Since Highland Games began back in the mists of history and legend, men of great strength have tossed the caber (and just about any other heavy thing they could grab). Men in kilts proved their strength and worth for battle. That’s what they call tradition.
Now there has appeared a strong cadre of women determined to both honor and modernize these traditions. Like all revolutions, they are led by strong individuals. Women who are prepared to perform and to challenge a few opinions.
“I’ve competed in a lot of games in the men’s division,” explains Shannon Hartnett, a pioneering woman athlete from California, “because there hasn’t been a women’s division. Usually the next year they’ll create a women’s division.”
Performing is hard when women compete with the men. The weights the men use are sometimes twice as heavy as the standards for women’s competitions.
“There needs to be a separate division,” confirms Hartnett. “Men and women aren’t mixable. Its apples and oranges. I would definitely prefer competing against women.”
“I think the problem is when women are really good in sports they are put into the men’s division. It increases the men’s division but it hurts the women’s division. It makes the women’s division go downhill because you’re losing your best athletes. If there isn’t a women’s division, I compete in the men’s division, but I think it’s best for me to stay in the women’s division and help try to build that up.”
While it takes time to get used to the idea, most male athletes are very supportive of the women’s goals.
“I’m all for it. They can’t compete with the men, naturally. In their competitions, I think the implements are lighter, but I think there are a lot of great women throwers out there. Connie Price Smith, who is a top shot-putter, is looking to get into the Highland Games. When she gets in she’s going to break every record. She’s already breaking Shannon’s world records in her practice throws,” confirmed professional athlete Steve Pulcinella.
Men’s athletes are broken into divisions based on skill level. The women don’t have a division system yet, which causes some real problems.
“First timers have to go up against champions, #1 in the world. It’s frustrating. They get their butts kicked and don’t want to come back out,” said Hartnett. “Men have the Pros, A, B, and Cs. So if it is your first time, you throw with the Cs and they are all about your level, therefore, it encourages you to come back out and go up the rankings. They don’t have that with women.”
Fighting to establish women’s division competitions at individual games has been hard. The support of other women hasn’t always been there. It can wear down even the most devoted pioneer.
“It was becoming frustrating. And I was getting away from why I started which is a love of doing the sport, the fun and camaraderie of it. So I have laid off recently. I’m a marine biologist, I own my own gym and I’m climbing Mount Everest in a few months, so I’ve got a lot going on in my life. So I needed to get back to the fun part. I’ve been doing this for nine years and its time for someone else to step in and take the lead,” admits Hartnett.
So where do the female athletes come from? The same places as the men: track and field and powerlifting. A lot of the throwers are ex-Olympic athletes and former top collegiate track and field competitors.
“We get bodybuilders and power lifters out there all the time and they are the worst throwers. They think because they are strong they can muscle through it. They usually can in weight for height or something, but for the hammers and weight for distance and they don’t have any technique or coordination or flexibility,” said Hartnett.
There has been a swell of popularity with a lot of new athletes entering the competitions. Hartnett has seen it on the west coast at the various California games.
“That’s why the level of competition has grown so much in the last five years. You’re not just getting weekend athletes out there messing around. Now you’re getting top quality people who have been throwing forever.”
How do women get started in such a male-dominated sport? Cynthia Morrison, a world-record setting power lifter, explained.
“While walking with a British friend, I saw a brochure that had a caber-tosser pictured. It was advertising the Miami Highland Games. I asked him, ‘What is this man doing?’ ‘He’s tossing the caber. They throw trees in Scotland.’ ‘That’s really bizarre. I’d like to try that.’ ‘You can’t do that. It’s all men.’.”
“I went down to watch. It looked really scary tossing the caber. But I came home and bought a seven foot piling and started practicing, with a sledgehammer as well. I trained myself and went the following year (1993) to compete.”
The drive for women’s athletics has even reached the shores of Scotland. Morrison travelled there in 1994 to become the first woman professional athlete to compete in the Highland Games there. It took a lot of lobbying on her part and a personal plea to Athletics great David Webster who was in charge of the organizations at the time.
Permission was granted with the requirement that she spend much of her time at promotional appearances and being interviewed for local news stories. The Scots wanted mileage out of the event.
“In the United States, a woman athlete isn’t that big of a sensation. It was a major event over there. I guess you could compare it to the first woman pro football player here,” described Morrison.
The Highland Games in Scotland were much different than what she had been used to in America.
“The appreciation was so much greater there,” reflected Morrison. “And not just appreciation of me, but appreciation of all the athletes. It’s kind of commercialized here with the clan tents and vendors. They really don’t pay attention to clans over there. And they don’t sell all the things. But that’s fine for here, where it’s more of a heritage festival. So I’m not knocking the American games but when you are on the Scot’s turf, it’s totally different.”
“There were sheepdogs and such, but the athletics are what it is all about. They’ll have a couple of kiddy rides and food vendors, but the athletes are the stars. I could not believe the numbers of people who stood in the pouring rain to watch us compete at Blair Castle. The mud was up to their ankles, and they stood there for hours. People in the U.S. would run at the first sprinkle. That shows you the appreciation they have.”
Even after Morrison established the precedent, progress has been slow.
“Shannon [Hartnett] went over in 1996 and 1997 to compete at Inverness. I think they’re trying to get a women’s division started there. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear of a Scottish woman competing.”
“One of the media people asked what it felt like to be the first woman to compete in the Highland Games in Scotland. I told him that it was a wonderful experience, but there’s a part of me that wished it had been a Scottish woman. It’s their heritage, you know. I thought maybe they would start to come out, but nobody appeared.”
The future of women’s athletics is uncertain. While the number of events supporting women’s athletics competitions is increasing, attempts to encourage more participation have been mixed.
“There’s plenty of people who see it who won’t go near it. They think we’re mad because we do it. You either have the passion for it or you don’t,” said Morrison.
But keep an eye out at the next games you visit. There just might be some lasses with the lads on the athletics field.