WINSTON — Hurling a 22-pound bag with a pitchfork over a pole or throwing an even heavier piece of lead takes more technique than muscle.
“A lot of the strongest guys I know struggle, and I have seen some guys that aren’t very strong do really well,” says Robin Knebel. “But you do have to have a certain strength base, typically, because you are throwing around some heavy stuff. Fifty-six pounds out at the end of your hand on a chain spinning around gets pretty heavy.”
Knebel is director of the heavy athletics for the Celtic Highland Games and Clan Gathering. He and roughly 60 others will take to the field today and Sunday to compete in the 22nd annual games held at Riverbend Park in Winston.
Most of the participants will be novices to the heavy athletics contest, Knebel said, while others like he and friend Chip McIrvin train year-round and make the competition circuit nationwide.
McIrvin said he balances the disadvantage of being 5 feet, 8 inches tall and under 200 pounds by improving how he throws.
“Being good at something you are not supposed to be good at is kind of fun,” he chuckled.
McIrvin and Knebel, 32, live in Sutherlin and lift weights several days a week together. They critique one another’s throwing technique and watch YouTube videos of other athletes.
“It’s similar training you would see in football or strength training,” Knebel said. “Lots of squatting, lots of bench pressing, overhead pressing.”
Knebel played football at Roseburg High School and the University of Oregon. He was signed by the Baltimore Ravens, but was cut during training camp.
McIrvin was active in wrestling, football and track while attending Yoncalla High School.
The two met several years ago in a semi-pro football league.
“Once Robin got into it and started to tell me what was going on, I went out and threw some with him one evening, and I kind of thought it was fun,” said McIrvin, 31. “I was used to football for years where everyone wants to knock you out, make a highlight hit. Competing with these guys, they’re sitting there saying, ‘Well, hey, why don’t you try this? It will help you out. You will throw better.’ They want to beat you when you are at your best.”
Knebel said he stumbled onto Highland Games while searching for an activity to feed his competitive side after his football career. He’d heard about the sport from a guy he played semi-pro football with.
“I tried it out, and once I did, I was kind of hooked,” Knebel said.
Athletes competing this weekend are coming from all over Oregon and nearby states. They will compete in nine challenges, including two stone events with the goal of throwing the farthest.
“The open stone is basically just like you’d see in your shot put. You can spin, you can glide, you can do all that stuff, and it’s 16 pounds just like a shot put,” Knebel said. “The braemar stone is a 22-pound stone you have to throw from a standstill position. There’s no approach.”
There are 56-pound and 28-pound weights that must be thrown with one hand.
Competitors will hurl hammers weighing 22 pounds and 16 pounds and made of steel or lead attached to a 50-inch pipe or wood.
“You can spin the weight around your head, but your feet can’t move until you release,” Knebel said.
A crowd favorite is sheaf throwing, which involves using a pitchfork to toss a 20-pound burlap bag stuffed with twine over a pole.
“It almost sounds silly, but it’s actually really interesting,” Knebel said.
Another height competition is the “weight over bar” event. Knebel said a 56-pound piece of lead or steel is thrown with one hand over a bar.
The final challenge is the caber toss, one of the most popular events at the Highland Games.
“A lot of people think it looks like a telephone pole. It varies in size and weight,” Knebel said. “Someone will stand it up to you. Once it’s vertical, you have it on your own. You have to kind of work your hands down, hike it up and catch it.”
Knebel said the goal is to flip the object so that it lands on its top. “You want the end that was in your hand to fall directly away from you,” he explained. “It’s all about accuracy.”
Athletes compete in classes determined by age, sex and skill level. They are scored for each event, and a winner is declared in each class.
“You might think by the ‘heavy athletics’ title that it’s a bunch of jocks and knuckle-draggers, but I think if people come out and actually see it and see the camaraderie and the way that everybody acts like a family, they would see that it has a huge attraction,” McIrvin said. “It is always awesome to have people show up and see it and realize that it’s a lot more than just throwing.”
Events will be scaled down for younger athletes ages 6 to 16.
There will also be an edged weapons competition, Celtic musicians, vendors, dancers and other activities.
The Celtic Highland Games and Clan Gathering kicked off Friday with a concert. Gates open at 9 a.m. today and Sunday, with heavy athletics starting at 9:30 a.m.
•You can reach reporter Christina George at 541-957-4202 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fifty-six pounds out at the end of your hand on a chain spinning around gets pretty heavy.
director of heavy athletics, Celtic Highland Games