It's not every day you see big, burly men in skirts hurling what look like telephone poles around a field. But throwing the caber--an 18-to-26-foot log weighing anywhere between 75 and 150 pounds--is what Kevin Carpenter does for fun. He also tosses around 22-pound hammers and 56-pound stones, among other weighty objects, in a sport called Scottish heavy athletics. In fact, the 30-year-old Mount Prospect resident ranks among the top ten amateur competitors in the United States.
"If you call it a skirt you might get kilt," Carpenter jokes. But you can bet no one says, "Who's the guy in the skirt?" very loud around him. Carpenter is only six feet tall, but he weighs a muscular 280 pounds (that's down 20 pounds from last summer). And Kevin Neis, the athletics chairman for the Illinois Saint Andrew Society (ISAS), describes him as "huge": "I'm afraid he's going to split his skin." Still, Carpenter recognizes that his abilities don't mean much to most people. "Nobody really cares if I can bench-press 550-something pounds. They just don't. Which is fine. I do it. I know I can do it."
Born and raised in Peoria, Carpenter was introduced to Scottish heavy athletics in 1997 by a fellow football player at North Central College, Brian Fennelly (whose sister, Shannon, became Carpenter's wife). Fennelly, a national discus champion in college, won the ISAS athletics title three years in a row. Carpenter says, "The first time I went, I got my butt kicked. I got it handed to me." He was trying to figure out how to wear his rented kilt (a kilt is mandatory for throwers at most games) when he first caught sight of his competition. "I see this guy get out of a car and it's Brian Neese. Who is Brian Neese? He's from Indiana and you've seen him on ESPN's World's Strongest Man. I'm looking at this guy 20 feet away from me and he's like six-foot-four and 340 pounds. I'm a big guy, but he's just huge." Carpenter knew then he was going to get walloped. "I pretty much got stomped into the ground that games, but I had a good time and I had a place to start to improve from."
Now Carpenter, who's of Irish and Russian descent, competes around the country in Highland games, which also include music, dancing, and other sports, such as Scottish wrestling, tug-of-war, and sheepdog competitions. Carpenter plans to "throw" in as many as ten festivals this year, including the Chicago Highland Games this Saturday in Oak Brook. "That's not many compared to a lot of other people," he says. "There's a lot of guys who do 20 to 25 games. Literally I could probably throw every single weekend if my checkbook would allow it and my wife would allow it, but I'd like to keep my wife."
Since Carpenter won a title at the Chicago Highland Games in 2000, he's introduced his younger brother to the sport and attended more and more games. He's even considering going professional one day, which would mean fewer contests and competing for cash purses (amateurs can win only titles). But for now Carpenter is in it "strictly for the fun of it. I don't think I'm ever going to make a living doing it."
Scotsmen reputedly developed these contests more than 800 years ago as a way to defeat or impress enemies, or just to kill time between sheep shearing and waiting for the wheat to be weighed. (Even today one of the games is the sheaf toss, which involves throwing a sheaf of hay weighing 16 or 20 pounds over a bar with a pitchfork.) ISAS chair Neis describes another aspect of the games' origins: "People would get together and kind of see who survived the winter and say, 'Yeah, woo-hoo!'"
Today Scottish heavy athletics are a major component of any Scottish Highland games, which usually include seven heavy athletics events governed by various rules. Depending on the event, objects are thrown, in which case horizontal distances are measured, or tossed, when height is measured. When throwing a stone, the competitor must hurl it like a shot-putter, not toss it underhand or overhead with two hands. When throwing the caber, the athlete hoists it up by one end then tosses it end over end; the object is to make it land pointing straight away from him on the ground rather than off to the side. Athletes get three tries in each event and must compete in all of the games.
Neis, who's now a judge and organizer, says the sport has grown tenfold since he first competed in 1988. "You used to go to a games and there would be two or three serious guys and 15 drunks and husbands trying to impress their kids," he says. Now it seems throwers take the sport more seriously.
That's not what Carpenter thought he was signing up for. "I thought it would be a lot more laid-back," he says. "I thought I'd be having beers while I was throwing, and now I probably don't have beer a couple of days before I throw. I'm serious about it. I enjoy doing it, I enjoy the people--but I have my head screwed on straight when I go out on the field.
"My biggest thing is that I like to stay competitive. This gives me something to train for. I compete mostly against myself, and it just so happens that I do OK." He adds that if he weren't throwing, he'd be playing something else--checkers even. "I think that I would go bananas and I would not know what to do with myself if I wasn't competitive in something."
When Carpenter's not tossing hammers and stones, he's working as a coordinator of open-heart surgery at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. He says he made the "grown-up decision" in his senior year of college to stop playing football so he could focus on his bachelor's degree in nursing, and he's been a cardiac nurse for the past eight years. It was considered strange for a football player to be in the nursing program, he says, but he knew he wanted to work in a challenging, hands-on job where he'd meet a lot of people. Still, the notion of this brawny man doing compressions is intimidating--even Carpenter shivers at the idea. He's worried he'll snap somebody's ribs.
After working at the hospital and spending some time at home with his six-month-old son, Ian, Carpenter trains perhaps five times a week. The backyard of his house would be big enough for throws, but he prefers growing flowers there. Instead he gouges out divots in "a bad piece of land away from anybody else" at a nearby forest preserve. "You have a lot of people kind of look at you wondering, 'What in the world is this person doing?' But that's part of the fun."
He keeps a store of big, heavy stones in his garage and has purchased weights and hammers similar to those used in competition. The only thing he doesn't get to train with much is the caber. "It's hard to transport around in my car, and plus there's no place really to store it," he says. That's too bad, since tossing the caber is the most athletic of the events, he says, and requires the most skill. "I almost killed myself the first day trying to throw it. The key thing to know about a caber is, if you're going to drop it, just run, run away from it." The technique involves hoisting the vertical caber from the ground to waist height, then straightening the legs and throwing the arms overhead to give the caber momentum and direction. Obviously, more than just strength is involved: balance is crucial, as is a good grip on the end of the caber.
Carpenter focuses his regimen on throwing when the weather gets warm, but he's at the gym training year-round. "I go with throwing in mind, so it gives me a motive, something to look forward to and something that I can measure. Each year I get a little better and a little better."
Carpenter is particularly proud of his consistent performance in six of the seven events. Many competitors are phenomenal at one or two but mediocre at the others. Carpenter wins overall titles without placing first in any of the individual events because his performance throughout the tournament is so solid. Still, he says his hammer toss needs work. Part of his problem with the 16- and 22-pound hammers, he says, is that he's shorter than many of his opponents. Building up his strength has meant he's bulkier and tighter in the shoulders, which makes spinning the hammer more difficult.
Throwing causes muscles that have already reached Popeye proportions to bulge even more. Veins pop, and the throwers' cheeks puff out. So far Carpenter has avoided injury, but he knows his body couldn't take throwing three weekends in a row. Recovering from a day of games and "the eighth event, the drinking and the libations afterwards," can take a couple of days, but Carpenter always tries to be back in training the following Monday.
Carpenter says technique is as important as brute strength in Scottish heavy athletics, in which men and women of various shapes, sizes, and ages compete. "It used to be that the biggest, strongest guy would walk out on the field and win the events, and now it's the best thrower, the best athlete. I've had guys smaller than me beat me, and I've been able to beat some guys who were a lot bigger than I am." Still, "this is not a little person's sport by any means."
For the first time the Chicago games this year will include professional athletes, who will compete with amateurs in the same division. Carpenter hopes the amateur mentality will prevail. "Everybody's really encouraging each other. They want to see the big throws. They want to see people hit new personal records. I tell you what, that's what makes it so enjoyable, and that's why the popularity is really increasing."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.