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Gender change in Highland Games
The image of a highland games competitor is one of a big, burly man dressed in kilts who is about the size of a Clydesdale draft horse, with knee braces and bulging biceps, grunting and straining as he hurls the heavy stone or tosses the caber.
However, the faces behind the trig, a four foot, six-inch by six-inch toeboard which competitors cannot step on or over while putting the stone, throwing the weights for distance or hurling the Scottish hammer, is changing.
For the first time in several years, an all-women’s division was in competition at last Saturday’s 10th annual Whidbey Island Highland Games.
Women are becoming more active in highland games competition which was once exclusively an “all-male club” and this year’s Chieftain of the Games, Julie Riise, holds six of seven women’s records at the annual event held at the historic Greenbank Farm in Langley.
It’s true that men like competitors Sean McDaniel from Buckley and Brett Milton from Mill Creek.still hold dominance in the athletic events.
McDaniel said he has been throwing for a couple of years and has recently moved up from the novice to the “B” division.
Highland games competition is divided into novice, “B” and “A” divisions.
“After the “A” division comes the pros,” McDaniel said. “I took some time off and I’ve only been back in competition for a couple of months.”
McDaniel paused a moment when asked why he enjoyed throwing the heavy stone.
“They’re fun and they’re heavy,” he replied with a smile.
Veteran stone thrower Milton, who fits the profile of the husky highland athlete, is a legend in the Pacific Northwest.
He was United States champion in 2004 and 2006 and has also competed in the world championships.
“I was runner-up in the world championships in 2004 and I finished second again this year at the world games in Saline, Michigan,” he said.
Several of the women participants in this year’s Whidbey games were new to the sport of highland athletics but every one of them said they were thoroughly enjoying the competition and planned to return next year.
Kellie Baker from Clinton, one of the women competing for the first time, said she is an inactive firefighter.
“Right now, I’m a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “My daughter was born a year ago and I have two other children, ages 2 and 4.”
Baker said she plans on going back to being a firefighter for Clinton and her husband is still an active member of the department.
“Some family friends talked to me and they said come out and have some fun so I did,” she said. “I’ve never done anything like this before and I’m having a great time.”
Another first-time competitor was Tria Housego who said she lives in the suburbs of Langley.
“I’m really not doing anything right now, I just got my AA degree from Sakget Valley College and I’m waiting to get my credits transferred,” she said.
Housego said she volunteered for several years at the Highland Games helping set up and do field marking, but this is the first year she’s competed.
“My brother-in-law competes and he convinced me to join in the women’s team so they would have a full class,” Housego said.
To have a complete women’s division, there has to be a minimum of three participants.
Housego broke into a big smile when asked why a woman would want to compete in throwing stones.
“It’s just fun. You get to throw rocks and get a medal,” she said. “There are a lot of good guys here that are fun to hang out with.”
With the likes of Baker and Housego, along with others who have competed for years, the Whidbey Island Highland Games is sure to have an all-women’s division in competition for many years to come.