Her legs give her away. You have come to Mill Valley, Calif., in search of the Queen. Could this be she? The woman approaching your table is wearing abbreviated white shorts revealing legs that could only have been sculpted on a squat rack, the sort of legs seen on American Gladiators, where the Queen once did battle. You stand and introduce yourself to Shannon Hartnett, queen of the Scottish Heavy Events, a woman who could toss you into traffic as easily as she tosses a caber.
Instead of heaving you, however, Hartnett goes to the counter for a cup of coffee and a nonfat muffin, leaving her dog, a pit bull mix named Athena, at the table. Admiring slackers stop to pet the dog. Overseas, it is Athena's owner who is accorded the status of a goddess. In Great Britain—Scotland in particular—Hartnett struggles to cope with autograph requests and is featured in the tabloids, which cannot resist a buff, blonde, kilted Californian who crosses the Atlantic to school the Scots in their own Highland Games. Hartnett, 35, is a former heptathlete who discovered the Heavy Events 11 years ago and has competed in a kilt ever since. She holds eight world records and won her fifth Women's World Championship in February.
Are you in need of a primer? Is your knowledge of Scottish Heavy Events limited to the sight of that kilted ogre launching a caber at the beginning of ABC's Wide World of Sports? There are eight events at such competitions, which take place the world over but are concentrated in Great Britain and North America. All events involve the throwing of heavy objects: a light (14 pounds) weight and a heavy (28 pounds) weight thrown for distance; a light (12 pounds) and a heavy (16 pounds) hammer thrown for distance; an unwieldy looking 16-pound rock called a Braemar Stone, and the Open Stone (12-14 pounds) also for distance; and a heavy (28 pounds) weight thrown for height. Finally there is the caber, in which the athlete must pick an 18-foot pole off the ground, prop it in his or her hands, weave drunkenly for a few steps, then throw it end over end. Tosses are scored for accuracy, based on where the caber is pointing when it lands.
In the background are bagpipers, Scottish dancers and ale-swilling spectators. It is the festive, county-fair atmosphere of such events that drew Hartnett into this tartan universe. Hartnett, the daughter of two teachers, finds "the dancing, the culture, the camaraderie much more interesting" than a track meet.
After competing in the heptathlon at Sonoma State, Hartnett decided in 1989 to concentrate on the hammer throw. However, as Scottish bard Robert Burns wrote, "The best laid schemes o' mice and men/Gang aft a-gley."
Hartnett's coach in the hammer, Jan Desoto, talked her into entering the 1989 Sacramento Highland Games. "I was reluctant," she says. "The idea of going out with a bunch of big guys and competing in a skirt seemed silly." She won the women's division, outperforming many of the men to boot, and set several event records.
Sitting around talking to some of the guys after the meet, Hartnett asked where the next competition was. "You can't go," she was told. "They don't allow women." Rather than accept that, Hartnett found out what the qualifying distances were for the events and bettered them, embarrassing the event's directors into allowing her to compete. Those were the dark ages of women's Highland Games. Few competitions included a women's division, and some of those tended to patronize their distaff participants, offering what might have been called the Betty Crocker Events: the frying pan toss and the rolling pin toss. "I hold the world record in the rolling pin," says Hartnett, who employed a discus thrower's spin to fling that baker's implement 110 feet. "It's not a record that I'm real proud of."
In the intervening decade Hartnett has played a major role in opening Highland Events to women. While much remains to be done—"Some places, while the men compete in front of the bleachers, I'm over by the Port-a-Potties, breaking world records," she says—much progress has been made. Hartnett recently cofounded HELGA (Heavy Events Ladies Games Association), which works to set up women's events in Scotland. It is there, in the birthplace of these curious contests, where she is best known. Young fans line up 30 deep for her autograph, and she fields an occasional marriage proposal. (That Hartnett is discreetly dating a fellow competitor would come as a disappointment, one senses, to some of her more ardent fans.)
The Queen's popularity is based on her generosity—she gives many of her medals to people in the crowd—and her Lilliputian stature in a Brobdingnagian sport. At 5'8", 145 pounds, Hartnett competes against much larger ladies. "She was very quick to pick up the different techniques that are required," says five-time world champion Jim McGoldrick. "She's a brilliant athlete, and she is amazingly strong."
Hartnett owns Body Central, a health club in Santa Rosa, Calif., but hardly limits her training to weightlifting. She surfs, practices karate, rides a mountain bike, is mad for yoga and trekked in the Himalayas in 1998. "I love to travel," she says, "so competing in Highland Games is an ideal job."