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Osteoarthritis doesn't mean the end: Ottawa world arm wrestling champ still competes, even after surgery

Devon Larratt was the world arm wrestling champion for four years in a row — even breaking records. But the army vet didn't let his diagnosis of osteoarthritis stop him from competing in the sport he loves.
Devon Larratt, left, Ottawa resident and army wrestling world champion from 2008 to 2012.

If it wasn’t for a “Wolverine of a man” Devon Larratt met out west, Ottawa might not be able to boast about being home to a world champion — the world arm wrestling champion, that is. 

But what makes 45-year-old Larratt unique isn’t only the fact that he was the first person to win championships for arm wrestling with both his left and right arms, but that he continues to compete even after he’s undergone surgery in his elbows for his osteoarthritis. 

Larratt’s journey started when he was just a young boy when he’d arm wrestle with is grandmother who was, in fact, rumoured to be Alberta’s women’s champion in the sport. 

“I was never even really the best at it, it was just something that I liked to do,” he said.

“After high school I went out west where I met a pro arm wrestler and I was like ‘Oh my god, this is a thing?’” the Picton native laughed. “At this ponit, I was a 210 lbs. farm kid and I couldn’t do anything with this guy. He was 165 lbs. of Canadian wolverine — and I couldn’t do anything with him, he blew me away. Then I came to find out arm wrestling was like a martial art… and that was kind of like my start in the professional world of arm wrestling.”

When Larratt turned 20, he decided to join the Canadian Armed Forces as a soldier, where he’d serve for 20 years. He’d practice arm wrestling with his army buddies but when he met a man in Alberta who arm wrestled competitively, Larratt was inspired to get in on the action. 

His practice and determination lead him becoming the world’s arm wrestling champion from 2008 to 2012.

“I really love to fight — I always have since I was a kid,” he said. “And arm wrestling has really been a relatively safe way to find this kind of feeling in life that, for whatever reason, gives me great satisfaction.”

But 20 years in the service and engaging in a sport that caused a lot of wear, tear and trauma on his tendons, bones and joints, lead to the development of osteoarthritis and extra bone build up in both his elbows. 

This caused him a lot of pain and had a big impact on his range of motion, so Larratt was referred to a shoulder and elbow specialist at The Ottawa Hospital. 

To get him back to normal, Larratt underwent three surgeries in 2012: two for his right elbow and one for his left. 

The surgery the team performed, however, was a specialized technique called an elbow arthroscopy, a minimally invasive surgery. 

The technique involves inserting a fibre-optic camera through a small incision. Physicians are then able to get a view inside the joint when the video comes back in high definition. 

This way, the doctors are able to be more precise and preserve more of the muscles and tendons as much as possible. 

During the surgery, physicians actually extracted over one cup of stray bone fragments and a golf-ball size piece of abnormal bone from Larratt’s elbow. Once removed, his elbow was recontoured and sculpted to address any deformity and restore the anatomy of the joint. 

Despite the technique being minimally invasive, doctors at The Ottawa Hospital are still trying to find new ways to help athletic patients like Larratt by researching the benefits and healing power of stem cells. 

Dr. Daniel Coutu is among the researchers who are trying to get a better understanding on how bone regenerates, repairs and heal, and the type of impact trauma, aging and chronic degeneration have on bones and joints. 

He’s hoping his research will benefit more inflammatory diseases cause by arthritis. 

“Our focus is on stem cells and the skeletal system and reason we’re interested in this topic is because little is known about these stem cells,” Coutu explained. “Stem cells are present in all tissues whether you’re animal or human. And those stem cells in those tissues are not only responsible for the growth of the tissues when you’re younger, but also for maintenance.”

So all tissues — like skin, muscles, etc. — tend to turn over in the body quite well, Coutu says. So the tissues need to be replaced by new cells the are derived from stem cells, which are also responsible for repairing those tissues after injuries. 

“That’s why we think stem cells are a way to go,” Coutu said.

But once Larratt recovered from the elbow arthroscopy, he was as good as new and started competing again — and still competes to this day. 

He’s even won more competitions since.

Larratt now lives in Ottawa and is a married father of three. He might not be competing like he used to — as he’s decided to take on more of an ambassador and promoter roll — he did, however, have a match lined up for April. But because of COVID-19, like everything else, it got cancelled. 

“I wouldn’t call myself number one in the world anymore but I’m still out there kicking a**,” he said. “And even though I’m not the number one guy in the world, I’ve got way more influence than I ever had when I was that guy.”

If there’s one thing Larratt would like for people to know is that a diagnosis of osteoarthritis is that it is fixable and doesn’t have to mean the end of anything. If anything, he says, others around his age who are heavily into sports, it would be wise to get checked out.

“A lot of it can be repaired,” he said. “Really, overall, it’s good news. If you’re able to get it removed, then you’re going to have a better quality of life if you’re going to have less pain and more mobility. If you’re an older athlete, you probably have this going on.”

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