Every September, a dozen or so muscled and kilted athletes gather to test their strength and skill at the New Hampshire Highland Games. But 2011 was special, as New Hampshire played host to the 31st International Highland Games Federation World Championship. Daniel McKim of Kansas City, Missouri, earned the top prize, and rookie sensation Matt Vincent of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, came in second.
McKim, a 6’5″, 300 lb account manager, discovered the Highland Games while looking for a way to stay competitive after his college career as a shot put and discus thrower. He wore shorts and a t-shirt to his first festival.
“I looked like a fool,” he said. “But I was really having a blast and have been hooked ever since.”
An Ancient, but Growing, Sport
At stake in New Hampshire was a $38,000 prize purse and considerable bragging rights. When David Webster, OBE, founded the world championships 31 years ago, he didn’t dream that it would grow quite this large.
“Not when I started,” Webster explained, “But when I got my teeth into it, it became my ambition to spread this not just to Scotland but all over the world.”
Highland Games heavy athletics competitions are now held in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, France, and throughout the US and Canada.
“America is the best,” Webster declared. “They’ve got more games. More than Scotland now.”
The fact that an American sits atop the world rankings of a decidedly Scottish sport doesn’t bother Webster in the least. After all, that’s one of the reasons he started the world championship 31 years ago.
“Every country likes to think that they’re the best,” Webster explained. “We thought in Scotland that we were the best, and we were at the time. But now we can say this title is justified.”
The competition for which festival would win the right to host the world championships was just as fierce as the competition for the world championship title.
“We’re actually booked up until 2015 for the championships,” former world champion and IHGF official Francis Brebner said. “You know it could be in Australia. It could be in New Zealand. You’ll find Scotspeople in every neck of the woods, so to speak.”
The American Rookie
Dressed in a blue and red kilt accessorized with hot pink knee socks and bike shorts, rookie Matt Vincent from Baton Rouge, Louisiana isn’t one of those Scotspeople.
“I think I have French heritage,” Vincent said. “I’m a real outcast.”
Like most of this weekend’s competitors, Vincent didn’t come to this sport because it was in his blood. After competing in the shotput, discus, and hammer at LSU, he just wanted to find his way back to throwing.
Ray D’Amante, one of the weekend’s sponsors, didn’t come to this event through his heritage, either.
“My motto is: What Scottish games is complete without an Italian award?” D’Amante explained. “And so they win the D’Amante Cup.”
D’Amante is clearly proud of these athletes, and the International Highland Games Federation works hard to make sure it stays that way. These throwers are drug tested at random throughout the season, and again before and after the world championship.
“We have smart, hardworking people,” D’Amante said. “A lot of firemen. A lot of policemen. A lot of farmers, construction workers, steel workers, and they all have that day job and do this for fun.”
In his first event as a professional, Matt Vincent certainly seemed like he was having fun, as his second throw came within a few inches of a new world championship record. Had he made that throw at the most recent Amateur World Championships, he would have set a new amateur world record and earned the accompanying cash prize.
The Dutch Jokester
Hans Lolkema from the Netherlands isn’t worried about such things.
“I get lots of money,” Lolkema joked. “I can retire next week.”
Lolkema didn’t discover the Highland Games until his late 30s, when he saw a demonstration in his hometown. Eight years later, he says he loves everything about this sport, just don’t ask him to tell you what tartan he’s wearing.
“I have no idea,” Lolkema admitted. “I just called a guy and said I need a kilt. I paid him some money and that’s it.”
Bill Crawford, Chairman of the Athletics committee said it doesn’t matter what tartan a competitor chooses to wear. Clan affiliations aren’t followed, nor is that old Scottish tradition that dictates that a man shouldn’t wear anything under his kilt.
“No, they have to wear something,” Crawford laughed. “They’re turning and things are flying around. That’s poor form.
Crawford is more than just the athletic director for the games. He’s also a former pro thrower. He’s a great resource, if you can catch him between phone calls. On the first day of the games, his Scotland the Brave ringtone sounded 114 times.
Crawford prides himself on choosing good competition cabers, and because today is the world championship, he picked one that’s 20 feet long and weighs 145 pounds. But sheer size isn’t the only thing that made the caber challenging.
“It’s a dower stick,” Crawford explained. ” It’s like a rock. You can’t feel it. You don’t know where you are.”
Crawford doesn’t take pleasure in the disappointment of the athletes. After all, he’s a former professional himself. But, he says it’s easier on the judges if only one or two throwers manage to get the caber to turn over.
That premise held true at this year’s world championship. Both champion Daniel McKim and runner-up Matt Vincent managed to flip the caber.