VINTON–Marni Smith is a Vinton librarian; Libby Weiner works in medical billing; Dr. Justine Crowley is an orthopedic surgeon with the Salem VA. What do the three have in common? They are all involved in emerging strength sports and heavy athletics in the Roanoke area and will be participating in the Highland Games at Green Hill Park in Salem on August 27.
They have spent many weekend and evening hours this summer practicing at a local park for this weekend’s event. The three say that powerlifting, strength athletics like Strongman competitions, and heavy athletics (Scottish Highland Games) for both women and men are growing in popularity both locally and nationwide.
This is the eighth year for the Green Hill Highland Games, sponsored by the Roanoke County Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Department and organized by event director Chad Clark. He competed in the Green Hill games for three years and has served as its director for five. He also recently organized the first Star City Strongman competition in the valley held at the Lancerlot in Vinton.
He travels around the nation to participate in or judge many powerlifting, Strongman, and Highland Games competitions. Once the Green Hill Games are over, he will be going to Russia for the World Nomad Games. He is also the athletic director for the Radford Highland Games coming up on October 8.
The Highland Games events have been described by some as a Scottish decathlon, combining Scottish culture with a sporting tournament.
Roanoke County invites spectators to “witness the traditional sports of the Scottish Highlands. You’re invited to cheer on these skilled men and women as they work to push the boundaries of human strength.”
Competitions will include the Open Stone Put, the Weight for Distance Throw, the Weight for Height Throw ( throwing over a bar), the Scottish Hammer Throw, the crowd favorite Caber toss, and the Sheaf Toss. The Caber Toss is the most challenging and involves tossing a long, tapered pine log or pole end-over-end.
Both male and female athletes compete, but in separate divisions. Everyone wears a kilt. There are events for children who can participate in a scaled down version of the games and will receive a certificate of participation.
This year there are seven professional athletes–about 70 competitors in all–plus some adaptive athletes participating in the games.
Clark says the purpose of the Highland Games is not just for athletics or the fun of a Scottish festival, but for a higher cause—this year raising money to benefit Warrior 360, “a Virginia-based non-profit organization which supports the needs and promotes the welfare of United States military service members, their families, and all others whose service to public safety generally place the welfare of others before their own. From medical needs to home repairs, Warrior 360 is committed to caring for those who’ve cared for us.”
Clark calls vets “our nation’s greatest treasure.” He pays special tribute to his father, Lawrence, a naval veteran who served on a destroyer and passed away from mesothelioma.
So while admission to the Highland Games is free, those who attend are encouraged to make a donation to a very worthy cause.
Two bagpipe bands will perform including the local Virginia Highlands Pipes and Drums Band and the Thistle Dubh Pipe Band from Charlottesville.
The Virginia Highlands Pipes and Drums Band is the oldest pipes and drums organization in Southwest Virginia. They will provide music for the opening ceremonies at 10 a.m. and perform periodically throughout the day, along with Scottish dancers.
There will be several vendors selling kilts, tartans, Scottish goods, and also concessions from the French German of Charlottesville, Flanary’s Irish Pub from downtown Roanoke, and Lumpys Ice Cream. There is a Guinness beer garden which will feature a traditional Irish music session with flutes, fiddles, drums, and whistles in the afternoon. Vikings of the Valley will also be on hand.
While Clark is the event director, he credits bagpiper and powerlifter Keenan Holt with facilitating the music for the Games.
Clark and Holt say they are Roanokers and proud of their hometown. They have put their efforts into the local Highland Games and other strength events, questioning why competitors should have to travel across the state or to other states to compete in such events—why not hold them here?
As for Marni Smith, she became interested in the Scottish Highland Games after she attended the games in Salem and has been competing for about two years. Libby Weiner’s brother had been involved in the sport for years and introduced Smith to the training when she expressed an interest.
She had done some weightlifting in college and she finds the heavy athletics and developing strength very “empowering.”
She says that strength isn’t the only secret to performing in the events—it is strength plus technique. Athletes are always encouraged to “work on their footwork.”
Smith says the common philosophy is “to do everything while you are still young,” but she is doing much more now than when she was younger and “feels fearless.”
She has some Scottish heritage—her great great grandparents were from Scotland. She has traveled to other Highland Games in Front Royal, Tennessee, and the North Carolina Triad to compete.
She explains, echoed by Crowley and Weiner, that the best part of participating in the Highland Games competitions is the camaraderie with other competitors. There is a “limitless age range” of participants from the young to those in their 60’s.
Weiner says that the Highland Games events are not “cutthroat” events based on besting other athletes.
“Heavy athletics involve not so much beating the other competitors, as beating your own best score,” said Weiner. “People competing in heavy athletics generally root for one another and are generous with advice for improvements.”
She also says, “Women have just as much business competing in strength sports as men; they should feel empowered; we can do it; heavy athletics shouldn’t be off-putting for females.”
Weiner’s brother also got her interested in the Highland Games. She started competing about two years ago and now competes about once a month in tournaments near and far during her season which lasts from April through October. She has turned out to have quite a talent for heavy athletics and recently placed third overall at the prestigious Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, where participation is by invitation and attracts a crowd of about 30,000 athletes and spectators. She also participated in the Star City Strongman competition at the Lancerlot.
She says she has always been athletic, playing field hockey and softball in her native New Jersey, and then took up cardio exercise such as running and Zumba. She trains at Snap Fitness in Vinton.
Weiner attributes her success in the Highland Games competitions to her strength training in powerlifting. While form and technique are important, strength is equally important in most of the events.
Weiner also has some Scottish heritage through her great grandmother—a McIntyre.
Clark expresses his thanks to Wendi Schultz and Dawn Evans with Roanoke County, Danny Flad from Blue Ridge Beverage, Brent Williams who works tirelessly behind the scenes, and Troy Dickson who is a huge supporter of the event each year.
The Green Hill Highland Games run from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. at Green Hill Park in Salem, located on Parkside Drive. Bring a chair.
More information is available at www.RoanokeCountyParks.com.