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Dedicated athletes prepare for Spokane Highland Games

When Big Jon McKenzie emerges from his vehicle with the telephone polls strapped to the top, it’s obvious he’s not headed home to continue some landscaping project.

What man landscapes in a skirt?

On the other hand, what man picks up an 18-foot, 100-pound pole, balances it in his hands, lumbers forward, jump stops and then flips it up and out?

McKenzie is the driving force behind the Spokane Highland Games and the reason they will be conducted in conjunction with the first International Highland Games Federation amateur world championships at the Spokane Fairgrounds on Aug. 6.

“It was just a hobby,” the 6-foot-1, 320-pound McKenzie said before a recent practice, in kilt, at a park in Rathdrum. “I got into it seriously three years ago. Now I travel all over. People still giggle but when they see someone my size in a kilt, they don’t say too much.”

The Spokane games, which draw a small cult and a few curious onlookers each summer, have been staged for more than half a century.

McKenzie, aware of the success of Bloomsday and Hoopfest and the support for a wide variety of sports, mainstream and otherwise, thought this would be a perfect place for the inaugural amateur world championship for his obsession of choice.

“Spokane is the place for it,” he said. “We have such a vast amount of sports that have happened here. We’re a sports hub. Why not? Let’s see how this goes over.”

The Highland Games are familiar to most, if only because the unique events have been featured on such prominent shows as Wide World of Sports over the years. The pole flip is called caber, the point of which is not distance but to get a perfect landing of 12 o’clock from the point of release. There is a hammer throw, literally, as well as real rocks masquerading as shot puts.

“I’ve been to the games and thought they looked like fun,” said Kayla Buchanan, a personal trainer in Rathdrum who will compete in the Spokane games for the first time. “It’s something my husband and I can do together. … It’s challenging. It pushes us to work harder.”

“She talked me into it,” Dirk Buchanan confirmed. “I’ve been to the Highland Games a couple of times and it looked like fun. It’s part of my family heritage. It’s more about having fun than an actual competition.”

There are about a dozen events, with more than half featured at most competitions. Each event is scored like a decathlon, with points awarded on the results.

There are professional competitions world wide – the top finishers from the international segment are going to be granted professional status – and there is a website with rankings and records, but for the most part it’s a personal thing.

“It’s not a competition between people,” said McKenzie, just the second generation of a Scottish family born in America. “That’s the glorious thing about our sport … everybody is out there helping you along, but you’re not competing against them, you’re competing against yourself.”

The soft-spoken man beamed when recalling the reaction to a personal record he established at a recent competition.

McKenzie, born on the west side and raised in Libby, Mont., was exposed to Highland Games early, but his interest was in football and rodeo. He favored the rough stock events despite his steer wrestler’s size.

He had hoped to play college football but ended up joining the Army. When he got out he settled in Spokane, gravitating to the local Highland Games.

A successful business venture with his wife, Jessica, allowed him the opportunity to take his passion to the next level.

“Every minute of every day is a mental battle,” he said of organizing the international competition. “It’s very draining. But it will be worth it seeing the sport grow, letting people and helping people become aware of what Scotland has given to this nation and its people.”

The IHGF isn’t just the central organization for Highland Games. According to McKenzie, it sanctions power lifting and world strongman events.

“Anything to do with athletic events for the larger people, big boys and girls,” he said. “I want to bring heavy athletics to Spokane. I want to have someone pull a tractor trailer down Spokane Falls Boulevard. That’s my goal. I want this town to know this is a hub for sports of all types. Let’s bring in the big boys. Let’s have some fun.”

First is the double dose of competition.

The Spokane Games are in the morning, the amateur world championships in the afternoon, with a bunch of Scottish exhibitions on the side.

McKenzie hopes to have about 30 competitors in the local competition and 20 from around the world vying for the championship. Among the entries are Canadian amateur champion Josh Goldthorp from Ontario.

“These athletes have made a life out of athletics and they’re looking for new venues to branch out into,” McKenzie said. “We have Olympic throwers. They played football, baseball, rugby, and they’re looking for new venues to put their energy into.”

Kayla Buchanan can’t wait for her first competition, even in a kilt.

“I used to be a body builder,” she said. “If I could stand in front of an audience in a glitzy bikini all blinged out, I can stand this.”

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