By Breanna Luna, Larisa Manescu and Jared Wynne
We’ve all heard of weightlifting, bodybuilding and Crossfit. In the past decade, intensive athletic programs such as these have experienced a surge of interest from men and women looking to test the limits of their physical and mental strength.
But how often do you hear of the Highland Games?
Mike Baab participates in the caber toss at the Austin Celtic Festival on Oct 19. In 2005, Baab won the Masters World Championship in the 45-49 age class.
Photo by Jared Wynne.
Traditionally, Highland Games are events held throughout the year in Scotland and other countries to celebrate Scottish heritage and culture, particularly that of the Scottish Highlands. While other activities are often part of the festivities, the heavy sporting events are the most emblematic.
At the annual Austin Celtic Festival, held on Oct. 18-19 this year, a swelling crowd gathered around the heavy athletics competition to watch male and female athletes grunt and shout in frustration and exhalation as they attempted to best each other and their own personal best records. Although Highland Games can consist of a variety of different heavy sporting events, this particular festival featured the caber toss and the weight over the bar.
The Texas Celtic Athletic Association (TCAA) is demonstrative of the reach of the Highland Games, as they have made their way from Scotland to the Lone Star State.
States and provinces in North America hosting Highland Games competitions.
After seeing Highland Games at a Renaissance fair 11 years ago, Brittney Boswell became the first woman to officially compete in Texas. As the current Secretary of TCAA, Boswell said that many women at the time hadn’t yet realized competing was an option for them, as they had no examples to follow.
“Celtic societies and organization like (TCAA) are a big push for family involvement. When these guys come out and they bring their wives and girlfriends and daughters, it’s an opportunity for these girls to get a foot in the door,” Boswell said.
Over the years, this type of foster system within the organization has opened up the opportunity to maintain regular women’s classes and a consistent stream of 10 to 18 female athletes throwing at any given event over the past several years.
Brittney Boswell (right), the first woman to compete in Highland Games in Texas, offers advice to a fellow athlete before the weight over bar event.
Photo by Larisa Manescu.
TCAA holds weekly practices in both North and Central Texas. Those looking to go the extra mile practice multiple times each week, in addition to spending plenty of time in the weight room to increase their strength.
Some athletes, like TCAA’s founder and president Duncan McCallum, have garnered a long list of achievements and titles as amateurs. McCallum has competed in Norway, Canada and each American state with the excepting Hawaii and Alaska.
Despite the competitive nature of the sport, the success of the organization depends on a tight-knit community and system of mentoring. Five years ago, McCallum was trained by Athletic Director Mike Baab, a University of Texas at Austin alumnus and former professional football player who turned to Highland Games after an 11-year NFL career.
“If there’s a Highland Games Hall of Fame, (Mike Babb) is going to end up in it. He taught me, and I taught some of these folks and they taught some of the other folks,” McCallum said. “So any chance to get out here and have time with Mike and these other cats is just a lot of fun.”
It was Baab who, along with other veterans of the Highland Games events, initially encouraged Boswell to attend games and compete as the only woman in the field.
A week before games, Baab generally runs a clinic so that those new to the sport can get their competitive jitters out of the way and begin to understand how to go about conquering each event. Additionally, events like the Austin Celtic Festival have an open-door policy when it comes to Highland Games so that anyone with the will can try their hand at competing.
For the weight throw for height event, women must throw a 22 lb. weight over the bar.
Starting at 11 feet, the bar goes up one foot for each successful throw that completely clears it.
Photo by Larisa Manescu.
Bagpipers are a common element at Highland Games events. At the Austin Celtic Festival, the musicians played during the Celtic dog parade. Photo by Jared Wynne.
Males must throw a 56 lb. weight over the bar for the weight throw for height event, which starts the bar at 11 feet. The current world record is 19'2.00". Photo by Jared Wynne.
A variety of cuisine is on offer at the Austin Celtic Festival. Some of it is traditional Celtic fare, while other selections are simply local favorites. Photo by Jared Wynne.
Live music is a staple at many Celtic festivals, including the one held in Austin. A full slate of acts keep the volume turned up throughout the day's events. Photo by Jared Wynne.
Talented herding dogs are shown off to an adoring crowd. The dogs are made to manage both geese and sheep. Photo by Jared Wynne.
Competitors in the caber toss begin by balancing the big long against their shoulder in preparation for the big lift. Photo by Jared Wynne.
Dogs are a common site at the Austin Celtic Festival. Many will participate in the dog and pony parade. Photo by Jared Wynne.
The entrance to the Highland Games area at the Austin Celtic Festival. Photo by Larisa Manescu.
Mike Baab acts as both competitor and emcee at the Austin Celtic Festival's Highland Games. Photo by Larisa Manescu.
Participation in the Highland Games is often generational. Photo by Larisa Manescu.
Competitors prepare to give it their all in the weight over bar event. Photo by Larisa Manescu.
Falling weights are a constant hazard at the games, though few competitors show any concern. Photo by Larisa Manescu.
Participants in the weight over bar event prepare for each throw by swinging the heavy weight back and forth, either at their side or between their legs. Photo by Larisa Manescu.
Brittney Boswell cools off after taking part in the Highland Games competition. "Over the last ten years, you can certainly see that Strongman and Crossfit have certainly helped us garner more athletes for our funky, little fringe sport where we throw rocks and sticks for a good time," Boswell said.
Photo by Breanna Luna.
A web developer by trade, Mike Beech first discovered the games in 2011 while looking for new and different experiences. Drawn to the idea of doing charitable work in Texan communities while promoting the competitions he’d grown to love, he joined TCAA three years ago. As a member, he has helped to advance the organization’s web presence and promote the sport in the state of Texas and beyond. Beech is now the president and executive director of TCAA, no small feat for a father of two young boys.
Beech said he’s always amazed at the commitment put into the organization by both the athletes and their supportive families.
“I often find myself in awe of some of our athletes who persevere and succeed in Highland Games in spite of their demanding lives and schedules,” Beech said.
Unlike Boswell, who discovered her love for the sport without any previous athletic experience, Beech was a baseball player in high school and a nationally-ranked fencer during and after college.
He insists that he can’t overstate the value of community that TCAA brings to his life and the sense of reward he feels from doing charitable work with fellow members.
“When you grow up playing team sports, there is a point at which most of us have to stop. The lucky few can continue on and make a career out of it, but most of us grow up and miss the sense of camaraderie that comes with playing on a team,” Beech said. “While Highland Games is an individual sport, TCAA has given me the chance to be on a team again.”
The involvement of the Celtic community, like the support of local business Things Celtic, allows TCAA to grow. In turn, the organization puts on a good show, and the athletes, their families and the general public bring money to Celtic festivals and events. But while the sport provides entertainment for festival visitors, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a significant presence in the athletic arena. Some of the best athletes in the world get paid to travel and compete in Highland Games.
“I’m sure a lot of sports on the fringe feel this way, but I believe Highland Games is ready for the big stage. We have the athletic feats and personalities to entertain millions,” Beech said.
Higland Games at Austin Celtic Festival from Breanna on Vimeo.