Highland Festival: Brawny lads and hooligans show off strength at Alma games


Towering athletes throwing hammers and large stones with ease had every man in the audience questioning his own masculinity.

Weighing easily more 250 pounds each, men in kilts tested muscle and bone for nearly seven hours in the hot sun at the Scottish Highland Festival with the melodies from bagpipes at their backs.

Centuries ago, the clans used the games to determine the winners of conflict by pitting their strongest warriors against each other to prevent bloodshed. On Saturday, the tone of the event was not lost with the passage of time as it made for an impressive display of local grit.

"I went to a game with a couple of the guys and they wanted me to try it out and I did," said Chris Chafin. "Now a few years later, lo and behold I'm here with these hooligans."

Many of the fans in attendance enjoyed the loose atmosphere of the games. Athletes joked with one another and the announcer, audibly engaging the audience as well at times.

"Unlike a lot of others sports, they're competitive but they'll help each other with their form," said Ashley Scherer, there with her family to watch Jeremy Gillingham, her boyfriend and rumored to be one of the best throwers in the country.

After seeing Gillingham compete, Scherer  decided that she too wanted to play the games in the women's division.

"A lot of them travel around to the same games, so they have fun with each other," she said.

The games consist of seven to nine events, the most famous among them being the caber toss. A Highland Games crowd favorite, a caber is a log 17-to-21-feet in length and over 100 pounds which is thrown end-over-end in an attempt to accurately have it land straight from the point of origin.

The other events are equally daunting, the most straining among them is the weight throw. Competitors in this competition throw a block weight with a ring handle attached. The block weighs up to 56 pounds, and is known among the athletes as a good way to tear a knee.

Other events include the open stone, an event similar to the shot put of modern track and field. A 42 or 56-pound weight is thrown for distance at the heavy event.

As a majority of the events at the games mimic those found at modern track meets, younger athletes like Gillingham and former Central Michigan University thrower John Pilling said having a background in track and field sports gives them an added advantage. However, for some of the older athletes, the track stars are playfully referred to as "cheaters."

The events take not only raw strength, but also explosive quick-twitch muscle training, Gillingham said. Everyone trains differently, from olympic lifts to strongman-type training to resistance band training – a favorite exercise for athletes like Chafin.

Despite the burly allure of all the events, the highlight for both spectators and athletes is the Scottish hammer toss, which uses a 22-pound metal sphere attached to a flexible handle that is thrown for distance. Competitors coat their hands with a thick pine tar tacking to keep the hammer from flying out of their grip. Hammer throwers also wear thick, custom-made "hammer boots" equipped with spikes that dig in deep into the turf to keep the throwers planted firmly on the ground.

Chafin said that the hammer competition is primarily a measure of natural upper body strength. Chafin added that he has the ideal body for the event, with a tall frame and long arms to build speed and generate force. The North Carolina native, has thrown the hammer more than 125 feet twice.

Ron Hill has been coming to the Alma with his wife from Battle Creek for the last five years. He said the games were his favorite part of the festival.

"These guys are not young fellas by any means," Hill said. "Its quite a sight to see here, people go to baseball games but I never got wrapped up as much into this until I saw it"


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