Scottish Highland Games bring muscle-heavy competition to KC

06/15/2014 6:55 PM

06/15/2014 6:55 PM

A kilt-wearing, high-sock-donning man with ample muscles pumped a couple of high swings of a weight heavier than a 7-year-old boy.

Before the contestant launched it into the air, announcer Tom Van Vleck egged on the crowd at Kansas City’s Scottish Highland Games.

“OK, let’s help him out,” Van Vleck called out. “We’ve only had one clear 12 feet so far.”

In the game — known as Weight for Height — the goal is to throw a 56-pound weight up and over a bar with one hand. The highest throw wins. Competitor Devin Gradwell was the one to beat.

“Anybody who clears this will probably be in the medal round,” Van Vleck hollered out. But alas, man after man didn’t quite make it.

That’s the thing about these Highland Games, on display for 37 years in Kansas City. Throwing a giant hammer, tossing a huge pole just right or jetting a massive weight high into the air isn’t easy.

You see a whole lot of misses.

Even the weather on Sunday, the second and final day of the games, almost missed.

The stormy morning, which damaged trees and wiped out power in parts of the Kansas City area, kept some away early. But Sherri Grant, a board member of the local games, wasn’t too worried.

Last year, it also rained the morning of the second day.

“And it was the best Sunday we’ve had,” Grant said.

Indeed, once the sun started beating down about 1 p.m., more families strolled through E.H. Young Park in Riverside, where muddy fields seemed part of the fun. People swayed to the music of a Scottish band, enjoyed bagpipes, bought kilts and quietly hoped they wouldn’t see an athlete pummeled by a heavy weight.

“Come on, Dad,” one girl yelled from the crowd. Like so many, he missed.

Soon, once all the Weight for Height competitors had their turn, another group of athletes stepped up and took a shot at the Caber Toss. Talk about crazy hard. Competitors such as Chad Ullom hoisted a 16 to 18-foot pole, weighing 100-125 pounds, and tossed it end over end hoping to achieve a landing as close to vertical as possible.

“This one is about precision,” said Ullom, of Topeka, who was a big winner of Saturday’s competition and was competing again on Sunday. “Twelve o’clock is perfect.”

Just watching the Caber Toss caused many in the crowd to cringe. What if the pole fell the wrong way? What if the athlete didn’t jump out of the way in time?

“It’s fascinating,” Michaela Butterworth, an Australian who now lives in Topeka, said as she watched a friend compete. “I want to know how this started. Whose idea was it to launch a telephone pole?”

One legend has it that during wartime, Scots had to cross icy streams and would toss cabers from one side to the other to quickly make a bridge. That’s why, that legend says, the caber is tossed for accuracy, rather than distance.

As for the Weight for Height competition, Van Vleck figures it came about after someone years ago said, “Hey, I bet I can throw that higher than you can.”

No one seemed to be able to beat Gradwell at that Sunday afternoon. He stood alone at the 12-foot mark, able to take the win in the category and even try to go higher.

How about 13 feet?

He hiked up his kilt on both legs and went for it. Again, a few swings and then the release.

The crowd moaned.

“It was a very good attempt,” Van Vleck told the onlookers. “You get three.”

Gradwell’s second try missed, too. And as soon as it did, Gradwell told the judge he was done.

Turns out 12 feet was tops, and Gradwell was the day’s champ in that category.

But there were many more hammers and weights, stones and cabers to throw.

To contact Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to


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