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?
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.
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.
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.
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.