreville, Va. home, working out with as many as 20 guys.
Patton, who has won the Yukon Jack championships three years in a row and who gained national acclaim for training actor Sylvester Stallone in preparation for the filming of "Over the Top," believes it is Lear's deceptive size that allows him to surprise many of his opponents.
"When you look at Robert, he's not an exceptionally muscular guy, but he is very strong," said Patton, 32. "He has strong muscle fiber and strong tendons, and his strength is really deceiving. He has good-sized arms, but he's not someone you look at and think is extremely powerful."
To build his deceptive power, Lear does a variety of arm and wrist curls that develop hand, arm and finger strength. He spends 2 1/2 hours a week in Patton's basement and frequents J. J's Tavern in Point Pleasant, where a group meets to train on Sunday nights.
While strength is key, Lear's ability to "top roll" or "hook" an opponent has enabled him to gain a psychological edge.
"Arm wrestling is more technique than muscle," said Lear. "For a while, all I used was the hook, and when I got to the table with one style, people knew how to wrestle me. Now, I use the hook or top roll and I disguise my grip so each style looks the same from the start. That way, they don't know what is going to happen."
Lear says he also tries to get a jump on his opponent and spends hours at the mirror rehearsing the commands, "Ready, go."
"I try to get a lot of speed on the start," he said. "If you hit the person before you get hit, you have a big advantage. I sit at home and practice in front of a mirror, just to get it sunk in my head. I go on G-sound, while the other guy is waiting to hear, "Go."
Lear also has learned to save his energy for the match instead of exerting it on pre-match fear tactics.
"If you get yourself too fired up, you burn a lot of energy," said Lear. "When I get to the table, I go up there and try and concentrate on what I am going to do. I used to go up there with big eyes and try to make them afraid, but you end up wearing yourself out. Now, I just watch my arm the whole time."
Lear is preparing for the nationals, which will be conducted Aug. 29 in Tysons Corner, Va. He promises he will be ready for this tournament, and his mentor, Patton, isn't selling him short.
"In arm wrestling, you've always got to believe that you can win, but you can't get over-confident," said Patton. "You have to respect your opponent, and Robert has a good combination of confidence in himself and respect for his competitor. He knows not to take someone too lightly."