ITHACA, N.Y. — Throwing hammers, stones and telephone pole-sized logs is a strength of local resident Courtney McGuire, who is recognized as one of the best in the world in the old Scottish tradition of the Highland Games.
McGuire, of Trumansburg, works in youth programming and recreation at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. In her spare time, even sometimes on a lunch break, she throws heavy objects of different shapes and sizes — from stones to hefty burlap sacks — to strength train for heavy event competitions.
McGuire, who got involved in the sport seven years ago, said she loves the adrenaline, the strength, and the community surrounding the sport.
“So many things about it are just so perfect. I’ve been a part of many collegiate athletics and by far this is the greatest group of people that I ever met in my life. It’s not just about the camaraderie. It’s about honoring the traditions of the past. It’s about recognizing somebody’s strength even though they don’t see it. It’s about encouraging each other to do better even if that means you’ll beat me,” McGuire said.
McGuire was recently one of 150 athletes to compete in the Scottish Masters World Championship held this year in Stuttgart, Germany, and took home three gold, three silver and two bronze medals.
Overall, McGuire finished second in the world for women aged 45 to 49.
Highland Games and Scottish Heavy Athletics are some of the oldest sporting traditions in the world, dating back over 1,000 years. The events began as military exercises and evolved into festivals for the Scottish public. Today, events are held through the U.S., Canada, Europe, New Zealand and other areas of the world.
When McGuire gets out on the field, she’s usually one of the smallest athletes competing.
“I love walking on the field and being the smallest person out there and being the most explosive and just going out there and having fun and doing my thing,” she said.
Competing in the games is an intense lineup for athletes, who do multiple tries of each event. The competition in Germany included eight “heavy events” including stone throws, weight throws, hammer throws, caber toss and sheaf toss, in which the athlete throws a bundle of straw wrapped in a burlap sack over a raised bar. The weights of different events vary by competitive group.
The competitions are typically surrounded by festivals with music, dancing, and vendors, and draw big crowds of people who want to see the feats of strength by kilt-clad men and women in the games.
McGuire discovered the Highland Games about seven years ago at a Celtic Festival in Ithaca. It was only a few weeks later that she participated in her first competition. Once she got a taste for the sport, she said she loved it.
“Highland Games is like the biggest, ‘why not?’ sport in the world,” McGuire said. “Basically all I needed to do was have a pair of cleats and buy a kilt — it’s tradition you have to wear a kilt to compete — and go on the field and start to figure it out.”
Though it’s easy to get started and get on the field, there is a lot of training and skill involved. But McGuire said the community surrounding the sport is very welcoming once someone decides to get involved.
“Once you decide that that’s what you want to do, they all take the time out of their games day to help you learn, to teach you things, to help you to start to understand where you need to be on the field so you don’t die,” McGuire said.
Probably the most iconic event in Highland Games is “tossing the caber.” During this event, athletes lift a log that ranges from 16 to 22 feet and is between 100 and 180 pounds. Using both hands, the athlete runs forward with the caber to build momentum and then tosses it into the air so that it turns end over end. Athletes score points on accuracy of position, and tries to get the caber in the 12 o’clock position.
For training, McGuire has a caber at her home in Trumansburg, where she says she has a “mini Highland Games circus” in her yard. She has also passed the training forward and said she dedicates a lot of time to training new people how to throw.
McGuire reckons discovering the sport saved her life.
“I always say this because it’s true. Highland games saved my life. I was 100 pounds overweight and I was pre-diabetic,” McGuire said. “After a year of throwing and getting serious about it, I lost 100 pounds and didn’t have any more health risks in that area, so it’s been beneficial to me in more areas than one.”
Featured image: Courtney McGuire competes in the caber toss in Virginia Scottish Games in 2015. (Provided Photo)