The first time Stephanie Sloane saw her cousin Jason compete in the Highland Games in Arizona, she was hooked. She said, “I had so much fun–it was such a blast!–that I said, ‘I want to try this.’ So I got on Facebook, looked for a group here in Texas, found one (the Silverbacks), they coached me up, and I’ve been competing ever since.”
The Highland Games consist of nine events, throwing heavy things for distance or height: Scottish hammers, stone puts, caber, sheaf, and weights. The events are a lot like the field events at a track meet. “Caber is like flipping a telephone pole–it feels like flipping a telephone pole!” Stephanie says. “Caber toss is always a crowd pleaser. Another favorite is the sheaf toss, which is basically a bale of hay tossed over a high bar with a pitch fork. Sheaf was my favorite for a long time.”
“My current favorite is ‘weight for distance’ because it is starting to ‘click’,” Stephanie continues. “You have a ball and chain, basically. It involves some spinning, footwork kind of like a discus throw, in orbit around your body, and you fling it for distance.” There are actually two of these events, one with a heavy weight of about 21 lbs.; the other, 14 lbs. Last year, at a festival near Denton, Stephanie saw one of the women in the Elite Class set a world record with a toss of over 100’. “It’s always fun to be at events with the elite throwers.”
“I got in at the right time at age 40,” said Stephanie. “At 40, you’re in the Master Class. I’ve never done this before, but at 40, I’m a master! And at 40, you start throwing lighter weights than the under 40 crowd. So that’s good, because those things are heavy!”
“I made a joke after my first games in Sherman, where I set nine personal records (PRs),” Stephanie laughs (because every time you do something for the first time, you set your personal best). Stephanie placed 2nd overall at the Sherman Games, and set three new PRs at another. “I’ve had at least one new PR at every competition.” Winners will sometimes receive what Stephanie refers to as “cutlery”, which can include things like a battle ax, sword or mace. “I like the competition. I like the comradely. Ultimately, I am competing against myself.”
The Cowal Highland Gathering, the world’s largest Highland Games event, held in Scotland every August, attracts about 3500 athletes and 23,000 spectators. Likewise, local festivals are so much more than watching people in kilts throw heavy things. Many last for days, bringing in large crowds, tents of vendors selling food and merchandise, food trucks where you can try haggis and other Scottish foods, whiskey tastings, live bands, Celtic marching bands (some with electric bagpipes), and sheepdog competitions. “There’s a ton of stuff to do and see, to interest everybody, from little kids to older adults,” said Stephanie. “I would recommend that anyone go. Just go. See what it’s about and have fun.”
“I went to Nationals in 2019, in Kentucky–Glasgow, Kentucky, actually,” said Stephanie. “There’s one in the summer in Cheyenne, Wyoming, that I’m considering. I really want to throw in Scotland. That’s ‘bucket list’ now.” She adds, “I’m ok, for now, for planning vacations around where I can go throw.
Stephanie has gained a lot from her involvement in the Highland games. She reconnected to her Scottish roots. Her grandmother, a McCuan, was the reason she chose the blue-green plaid kilt she wears at competitions. Other advantages include “getting back in the gym, having motivation, getting in competition shape where I don’t hurt myself (which has other benefits to my health), and meeting a whole new group of people that I would not have met otherwise.
“I definitely handle myself with more grace now than I did at 20 or 16, because I know I’m not going to get it right the first time. I have the experience from when I was younger of learning and becoming successful. I give myself space and grace to just wait, to keep trying. When it does feel right, and it does ‘click’, I can’t do it wrong after that.”
I see myself as an educator who has a weird hobby.Stephanie Sloane
It has also helped in her job as high school coach and physics teacher. “I see myself as an educator who has a weird hobby. I like to bring in clips from the games and throw something up on the screen for the kids, saying ‘We’re going to analyze the physics of this. Let’s talk about the mechanics.’ Why not? It’s real world stuff. We’re talking rotation, working a problem, answering a question, so I do try to pull that in. I try to do as much hands-on stuff as I can.”
“If you want to give it a try,” invites Stephanie, “just get on Facebook and look for groups and events near you. There’s probably something in your hometown.”