Making a sport out of swinging hammers and throwing anvils may initially seem at best like an antiquated hobby. Even so, anyone walking by the Sand Hill Intramural Fields on any given Tuesday or Wednesday night will likely witness an eclectic group of individuals —male and female, young and old— swinging hammers with as much enthusiasm as their kilted predecessors did in Scotland centuries ago.
That eclectic group of individuals coalesces under the auspices of the Cardinal Highland Athletic Club, a recreational athletics group that focuses on indoctrinating the University community in the tradition of Scottish Highland athletics. That diverse grouping of sports includes, among others, the stone put and the caber toss.
Alan Hebert’s reasons for starting the group may, in fact, be just as diverse. Hebert, the club’s co-founder and a self-proclaimed “IT guy” at the School of Medicine’s Beckman Center, said that he was inspired to found the club after developing an interest in the music of river dancing, which he conceded is a traditionally Irish pastime.
“I do have Scottish ancestry, but you have to go way back to find it,” Hebert said. “I got into [Scottish culture] because of the music, really. It’s sort of embarrassing, but I went to riverdance, which is Irish [and] not Scottish.”
After discovering an appreciation for the low whistle, an instrument that typically begins a riverdance, Hebert decided to celebrate the roots of his Anglo-Saxon heritage through kilt wearing and playing Scottish sports with the club.
Bethany Owen, Hebert’s co-captain, currently works with the Stanford Blood Center as a phlebotomist. She originally attended recreational Cardinal Highland club events to support Hebert and other friends but then decided to try throwing for herself.
“It looked like fun,” Owens said. “When I tried it, I was like ‘this is so much more fun than walking around in a tight skirt. I’d rather play.’”
In addition to practicing twice a week, the club also participates in bi-monthly competitions with other highland groups in the Bay Area. On average, there are about seven to 10 events in each competition, with an aggregate scoring system.
Athletes must participate in all events to receive a score. The events include throwing stones, weights, hammers and cabers, in a selection of different weights.
Hebert claimed that despite the extensive history of highland athletics, events created in the United States have begun to seep back into Scottish practices.
“When you go to highland games in Scotland, there are almost always costume running races, and there are often long-distance bicycling races,” Hebert said. “But they have [some throwing events now] that we do.”
The club accepts anyone who expresses interest, regardless of age, gender or Scottish heritage.
“Ted started throwing when he was 64,” Hebert said, in reference to one of their most regular members and a Bay Area local. “I happened to be at the Woodland Games [in Sacramento], and I kept seeing Ted and his wife. He just turned to me and said, ‘What do you have to do to get involved with this?’”
Though the group includes members of all skill levels, some participants take the competition seriously.
One such individual is Summer Pierson ’00, a three-time world champion in throwing. Her time as a discus thrower on Stanford’s track and field team eventually contributed to her interest in highland athletics.
“My coach suggested that I try the highland games, to do something in the off-season that was related, but not exactly similar,” she said. “When it was presented to me, I wasn’t anticipating to be very good at it. I intended to give it my all, but I didn’t intend on ending up a world champion.”
However, after winning her third world championship, Pierson decided to take a break from throwing competitively in order to focus on her career as a genetic counselor in Palo Alto.
“It was getting a little out of hand,” she said. “At what point do we finally say ‘yeah, you’re pretty efficient?’”
Even so, Pierson said that she is considering competing again in the fall.
Beyond the competition, team members cited the club’s camaraderie and the opportunity to let off steam as positive attributes.
“It’s as much about the social aspect as it is about the physical aspect because everybody is very supportive of everybody else,” Owens said. “And when everything else is going crappy, you can go out and throw heavy things and make everything better.”
“For me, it was very competitive,” Pierson added, conceding that most other participants do so recreationally. “For other people, it’s a chance to get out and try something new.”
According to Hebert, that fun-loving and light-hearted spirit is what started the organization in the first place.
“It takes a certain open mindedness to take a crack at this,” he said. “And that’s probably the only unifying characteristic.”
Hebert also emphasized the sport’s broad appeal and ease of access, identifying only three qualifications to compete.
“You have to sign the insurance waiver so you won’t sue anybody, and you have to have a kilt,” he said. “And you have to have whatever crazy inclination it takes to stand up with a rock or a hammer or a caber in front of a whole bunch of people and see what you can do.”