At 5 feet 10 inches and 205 pounds, Mesa resident Ryan Seckman is considered puny. And compared with the 350-pound goliaths who typically compete in the Scottish Highland Games, he may look outmatched. But Seckman knows it takes more than bulk to chuck a 50-pound weight or heave a 20-foot-tall pole end over end.
“I can usually beat the bigger, stronger guys because it takes skill and technique,” he says.
Twice before, Seckman has toppled his gigantic competitors and won the games.
Saturday and Sunday, in front of nearly 15,000 spectators, he will try to take home the trophy once again at the 43rd annual Arizona Scottish Gathering and Highland Games. The event, held each year at Mesa Community College as a way of celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture, is the second-largest Scottish gathering in the western United States.
While the festival features live music, dancing, genealogy and traditional Scottish food, it is centered primarily on the athletic events.
The most well-known event — and Seckman’s favorite — is the caber toss, which involves balancing a tapered wooden pole and tossing it end over end to land in line with the athlete.
“The cabers are probably the most difficult,” Seckman says. “It takes balance, strength and timing. You have to time it so that the majority of the caber’s weight is going forward when you push off.”
Besides the caber toss, other events include the stone put, hammer throw and weight throw — which are all thought to be precursors to traditional track-and-field events. About 125 men and women participate in the same events; only the weights differ.
While most of the athletes focus on strength training and weight lifting to prepare for competition, Seckman says he gains a competitive edge by focusing on technique.
In addition to lifting weights four times a week, he also takes a caber to a nearby park to practice throwing.
“I train really hard, and every once in a while I’ll beat someone bigger than me,” he says. “That’s what makes it fun. You feel really proud to have accomplished that.”
While athletics will dominate this weekend’s festivities, other popular events include highland dancing and pipe band competition.
In the music competition, drummers and bagpipers play traditional Scottish tunes and are judged on tuning, timing, execution and expression.
One band, the Mesa Calendonian Pipe Band, has won the event several times and has gone on to place eighth in the world competition.
“When you go to a Highland Games, you see all things Scottish,” says Kevin MacHeffner, 29, a drummer in the Mesa Calendonian Pipe Band. “You’re not only seeing what the Scottish have contributed in the past, but you’re also seeing how people are carrying those traditions today.”
The entertaining combination of Scottish music, athletic events, food and culture attracts a diverse crowd, he says.
And the festival keeps growing in popularity.
“The games are pretty wellfollowed,” MacHeffner says. “I think the movie ‘Braveheart,’ back in the late ’90s, did a lot to start that back up. Ever since then, it’s been somewhat cool to be Scottish.”
Scottish Highland Games
On Saturday and Sunday, Arizona’s Scottish community and about 15,000 of their closest friends from the four corners of the world will gather to celebrate their culture.
If you go
When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Mesa Community College 1833 W. Southern Ave.
Cost: $12 general admission $1 1 seniors $5 children ages 6-16
Information: (602) 431-0095 orwww.arizonascots.com
Weight toss for height
The athletes attempt to toss a weight with an attached handle over a pole-vault bar using only one hand. Each athlete is allowed three attempts at tossing for height. The competition is determined by the highest successful toss with fewest misses being used to break tie scores.