When watching Highland games athletes toss tree trunks—called cabers—and swing hammers at Celtic festivals, one expects to see men who look like nationally-ranked competitor Chad Thompson: large and stout, kilted, in his prime, with hands the size of tennis rackets.
But how about his 78-year-old parents? The three of them will be competing in the Highland games at the Edgewood Celtic Festival next month.
Tijeras residents Donna and Jack Thompson began kettlebell training when they were both over 65 years old, and have been competing in the games for almost a decade.
It all began when Chad, 41, a former rugby player, was playing in a tournament in Albuquerque in 2008. He and a couple other players were asked if they wanted to fill in some available spots in the following day’s Highland games, and he realized he was a natural.
After watching Chad compete from the sidelines for three years, Jack, at 67, decided he wanted to throw heavy stuff, too. The following year, Donna began competing as well.
“When both of them went in, I said, ‘Wait a minute, why am I just taking pictures? I need to do this,’” said Donna.
“He goaded us,” joked Jack.
The Thompsons’ daughter Darci has also competed in the games, as has Chad’s wife Lara, who is expecting the couple’s first child in January.
When asked what it takes to qualify to compete in the games, Chad simply said, “Enthusiasm to try it.”
“A lot of folks that have never practiced before will just come and see [the games] and go, ‘I want to try this,’” he said. “And you don’t have to have a track and field background. You just need to have a heartbeat and be in reasonably decent health, and we’ll teach you how to do it safely. Beyond that, find you a kilt and away you go.”
There will be a box of kilts at the upcoming Edgewood Celtic Festival for novices who haven’t yet committed to the recommended athletic wear, said Donna. “Some games will require [a kilt]; we strongly encourage it. But, for those classes beyond the novice classes, folks have already figured it out and embraced it.”
Generally, Highland games consist of nine events, each requiring the competitor to throw, swing, or toss a heavy object either for distance, for height, or to topple it end-over-end. Athletes frequently compete in all events, but the Thompsons have their favorites.
The scheaf toss, wherein competitors use a pitchfork to skewer a burlap-wrapped sack weighing around 16 pounds and then toss it over a beam above high their heads, is Donna’s favorite.
In fact, in 2018, Donna tossed a scheaf up in the air 13 feet, 2 inches, which was a world record for her age group at the time.
“It’s in the record books,” said Chad proudly.
Jack Thompson said his favorite events have changed over time. After having a pacemaker implanted a couple of years ago, he’s no longer willing to put his body through some of the challenges of the games, but he can toss a caber like a pro, and he also enjoys the scheaf toss.
“It’s somewhat unique now in that many of the competitions that Chad’s going to are not using a scheaf.”
Chad said that this year, he’s most looking forward to throwing the heavy weight for distance. In this event, competitors, using one hand only, attempt to swing an 18-inch-long chained weight the farthest. The weight ranges from 21 to 56 pounds, depending on the class of the competitor.
“With a 42-pound weight, I’ve broken 52 feet,” said Chad.
Despite the physical demands of the different Highland games, the Thompsons all agree on the reason they keep coming back to them, year after year.
“There’s a real sense of community,” said Chad. “It’s very familial. It’s one thing to be a part of the crowd and to go enjoy the [Celtic Festival] vibe; it’s another thing to become part of the throwing brotherhood or sisterhood.”
“You see a lot of joy from the athletes being able to share and explain the sport to bystanders,” said Lara, “because you’re so close to the bystanders. People feel comfortable enough to ask you about how you’re being judged and what the technique is.”
“I think the joy component is huge,” Donna said.
“Good bunch of people,” agreed Jack. “And it was certainly consistent with our kettlebell training. Gives us a physical benefit other than just sweating … and that helps with longevity and keeping in good shape.”
Donna also said that it’s the community that keeps her invested in the sport. She also acknowledged the benefit of having a support system that can watch your performance and give you feedback. “You train each other,” she said, “because you can’t see what you’re doing. There’s no affront for anyone being able to critique you. No one takes offense from it.”
“Most of the time,” said Chad.
“Most of the time,” Donna agreed, chuckling. “And there’s a lot of humor involved.”
“Everyone wants you to succeed,” said Chad. “And they’re willing to help you out. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun to compete against your friends. And you make a lot of friends.”
The Thompsons have all travelled to compete. While Donna and Jack would often go to games in Arizona, Chad has gone as far as Pitlochry, Scotland, to compete. “I went in 2019. It was wonderful,” he said.
During his and Lara’s travels in Scotland, Chad said that he enjoyed driving around to locate some of the region’s famous lifting stones, or “manhood stones,” to try and lift himself. The stones are heavy, natural rocks located throughout northern Europe that have been used for centuries as a way for tourists and locals alike to prove their strength.
“I think they’re around 225 to 250 pounds,” said Chad. “The goal is to pick it up to at least chest level. If you can shoulder it, that’s another thing.”
The Thompsons have a collection of trophies earned throughout their time competing. Both Donna and Jack wear hand-woven wire necklaces—created by Rio Grande Valley Celtic Association co-director Grant Oliver—that they won in previous competitions.
“That is the coveted prize,” said Donna. “To win a necklace was very special.”
The family has also won medallions, plaques, wood carvings, and hand-thrown plates through their performances in past games. Chad even won a broadsword.
But it’s not the accolades that keep the Thompsons competing, nor is it the desire to be the best athlete on the pitch.
“It’s you competing against yourself,” Chad said. “You can’t know it all, and every year, every practice even, you learn just a little something different, whether it’s about one of your throws or someone else’s. It’s a learning process that’s just never ending.”
“It’s like eating peanuts,” said Donna. “You just keep going back for more. Even if you hurt yourself, you go to practice, because you’re going to have lunch with the group, or you’re going to coach someone. You get very excited for the successes of your friends.”
To see the Thompsons and other Highlands games enthusiasts show you their strength, stop by the 4th Annual Edgewood Celtic Festival on October 16 and 17 at Venus Park. The event will feature not only heavy athletics, but also vendors, food and libations, piping, Celtic dancing, bands and more.