Pole-tossers in skirts

It takes a big man to make it on the pro Scottish Festival circuit

George Chiappa and the seven competitors standing around him are as burly and bad-assed as any lineman who ever ran down the Texas Stadium tunnel and lived to spit on the locker room floor about it.

George is wearing tube socks, turf shoes, a workout shirt, about 60 pounds of pecs--and a big plaid skirt. But you'd better call it a kilt--in this case, size XXX--even though George is not remotely Scottish.

It's not that George particularly likes wearing skirts.
"Someone just suggested I try this one time," says Chiappa, one of Canada's top junior hammer-throwers at the time. "I made $25 at the caber toss, and the Canadian Track and Field Association told me I had to put it in a trust or I would be considered a pro.

"That kind of punched a nerve in me, and after the junior Pan Am Games, I said, 'Hell with this.'"

So the pure Italian got his own Scottish kilt--and became a pro athlete in one of mankind's oddest and oldest professional sports. This time it was in the Scottish Festival and Highland Games, held two weeks ago at the University of Texas at Arlington's Maverick Stadium.

To prolong their athletic careers, former shot putters, hammer throwers, and discus spinners have gone to great lengths--19 feet, to be exact.

And 120 pounds.
Those, you see, are the specs of a caber--or pole-- thrown at Scottish Highland games held around the world. The caber toss is the signature event of such festivals.

The kilted he-boys, who range in age from late 20s to mid-40s, also throw a hammer, a weight, and toss a sheaf of hay between football uprights. Then they toss a weight over that same goalpost before heaving a 16-pound stone as far as they can.

"You just have to wear a kilt and drink a lot of Scotch," says Harvey Barkauskas, outlining the requirements, which do not include Scottish heritage or a natural proclivity for cross-dressing.

Harvey is a high school science teacher in real life. Mike Gaenzle of Denver is a financial planner. Harry Macdonald, a Scot who is the North American champion, is in marketing.

Most of the stuff in Scottish Highland Games gets thrown straight. Contestants run for about 20 yards, holding the 19-foot caber sternum high and then trying to toss it so it flips perfectly end over end. A 12 o'clock is perfect, because it means the caber fell straight in that position after flipping in the air. A 10 o'clock means that flaws in the delivery caused it to tilt a little to the left. A six o'clock is bad news.

Caber-tossers also put a significant dent in the local beer supply wherever they travel.

Yep, these are true athletes.
George and the guys are the pro athletes of Scottish festivals--cigar-puffing, Scotch-loving, self-proclaimed health nuts who stand out from the braided 10-year-olds who dance the Highland fling and the stately Barbara Bush types you might see escorting their West Highland terriers to the show area.

At the festivals, you will find thistle quilts and polite people who can do your genealogy and kind gentlemen who play bagpipes from morning until night.

Then there are these caber guys, running across this peaceful landscape like Randy White in a china shop.

About $700 goes to the overall winner--just enough to cover his travel and entry expenses and enable him to keep training for this bizarre sport.

Does caber tossing translate to any other marketable skill? "Well," says Mike Frazier, one of the guys ramrodding the pro events, "sometimes we toss beer kegs too." Barkauskas adds that they sometimes hit Renaissance festivals to do a caber or sheaf toss.

But mostly, this pack travels from one Scottish weekend to another. There are a few hundred festivals each year and about 250 kilt-clad jocks.

"We do a lot of weight training during the off-season," says Harvey Barkauskas, who is from Ontario. But "you can't rely totally on weight training. Some of us have our own caber. But I left mine in a park and the [maintenance] people cut it up."

They thought it was a fallen tree, not an athletic device too big for a guy's garage.

In Canada, they go to a logging camp for a pole. On Friday morning in Arlington, Frazier and some of the guys were at Payless Cashways asking a clerk for one really long pole. "He said, 'Do you guys need some cement for this?'" recalls Mike. "He couldn't believe we were gonna throw it."

He probably thought they were gonna build a really big fence, one pole at a time.

Out on the field of throw, George does splits before his toss, ending up with his big red tartan spread across the dead stadium grass like a family-size picnic blanket.

Harry throws a 12 o'clock--a perfect end over end. It's more common than a golfer's hole in one but far more rare than a bowler's strike. The group compares it to a home run.

George steps up for his turn and presses the pole to his forehead. Everyone thinks he is praying to it. But as he explains later in the beer tent, he was just sort of becoming one with his pole.

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