The Scottish Highland Games is rife with a whole host of amazing throwers. Over the course of history, many gifted athletes have donned a kilt and hurled the stones, hammers, weights and cabers of the world. Arguably one of the longest tenured sports, the Highland Games poses some difficulty in narrowing down the list of the greatest to just five, but … I’m gonna try.
So starts my list of the five greatest heavy athletes in Scottish Highland Games history. Let’s break down the criteria I used to help me with this endeavor:
- World Championships Won
- Longevity of Dominance
- Personal Bests in Relation to History
- Personal Bests in Relation to Fellow Contemporaries
Staring off this list of incredible throwers is none other than the “Big Chief,” Jim McGoldrick. Winner of five World Championships, Jim McGoldrick came to the sport the same way that many do - from Track and Field. Specializing in the dicus, Jim threw 65.56m (215’1”) while chasing the elusive national spots against the likes of Mac Wilkins.
Jim got into the sport a little later than he had liked; looking back, he wishes he had started earlier, as he won his fifth world title at age 40. Perhaps that late start is what made it hardest for him to compete in as many games. For years, people have told me that McGoldrick kept his games number low each year so he could peak for the games he wanted to and better control his throws for the season. Jim, said otherwise, “I couldn’t get into as many games as the others! I usually threw at 10-12 games a year, with 17 or 18 being my most.”
Considered by many to be the greatest caber tosser in history, I asked Jim how he got so good at. His response was simple, yet missed by many of the throwers today, “I practiced. There was an open field across from my apartment, so I’d go throw the caber there by myself. It was 18 to 18 feet six inches, and around 130 pounds. I’d stand the caber up against some spikes I drove into the ground, pick it, and then throw.”
Even for Jim, it wasnt always 12:00s for him - he had his downs in the event. He tells the story of 1983 in Santa Rosa when Bill Anderson and Grant Anderson were helping him to figure out the event. “Grant was telling me I was pulling it way too late. He simply told me to pull earlier, so I gave it a go on my second throw. I pulled so early on that stick that it fell back at 90 degrees. But, I turned it on my third throw.” If you aren't up on your games history, those are three names synonymous with Caber greatness.
In 1986, this distinction as caber expert was further reiterated, again, by another champion, Bill Anderson. Jim tells the story, and it’s one I wish I could have experienced in person. “It was a top heavy stick that we had to throw in wood chips. I had turned it and walked back and asked Bill, ‘Bill, what’s the toughest stick you’ve ever seen?’ Bill looked at me and said, ‘That one you just turned!’”
Even with five world titles, McGoldrick still had his weak events. “The hardest part was figuring out the hammers. I found that the best style for me was the Sandford style - more of a wind over the right side of my body. You see, during my era, you could survive with a couple of bad events.”
Modest as he is, even McGoldrick's "weak events" could still win.
It was McGoldrick’s body that finally did him in. “My ideal competition weight was 255-265 pounds, but as I got older I tired compensate with greater strength and size to help me power through the events. I was over 280 pounds in my last year, and that was simply too heavy for me.”
I asked Jim who his best throwers of all time might include, and without hesitation he included Geoff Capes of England. “Geoff does not get the credit he deserves. He was so dominant. You couldn’t beat him in the stones or the weights for distance. You hoped to equal him in the weight over bar, but when he was 360-370 pounds, he was at his best in the sport.” Two-time World Champion Grant Anderson is also on McGoldrick’s list of some of the greatest.
In the end, Jim’s greatest part of the journey isn’t his five titles or countless victories, but the relationships and bonds he built along the way. “I just got off the phone with Phil Martin. I wouldn’t know him or have him as a friend all these years if it weren’t for the Highland Games.”
Jim McGoldrick. One of the greatest this sport has seen, and will ever see. Oh, and not even Jim knows where the nickname, “Big Chief” came from … he figures he owes Phil Martin some thanks for that one.
(photos from Jim Jardine)
Jim McGoldrick Stats:
World Champion (1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993)
Braemar Stone: 46’8”
Open Stone: 55’6”
Heavy Weight for Distance: 42'3"
Light Weight for Distance: 88’11”
Heavy Hammer: 110’
Light Hammer: 132’11”
Weight Over Bar: 17’3”
(Personal bests courtesy of The Warrior Breed by Douglas Edmunds)