If you’re going to fly to the North American championships of the Scottish Highland Games, you’ll need to check your pitchfork with your luggage.
That’s according to Danielle Moorad, physical therapist at Mountain Land Physical Therapy in Tooele. Moorad won eighth in the women’s lightweight division of the national highland games in November 2018.
“I actually have a pitchfork that breaks down so the handle comes apart, and I put it in my luggage, and I checked it,” Moorad said. “I traveled with a tool chest full of all sorts of goodies and my pitchfork, and I’m sure everything got searched.”
It was only her second season, and her first full season competing. It was also the first season that Brittany Hartshorn, a medical laboratory scientist who also lives in Tooele, started to compete.
Both Moorad and Hartshorn have Scottish heritages, a desire to stay fit in a fun way, and a deep love of the people they compete with. During the games, they compete in a variety of different events that require them to throw heavy weights over distance or into the air.
The sheaf, or the pitchfork, is just one of those events. In this event, they use the pitchfork to toss a burlap sack with a weight in it up over a bar.
“I was going for a state record at one of the games last year and I was throwing sheaf, and on my backswing, the sheaf fell off my fork,” Moorad said. “The whole crowd was watching me.”
Luckily, competitors get three tries. She laughed it off and threw again.
“I actually did really well on the last one and got the state record,” she said. “I’ve since beat that record, which is even cooler. I hold the state record at 23 feet right now.”
Her new goal is to get a world record within the next five years. Meanwhile, Hartshorn is setting her own personal records, in spite of a severe wrist injury last fall.
“Brittany has done phenomenally,” Moorad said. “Even having an off season where she struggled because of her wrist, she came back, and she and I were the only two who flipped the caber on the first try.”
In the caber toss event, participants hold and toss a log. Moorad remembers seeing this event for the first time when she was 12 years old, on vacation with her family in Scotland. She watched the caber toss and appreciated how the contestants threw heavy stones even in the rain.
“Of course, I was a kid, so these people were like giants throwing telephone poles,” she said.
Moorad’s love of the games was reinforced in high school, when a track and field coach brought stones to throw instead of shot puts.
Years later, she realized she needed to find a way to exercise that kept her motivated. She realized she missed competing, and she remembered hearing about the highland games in Salt Lake. The people she talked to on Facebook about the highland games encouraged her to sign up and try.
“And so I did,” she said. “I hadn’t practiced at all.”
That was September 2017, near the end of the season.
“I just showed up,” Moorad said. “They teach you what to do, and then you do it. I ended up getting second place in my first games. The girl above me got first with the difference of just one point. It came down to the very last throw of the very last event, which I’m very thankful for now because it motivated me to work really hard in the off season.”
Moorad competed again in May 2018. “That started my first full season and I ended up doing really well,” she said. “I absolutely fell in love with the sport. I love the people, I love the events, I love the whole festival, and wearing a kilt is just awesome.”
Because of her heritage, Moorad wears a MacDonald Kilt. Hartshorn, who joined Moorad for practices that summer following her own trip to Scotland, wears a Steward tartan kilt from one of her own family lines.
“That’s fun,” Hartshorn said. “Women have kilted skirts, but an actual kilt is typically for guys. This gave me an excuse to be able to wear a kilt.”
In fact, wearing a kilt is one of the requirements of participating in the highland games. For Hartshorn, it’s a wonderful connection to her family history.
“I love everything Scotland,” she said. “When being able to go to Scotland fell into my lap last year, I started looking into family history even more.”
Hartshorn traveled to Scotland with two friends from work. She spent two weeks there, and when she came back, she looked up the highland games and started searching for someone in Tooele to practice with. She found Moorad.
Since then, Moorad and Hartshorn practice during the season a few days each week. Their scores from the games they attend add up over the season. Last year Moorad scored high enough to attend the North American Championships in Arizona in November.
That’s when she packed her pitchfork.
Sheaf and caber toss aren’t the only events they train for, though. There’s the open stone, the Braemer stone, the light weight for distance, heavy weight for distance, light hammer, heavy hammer, and the weight over bar, too.
When they’re not training together, Moorad and Hartshorn work out on their own.
“After nationals, we basically go into off season, which for me entailed weightlifting every other day,” Moorad said. “I usually work out four to five days a week. Getting stronger is ultimately the goal.”
“We’ve been going about twice a week,” Hartshorn said of training during the highland games season. “And then I’ve been trying to work out myself about four times a week, so there’s a bit of training that goes into it.”
The best way to prepare for something like this, Hartshorn said, is to practice throwing heavy items.
“What I want is just to get stronger at every games,” she said.
The camaraderie makes a difference, too. Recently a few more people from Tooele Valley have joined Moorad and Hartshorn at their practices.
“I now train with a group of three to five people, a few nights a week,” Moorad said, “It’s definitely growing.”
Mostly women have come to the practices so far. The people who have joined have usually started with the utahheavyathletics.com website or the Utah Heavy Athletics Facebook page. When they start asking about practices in Tooele, they’re referred to Moorad.
“They just show up to practice, and we go from there,” Moorad said. “I’d love to have a really good mixed group of people who just want to get together and throw.”
Holding a highland games event in Tooele Valley is one of Moorad’s dreams, but it would require finding a field where they could put stakes in the ground and set up their equipment. She said she might try to find a way to host one in Tooele Valley in the next year or two.
Meanwhile, she and Hartshorn plan to continue enjoying the fun at the highland games held around the state. There is usually one event every month between April and September, and another one in November.
“I like practice, but the competitions in this group of people is just phenomenal, too,” Moorad said. “One of the reasons I continue to compete is because of the atmosphere. I’ve never been in a sport where everybody was so encouraging and so supportive. We’re all out there just throwing stuff, having a good time, chit-chatting, giving each other a hard time and encouraging everybody to do better. It’s like a family atmosphere.”
The love of the highland games is growing across the state as well as in Tooele Valley. Ten years ago, only three women in the state competed. Now there are around 30, with four different competing classes. Hartshorn likes the community, too, and she likes the way the games have enriched her life.
“I started looking into it not just for the family history side, but also as a motivation to get into better shape in a fun, unique way,” she said. “It’s just fun, and we’ll see where it goes.”
This past weekend, at the most recent games competition, Moorad set a state record for the lightweight hammer event, with a throw of 70 feet, eight inches. She also won the national sheaf championship for 2019, and she’s still the reigning national hammer champion from 2018.
“It’s just amazing,” Moorad said. “I’m healthier, and I’m happier. Life is awesome, and I’m passionate about the games.”