Garrett Blatnik, an Appalachian State senior, approaches the caber – a roughly 20-foot tall, telephone-pole-like structure – for a second attempt. He stands it up and bends over to brace it against his shoulder. Hidden beneath his black and gold kilt, his legs explode with enough force to lift the caber into the air.
He backpedals seven or eight steps. Then four or five more. Just as it appears that the wooden mast, which triples Blatnik’s 6-foot-3 stature, has gathered too much backwards momentum, he readjusts his hands to reassert control.
He slams his shoulder into the wooden log, steps forward as the beam begins to reverse motion, and belts out a reverberating roar as he pulls the bottom of the timber mass towards himself. The motion is so powerful he leaves his feet, generating enough force from his 275-pound frame to turn it end over end – a perfect score.
It’s the first time he has ever successfully flipped the caber, an elusive feat many Highland Game competitors never accomplish. Perhaps more surprisingly, at 22, it’s only his sixth time competing, and he’s already overcome the event that sandbagged his scores in previous games.
The caber is one of nine events that comprise today’s Scottish Heavy Athletics, or the Highland Games. The sport’s tradition is believed to date back to almost 2000 B.C., but its documented history begins well over a millennium ago to Scotland, when Malcolm III began using the contests in 1040 A.D. as a method of selecting the most battle-ready soldiers.
Today, kilted fanatics gather to celebrate Gaelic tradition with music, dance, libation and competition. Athletes gather to showcase feats of strength by throwing objects for distance, flipping structures and tossing bags of hay with a pitchfork, known as a “sheaf,” for height.
For Blatnik, getting involved with the Games was a family affair.
His brother Justin Blatnik, a graduate from Appalachian State, had been throwing for roughly three years before Garrett Blatnik got involved. During his time in Boone, Justin Blatnik met Travis Gardner, a Highland Games athlete, who introduced him to the competition.
Garrett Blatnik, a multiple-sport athlete for the majority of his life, said his interest in the sport began when his brother asked him to practice with him in the backyard. Because the Games are not wildly popular in the U.S., most competitors, including professionals, end up practicing in backyards or open fields.
“After football, I wasn’t able to compete in anything, and I didn’t feel like I was strong enough to get into powerlifting, so it gave me something to do,” Garrett Blatnik said.
Although he doesn’t officially count it, Garrett Blatnik “threw” in his first Games in the second weekend of October in 2013, but didn’t join a league or really even practice until the following June.
He said his first Games, in which he competed in only the sheaf and the weight over bar events, was a disaster.
“They taught me on the fly,” Blatnik said. “I was in the point between getting really hurt and somehow walking away unscathed, so that was sort of nice.”
But on June 13, 2014, Garrett competed for the first time as a member of the Highland Games League.
The Highland Games League organizes a men’s and women’s series in the fall and spring, selecting events from across the Southeastern U.S. for its league members to compete in.
Ted Leger, founder of the league, selects six events for each series, and keeps a running total of the results. The overall winner at each event receives 100 points for the win, second place receives 90, and so on.
But being a Highland Games athlete has its trials.
Garrett Blatnik, like virtually every amateur athlete in the sport, foots his own bill for the cost of travel, food and equipment. Athletes that are not a member of the Highland Games League must even cover the costs of injury.
“In Clover, I saw two athletes on the same exact day tear their biceps,” Leger said. “One of the guys had insurance through work, so he was OK. The other guy didn’t. He’s still paying for that.”
Leger said that many athletes in the HGL live almost paycheck to paycheck, utilizing their vacation days in order to compete, which is why his league offers insurance coverage to members for injuries.
And while each individual Games has prizes for winners, they are often workout supplements, vouchers to certain stores, or other small rewards, meaning the athletes compete primarily for the love of the sport, Garrett Blatnik said.
But after finally flipping the caber in Wilmington in April and still finishing second, Garrett Blatnik said he decided he “needed to get his ass in gear,” to win.
He drove to Asheville multiple weekends to practice with Gardner to improve his game. One weekend the two traveled to Denver, North Carolina, to train with former pro Highland Games athlete Eric Frasure.
The following weekend, Garrett Blatnik’s game exploded.
He traveled to Ormond Beach, Florida, and threw alongside Gardner and the other “A,” or higher level competitors, despite technically competing against the “B,” or lower level of competitors, in the standings.
He shattered his previous records in three events, even out-throwing Gardner in one of them.
Garrett Blatnik’s performance in the lightweight throw surprised him most.
“I blacked out,” Garrett Blatnik said. “I don’t know how I did it. I just remember starting to throw, looking down to see my toes at the toe board, and thinking ‘What just happened?’”
For the first time, Garrett Blatnik won first place, and it wouldn’t be his last.
He carried that momentum into the rest of the season. Including Ormond Beach, Garrett Blatnik placed first in the last five games of the Highland Games League series.
Out of a possible 600 points, he finished the season with 590. The next closest competitor in the “B” category finished with 410.
At season’s end in August, Garrett Blatnik made the jump into the “A” category, where he’ll compete going forward.
“He did rise up pretty quickly,” Leger said. “The thing is, yeah, you can rise up pretty quickly, but once you’re with the ‘A’s,’ it’s a whole different level.”
Stephanie Moe, Garrett Blatnik’s girlfriend, travels to the majority of his Games to watch him compete and said his transformation as a Highland Games athlete has been impressive to follow.
“To see [Garrett] go from not knowing what he was doing to winning by such a large margin in only a year has been awesome,” Moe said. “He’s just so committed to getting better.”
Although Garrett Blatnik hopes to be invited to become a paid pro by 25, it’s the comradery of the Games that makes enduring the costs on a college budget worthwhile.
“I see about 10 to 15 of the same guys every weekend that I throw,” he said. “That’s been 14 weekends alone this year. They’re some of my closest friends. They’d do anything for me, and I’d do anything for them.”
Story by: Chris Warner, Sports Editor