Arizona claims championship at highland games

Hannah Grover

AZTEC — The sixth annual Aztec Highland Games & Celtic Festival pitted athletes from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah against each other in a friendly competition today at Riverside Park.

Michelle Crownhart, of Phoenix, hurls a kettlebell during the Aztec Highland Games & Celtic Festival on Saturday at Riverside Park.

Each year, a trophy is award to the state whose athletes perform the best during the first day of the two-day festival. In 2014 and 2015, New Mexico claimed the title Four Corners Regional Champion. This evening, the New Mexico athletes surrendered the title to Arizona.

Athletes like Heather MacDonald, 31, of Phoenix, helped Arizona secure the honor. MacDonald took first place in the women's open championships.

The former track athlete has been competing in highland games around the country for about a decade.

"It's fun," she said as she waited for her turn competing in the sheaf toss, an event that challenges athletes to toss a burlap bag filled with straw or mulch over a bar using a pitch fork. "It's a little weird, but it's fun."

The weird nature of the games also stood out to Kara Bonham, 31, of Fort Collins, Colo. She has been competing in the highland games for about a year and took fourth place in the women's open today. While she initially thought competitions like the sheaf toss were weird, after a year of competitions, she can now throw the burlap bag of straw and mulch about 19 feet in the air and over the bar.

Chad Thompson, of Albuquerque, competes in the caber toss during the Aztec Highland Games & Celtic Festival Saturday at Riverside Park.

As Bonham waited for her turn to compete in the sheaf toss, she talked with her friends, MacDonald and Mikaela Lovato, 23, of Albuquerque. The three friends met through highland games competitions and, even though they only see each other a few times a year, they talk to each other daily.

The camaraderie of the highland games is one of the aspects that sets it apart, the athletes said.

"Highland games is something where we all help each other," Bonham said.

Michelle Crownhart, 58, of Phoenix, echoed Bonham's sentiment.

"Whether you're the best or the worst, everyone wants to help you get better," she said.

Becca Bishop, of Mesa, Ariz., competes in the sheaf toss during the Aztec Highland Games & Celtic Festival Saturday at Riverside Park in Aztec.

The more than 50 athletes who competed had a wide range of age and experience. While Bonham began competing a year ago, MacDonald has a decade of competition experience, and Crownhart has been competing for 23 years. The highland games also provide a chance for people who have never competed to try their hand at the sport. Novice athletes will have the chance to compete during the games Sunday.

"If you're new, you get help on the spot on the field," MacDonald said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.