Competing In The Most Manly Competitions29 July 2016 Written by By Bill Stillwell
Published in August 2016 Articles
I am a member of one of the major Scottish Clans, Clan Sinclair, which has a colorful history in the Old Country stretching more than a millennium into the past.
My wife Valorie (whose name means “valor”) was born a Sinclair. In 1990 I was allowed to marry into the clan. Valerie and I were both born and raised in Fremont. We were engaged in 1989, and bought a house the next year in Discovery Bay.
I actually have some Scottish blood of my own because Grandma Robertson had roots going back to the Emerald Isle. Valorie was aware of her history through stories told by her grandparents. However, the first direct contact either of us had with our Scottish heritage didn’t occur until 1991 when we attended the San Francisco Caledonian Club’s annual Labor Day weekend gathering at the Sonoma Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. I saw the Scottish games for the first time and had a passing thought that I could do that.
We didn’t follow up with embracing our Scottish roots until nine years later, in 2000, when the Caledonian Club moved the games to the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton. At that point, we joined the Clan Sinclair society, attended the events surrounding the gathering including Clan dinners, and had the honor of meeting Malcolm Sinclair, who was a member of the English Parliament and the clan chief at the time.
In 2005 my brother-in-law, Mike Sinclair, got a kilt for Christmas and, I guess in the spirit of keeping up with the Sinclairs, I got one for Christmas the next year. Wearing the kilt apparently changed my attitude because once I put it on, I decided to try out for the Heavy Athletics games that, as the name implies, involves a lot of strength events involving the lifting and throwing of massive and awkward objects.
I’ve been an athlete all of my life starting with Little League and including high school soccer, track, and basketball. While serving Uncle Sam, I participated in a lot of intermural sports and was a member of a traveling Air Force competitive softball team. Softball was my goto sport but I’m 6'5" and weigh 290 pounds, most of it muscle. I look more like a professional linebacker than a center fielder so from the beginning I at least looked like I could compete in Heavy Athletics. Nevertheless, when I decided to try it, I joined a gym and spent a few months engaged in some serious training so I wouldn’t embarrass or hurt myself.
My kilt and membership in a Scottish clan weren’t essential to my participation because the games are open to anybody who can throw. Women compete in the games. There are also professional competitors who are paid to show up.
The Heavy Games include six main events — Caber Toss, Hammer Throw, Stone Throw, Weight for Distance, Weight for Height, and Sheaf Toss. My first competition was March 31, 2007 in Bakersfield. I entered the Men’s C (novice) division and did well enough that the athletic director said I couldn’t compete as a novice any more. After that, I competed in the Masters category, which is by age.
My first Masters competition was the next month at the Sacramento Valley Scottish Games & Festival, which is held in Woodland. Even though I was going up against guys who had been in the games for years, I placed third over-all and landed first place in the Weight for Height event in which I made a one-arm throw of a 42-pound kettle bell-like object over a bar. I succeeded with the bar set at 17 feet, which turned out to be an entire yard above the height reached by the second-place effort.
Scottish Games and Festivals are a popular form of recreation in countries throughout the world. There are 48 annual events in the United States alone. During the nine years that I have been competing, I have averaged at least five games every season. Almost all of my competing has been in California.
However, in 2009 I competed in Scotland. Before the games we spent two weeks touring the country. We drove a car from Edinburgh to Wick, which is at the Northern Tip of the country and site of the Sinclair homeland. We visited the Sinclair Historical Site, which includes castle ruins that are on the lists of British historical treasures. We also visited Roseland Chapel, which was built by the St. Clairs, which is the French arm of the clan. The chapel was featured in the movie, The Di Vinci Code. We also visited Inverness, near the famous Lock Ness. We checked to see if Nessie would stick her head up while we were there but if she did, we missed it.
The Scottish weather was gorgeous until the Annual Master World Championship games began, and then we competed with the rain running down the back of our necks. The competition was fierce and I was grateful that at least I didn’t end up in last place. However, in May 2013 the World Albuquerque, New Mexico and I placed third in the 45 to 49-year-old class competing against athletes from around the world.
I’ve finished in first place at a number of festivals. For example, the Pleasanton gathering is the largest in the Western United States and attracts visitors from around the world. Last September, which was the 150 year anniversary of the gathering, I took first place in the 50-59 year-old class.
I enjoy competing in the Heavy Games. For one thing, doing so gives me a reason to stay healthy and physically fit. Even better is the fact that I’ve met a number of wonderful people through the games. Some of my fellow competitors have become good friends. I appreciate the sense of geniality and kindliness that marks the competitions.
The struggles on the field can be fierce with a lot of sweating and pressing bodies to the limits, but they are always undertaken in a friendly spirit. We always help each other out, when necessary. The sense of warm congeniality at the games becomes even more pronounced after we’ve finished competing and share some 15-year-old single-malt Duncan Taylor Whiskey or tap a keg of St. Andrews Scottish Ale.
After nine years, I’m still having too much fun to consider not competing. After all, two or three people sometimes compete in the top category in the Masters competition, which is the 80-85 group. I might join them someday.
When I’m that old, I don’t know how I’ll get a 42-pound object over my head let alone over a bar in the Weight for Height competition.
I’ll figure out a way.