Pole-tossers in skirts
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.'"
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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.
It lands at 10 o'clock after he runs about 20 yards with the thing straight up before heaving it. "I knew I was too late on that one when I released it.
"A lot of it is technique," says George, "like swinging a bat."
After the final toss, which makes Harry Macdonald the overall winner, the sweaty guys sit under a tent in ball caps and muscle shirts, recalling days they were no longer junior Olympians or college standouts, and someone started talking to them about skirt sizes.
"I'd say caber tossing satisfies a lot of that need for competition at a high level," says George, as the other guys begin to trade tennis sneakers for shower shoes and cabers for cigars.
"For most of us, it satisfies a need to compete."
The others nod their heads in agreement. Many of those from Canada once played in the Canadian Football League. Only Mike never participated in organized athletics.
"I grew up in El Paso," he says. "People were always trying to get me to play football. I had other interests at the time--like motorcycles and girls."
But no one seems to care where the men came from. On this day in Arlington, a good 20,000 or so have wandered past to see them do their thing. In Canada and California, they may see crowds as large as 40,000 or more in two days.
Someone at the Guinness stand yells, "Free beer." It's like yelling, "Free sausages" near the terrier pavilion.
There is a flurry of movement, and discussion over the relative merits of Guinness vs. Newcastle Brown Ale before Harvey goes off, returning with a cardboard box of loaded beer tumblers.
I solicit some gripes, by noting that ESPN2 broadcasts air-Frisbee dog competitions but won't carry pro caber tosses. "I wrote Nike about sponsorship, and they didn't even know what [the sport] was," says George.
"I sent them pictures and stuff, and they never even wrote back," says Harry, the North American champ.
A few pros have arranged commercial sponsorships for themselves by, for example, a liquor distributor and a logging company. A Denver hardware store sponsors Mike, who pulls out a shirt reading "McDonald Hardwood Flooring" and bearing a caber dude logo with the slogan, "A good hardwood is hard to find."
Harry volunteers the information that he wears Spandex under his kilt. "That's what everyone wants to know," he says. "That, and if we're football players. Nobody ever believes we're not football players."
The underwear issue has long followed Scotsmen. These guys are more concerned with throwing style, technique, and beer--though not always in that order.
"A lot of guys even use camcorders," says Harvey. "They record other guys, trying to copy their technique, or they record themselves to work on their technique."
This conversation sums up the professional athletic lives of these guys--half-serious, half-goofy, half-focused on where to eat and what to drink next.
Soon, they'll travel back through Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, Adidas bags of dirty sneakers in tow, to go back to work as marketing directors, financial planners, and teachers for another week.
But a man has his priorities.
First, the skirt goes to the cleaners.
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