August 8, 2013

Kilts optional at Wichita Highland Games & Celtic Festival

If you think tossing a telephone pole around is tough, try doing it in a skirt.

If you think tossing a telephone pole around is tough, try doing it in a skirt.

That’s one challenge facing competitors in the Wichita Highland Games and Celtic Festival this weekend at Sedgwick County Park, which will feature athletes throwing heavy objects such as stones, hammers and telephone poles.

If local participants need tips, they can look to the professional division, where some of the best kilt-wearing athletes in the world will battle.

“We’re proud to feature a professional division,” festival organizer Richard Cathey said. “I think we’re the only one in this region that has professionals participating. We’re also very fortunate in the caliber of the professionals we have coming.”

The professionals include former world and national champion Sean Betz, who won the last Wichita event, and another former world and national champion, Daniel McKim. The brawny pair went head to head during the last Wichita Highland Games, held in 2011, with Betz narrowly winning.

“It was a very exciting competition between him and Daniel,” Cathey said. “These two are high-caliber athletes.”

Trying to break into the finals will be Chad Gustin, an ER doctor from Orlando who moonlights as a member of the national Highland games team; David Webster Barron, a lawyer from New York; and Nathan Burchett, former U.S. lightweight champion who’s beefed up and is now the U.S. and world amateur Highland games champion.

The men compete in five events, all of which involve throwing some heavy object such as a stone, hammer or bundle of straw. The most popular event is the caber toss, in which they flip over telephone pole-sized lengths of wood, the object being not distance but how directly away from them the top lands.

“It’s always a big crowd pleaser,” Cathey said.

The pro events will be held Saturday. About 60 athletes also are expected to compete in the amateur games, which will be held Saturday and Sunday and include divisions for women and older participants. Registration costs $30 and participants will receive a meal, a T-shirt and two passes to the festival. Betz will conduct a throwing clinic for people wanting to learn about the Highland sports at noon Friday. The cost is $10.

There’s plenty besides athletics to enjoy at the festival, which was first held here in 2010 before taking a hiatus last year.

McDonalds, McClouds and members of Scottish clans will staff booths, offering history and information to anyone wondering about their Celtic heritage. The clans will parade at 3 p.m. each day.

Magicians, comedians, bagpipers and other musicians will perform. There’s a Scottish dog contest at noon on Saturday and an Irish one at noon on Sunday. Scotch tastings – of the beverage, that is – will be offered for adults at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. both days.

Festivalgoers may participate in sheep tossing – the sheep aren’t real – axe throwing and Viking games. Re-enactors will fight the Battle of Bannockburn, a significant Scottish victory in the war for independence from England, at 4 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Anyone dressed in a period costume – the battle was fought in 1314 – is invited to participate in the crowd scenes although the actual fighting will be done by trained actors.

Several vendors will sell food, including purveyors of Oz Highland Beef, which raises Scottish Highland cattle, a traditional breed from Scotland making a comeback in the United States, according to Cathey.

The festival starts with a free hour-long clan welcoming ceremony at 7:30 p.m. Friday. People can buy adult tickets at the discounted price of $8 at that time and get one free pass for a child who’s 12 or under. Those tickets are $10 and $3 respectively on Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s a great family value for people to get tickets ahead of time, especially if they’ve got a lot of kids,” Cathey said.

Don’t worry if you don’t have a skirt handy. Unlike the Midwest Renaissance Festival, which Cathey also organizes, attendees aren’t expected to don period dress although they’re welcome to.

“I have a kilt and I’ll be wearing it, but I’ll also be wearing a T-shirt,” Cathey said. “You don’t have to dress up.”

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