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A teacher by trade, David Thomas a Highland Games athlete in his spare time | Explore Yakima

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David Thomas works with some heavy metal in his job as a high school welding teacher. Same goes for his spare time as a Highland Games athlete.

The Yakima resident and new teacher at Toppenish High School competes in the heavy events that are an integral part of Scottish festivals and Highland Games held around the world. They happen in the spring, summer and fall and most have returned after the COVID-19 pandemic quashed them the last two years.

Thomas is glad to be back at it. He competed June 4 at the Bellingham Scottish Gathering and at Saturday’s Prosser Scottish Fest and Highland Games, with more competitions planned at Scottish gatherings in Tacoma (Saturday), Spokane (Aug. 6), Kelso (Sept. 10-11) and Buckley (November). Thomas will also probably compete in Virginia, where he grew up, when he goes back to visit family.

He got involved with heavy athletics in 2019 and has competed at more than a dozen Scottish gatherings, placing in most of them.

“I’ve always just been a big person and it’s a big-man sport. I got in it and was just naturally good at it,” said Thomas, whose new teaching role at Toppenish is classified as agriculture/mechanics, but he will mainly teach welding. The 32-year-old previously taught at Wahluke High School in Mattawa.

“It’s like I was just made to do this sport,” he said.

Wife Samantha, who works for ESD 105, and their two young daughters usually join him at competitions in the Pacific Northwest circuit. The heavy events involve long days of competing. “We throw for eight hours a day. We throw nine events in a day,” Thomas said.

Scottish gatherings feature a variety of competitions, including Highland dancing, individual bagpipe and drum and bagpipe band contests, and even golf, running and hurdling at some events. Along with the competitive features of such gatherings, guests can speak to people manning clan tents; sample Scottish food, drink and products; enjoy traditional storytelling and music; and meet animals such as Scottish fold cats and shaggy Highland breeds of cattle.

Heavy athletics competitions involve nine official events with different classes of competition for men and women. The events are open stone, Braemar stone, heavy weight for distance, light weight for distance, weight over bar, heavy hammer, light hammer, sheaf and caber.

Balancing and precisely tossing a caber and heaving stones, hammers, weights and sheafs — burlap bags filled with baling twine, rope or hay — for distance or height requires intense concentration. As they’re attempting their best, other athletes stand nearby, shouting encouragement and often asking onlookers to do the same.

Heavy athletes like to give each other a hard time with some good-natured trash-talking. But they also support each other, Thomas said. After throws, they sometimes compare attempts, ask for and share advice.

“It’s such a good group of people. You’re always getting advice. You take everyone’s advice and you figure out what works for you,” he said. “Yes, we like to heckle each other and give each other a hard time, but at the end of the day we’re all out there just having a good time. I think the camaraderie of it is great.”

The biggest crowd-pleaser is the caber toss, Thomas said. It isn’t for distance; the key here is to heave what looks like a telephone pole (“caber” is Gaelic for “pole”) so it flips end-over-end and lands in a straight line from where athletes launch it. For male competitors, cabers are about 20 feet long and weigh about 150 pounds.

Athletes lift the upright caber by cupping its rounded base in both hands, balancing it upright and walking or running before launching it with enough strength and control so it lands on what would be 12 o’clock if standing on a clock face. It’s quite a feat and even more impressive to see in person.

“Everyone loves the caber,” Thomas said.

Scottish heavy athletics 101

An online search for “Highland Games” will yield all kinds of information about the origins of such gatherings and the athletic events they feature, with a dose of Scottish history. Much of that is centered on Highland traditions, clan feuds, battles and not-so-friendly competition among the best warriors or biggest and strongest men tapped to carry their clan’s name to glory.

Heavy events follow North American Scottish Games Athletics rules. To be eligible for awards, all competitors except first-time novices must wear a kilt and kilt hose while competing. These days, the hose might have words like “beer” and “bacon.” And the tops that athletes pair with their kilts range from T-shirts to hoodies, some of which refer to their gyms, or beer.

Thomas calls himself a “thrower.” Some Highland Games athletes refer to themselves as “heavies,” Myles Wetzel wrote in his online article for Cigar Advisor, ”So …You Want to be a Highland Games Athlete?”

“Regardless of the name, we are some of the strongest and most agile men in the world,” Wetzel said. “A Highland Games athlete is a blend of strongman, track athlete and weightlifter. We must be able to throw large, heavy objects a long ways — and be crazy enough to try.”

That includes women. Pamela Turnbull, a 61-year-old masters champion from British Columbia, competed in Bellingham. More recently in Prosser, two women battled in the sheaf competition as the bar went higher and higher and they kept successfully using their pitchforks to toss the sheaf over it despite blustery conditions.

Saturday in Prosser was more like spring (or summer) in Scotland than almost-summer in Central Washington. Anything unsecured danced in the stiff breeze and cloudy skies occasionally spat rain. The weather impacted some of the heavy events, and competitors faced other challenges as well. The head on the pitchfork Thomas uses to toss the sheaf was loose, so he borrowed one. But athletes prefer their own equipment, of course, and competing with a borrowed pitchfork wasn’t working out.

At the Bellingham Scottish Gathering, heavy rains the day before drenched Whatcom County and much of the state’s west side. Though that day dawned gray and windy, it cleared by late morning. The ground was still soggy, though, which made some of the heavy events even heavier.

“The caber was hard — the water made it harder,” Thomas said. And every sheaf bag soaked up water from the damp ground, adding more weight as the day progressed.

Those sheaf bags started off weighing 20 pounds, added Thomas, who competes in the Men’s Amateur B class. “They were 24 pounds because of the water, and 28 pounds by the time we were done.”

Competition is intense, but the atmosphere is welcoming. Though they look intimidating — these are muscular people who holler a lot when they’re hurling or tossing all those heavy objects — athletes are usually happy to answer questions from the crowd.

Along with competing in athletic events in Bellingham, Kas Tommila grabbed a microphone and explained the practical skills behind many of the nine events that comprise Highland Games athletics. Some are obvious — the ability to lift heavy stones helps in clearing fields, building fences and patching up watch towers. Tossing a sheaf bag with a pitchfork comes from thatching roofs, and cabers were used in defensive and other structures.

The weight-over-bar competition, also popular with onlookers, involves flinging a 56-, 42- or 28-pound weight with one hand backward over a bar that goes higher with success. The roots of that skill come from heaving grappling hooks over castle walls, Tommila said.

Pros and beginners

Tommila competed at the Prosser Scottish Fest, where another fellow Bellingham competitor, William Keeley, answered questions from onlookers.

The community of heavy athletes is small — Thomas estimates there are fewer than 2,000 throwers in all of North America — so competitions usually involve familiar faces. They range from novices to professionals, with many trying to make it to as many competitions in their region as possible.

Damien Fisher, the 2021 U.S professional heavy events champion, was among the competitors in Bellingham. Scott Hutchinson and Roger Moon competed at the Prosser Scottish Fest. Hutchinson “typically throws Super As, which is basically a pro without being paid,” Thomas said. Moon went to Masters Worlds competition as an invitee, he added.

Thomas’ first competition was Bellingham in 2019. “I won eight of nine events and they told me I would never throw as a novice again,” he said. He competed in Prosser and two weeks later moved up a class, to B.

That year, among amateur men, Thomas ranked 285 out of 1,285. In 2020, there were only 556 in his class and in 2021, there were 816 amateur competitors. As for 2022, “I haven’t looked. It’s early in the year,” he said.

He has competed in Virginia at a couple of games and did well there, earning seconds and thirds. “I took third place in (September) 2019 at the Idaho State Championships, during my first year for B class,” Thomas said.

Powerlifters transition into Highland Games fairly well, though there’s not a perfect transition from any sport, he said. Growing up, golf, swimming and tennis were his main sports. He played a little bit of club rugby in college.

He had known about Highland Games competitions for awhile, “but there’s so few people that do them, I didn’t know how to start or where to look or where to even find equipment,” he said. “I started looking around, found the (North American Scottish Games Athletics) website” and Bobby Dodd, a George resident who used to make the implements that competitors throw.

“I went up and met him. He’s an older gentleman. … He loaned me a Scottish hammer and he talked to me about the games,” Thomas said. “Bobby was very well-known in the Scottish games. He has competed in Scotland. .. and was a judge.

“He told me these are some guys to watch. We would sit in his shop and watch old videos of … pro Highland Games throwers,” Thomas added. “He’s been a big help to me getting into the games.”

Thomas found the Washington, Oregon Scottish Throwers Association private group on Facebook, which linked him with other throwers in the area and information about all the Highland Games in the region. He encourages others who are interested to find a throwers’ group for their area through that page.

“We’re always looking for new throwers,” he said.

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