published Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Heading to Highland

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    This is local Highland Games competitor Rhonda Swaney with the sheaf toss equipment. Contributed Photo

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    Highland Games international competitor Rob Hatch is in the 56-pound weight-over-bar competition in the world championships in Scotland. Contributed Photo

Rhonda Swaney is competing in her first Highland Games this weekend at Maryville College.

The training already has made a big difference in her life.

Swaney, a 36-year-old mother of three who works for SCORE International and teaches classes at Dalton State College, says she has lost 70 pounds in the past year, working with personal trainer Rob Hatch. Inspired by Hatch, head of the Chattanooga Highland Athletics Team and reigning masters champion in South Carolina and Florida, she has been training for the tradition Celtic competition the past three months.

All the events involve strength or power coordination, and all are tied to specific events in Scottish history, Hatch said. The Braemar Stone throw, for example, relates to the English assault on Scotland’s Braemar Castle in 1504, when the castle defenders resorted to heaving interior stones on the attackers from confined spaces.

“Personal training and Highland Games — this is my passion right now,” said Swaney, who is working on certification for fitness instruction and starting women’s kickboxing classes in June. “It’s amazing how it all works together. The 70 pounds just melted down.”

Hatch, 42, has been competing for five years. After vying for the Tennessee state championship in Maryville, he’ll be at Greenville, S.C., the next weekend. He has been to world championships and was ranked No. 1 in the nation among amateurs two years ago but hurt his back last year.

“My grandfather was Scottish,” said Hatch, admittedly interested in the tradition aspects of the games. “I played football in college and did other sports, but as I’ve gotten older I like doing just power and strength events. These are like strong-man events, except that they’re the same all the time and all over the world.”

There are pros, he said, whose livelihood is centered in strong-man and Highland competition. Many of those will be taking part Saturday at Maryville College, a Presbyterian institution whose sports teams are the Fighting Scots. The former Gatlinburg games moved there.

Many people know about the South’s largest annual Highland events at North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain and Georgia’s Stone Mountain. The Greenville gathering is the third largest. But increasing sites are springing up throughout the region and the country.

Hatch runs the Highland Games at the Appalachian Celtic Festival on Labor Day in Ringgold, formerly in Chickamauga, and is working to increase area participation. So is Swaney, one of two women from Hatch’s studio in East Ridge who will be competing this weekend.

Her father is Ron Bishop, a former multisport athlete and coach best known for basketball success at Tennessee Temple University and taking teams throughout the world in his SCORE organization.

“Now I understand better his love for competition,” Swaney said. “My goal is to try to inspire women that they too can be involved with sports and competitions even in their late 30s or older.”

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