ATHENA — Weston-McEwen head football coach Kenzie Hansell warmed up for competition next to the high school in Athena on Saturday like he has for years with his football team in the fall. He trudged across the grass just a few hundred feet from where his team takes its home snaps and where the TigerScots baseball players field grounders in the spring.
Hansell chalked up his hands, studied the projectile before him and felt about for the best grip, the one that would help him throw farthest. The object’s shape felt oblong and irregular, a far cry from the footballs he tossed to his players like second nature. What he held in his hands this time, then pressed against his cheek in a shot-putting motion, was a rock weighing in at 23.8 pounds.
The Braemar Stone toss opened up the Athena Caledonian Games’ athletic events as a dozen men and women — suited in their best Scottish garb — tossed, lifted and flipped in the six competitions of the tradition Highland Games. The Caledonian Games, a celebration of all things Scotland in Eastern Oregon, brings together thousands of countrymen or curious passersby each year. The events, always accompanied by bagpipes and dancing, have dominated the tiny town for a weekend each year since 1899.
Hulking men and women launched the stream-bed stones through the air in a show of strength and technique, said J. Alexander Jeffrey III, a Portland native who now lives in Grandview, Wash. It wouldn’t seem too difficult to hurl a rock, but any rookie trying a baseball-type throw will find his or her distance looking child-like compared to the others.
Luckily for Jeffrey III, shot put is in his background, he said. He proved his comfort by launching the mini boulder 35 feet, 7 1/2 inches, winning the event by three and a half feet.
But it took some time for Jeffrey III to get as comfortable at the other events, he said. The 56-pound weight throw — both horizontally and vertically over a bar — is still a work in progress after two years of Scottish athletics. But there’s time for improvement for the 30-year-old, one of the most junior men in the field Saturday.
“You start getting a few years of age on you, you know football and wrestling and things like that,” Jeffrey III said of his gradual move into a new type of game. “Your body’s not going to hold up forever doing that.”
For Boise, Idaho, resident Phil Sansotta, the love for the Highland Games came from his Scottish wife. Six years later, the 27-year-old is hooked. He travels across the northwest each summer to compete in regional events like the Caledonian Games and has even earned himself sponsorships for his own set of the unusual items to be thrown.
Sansotta most prefers the sheaf toss, where contestants skewer a bag of straw with a two-prong pitchfork before flicking the 16-pound weight above their heads and over a continually raising bar. He and Mark Wechter of Canby each cleared 30 feet in the event.
The shear height of the contest draws him in, Sansotta said, but the cabor toss is a close second on his list of favorites.
In that event, throwers grasp the bottom half of a vertically standing pole and flip it forward one half rotation. The best scorers land the pole pointing directly away from them and points are based on the angle of its landing.
“I just love that. It’s a good feeling to throw something that’s 18 feet tall and have it turn over,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling, very gratifying. And it’s a crowd pleaser.”
The Scotsman’s Olympics may look unusual, but the Games are just as draining as typical American sports, Hansell said. Practicing to throw the slew of items is key, but difficult for most things other than a giant river rock.
“You have to be strong but there’s so much skill that goes along with the technique,” he said. “If you don’t practice, well let’s just say I’ll be sore for a couple weeks, I’ll be honest.”
Contact AJ Mazzolini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.