Heavy lifting: Carmel resident displays throwing skills in Highland Games


Greg Pilling has a simple way of describing his favorite pastime.

“I put on a kilt and throw heavy things,” he said.

Pilling will soon compete in the Scottish Highland Games, part of the Arnold Sports Festival set for March 3 to 6 in Columbus, Ohio. The games were founded by actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who first gained fame as a bodybuilder.

Pilling, a Carmel resident of eight years, said the Highland Games have up to nine events, depending on the venue. Because the Arnold Festival is indoors, Pilling said organizers cut out events where competitors throw things farther because of limited space.

This year there will be five events, some of which Pilling said are similar to track and field throwing events.

“The stone put is like shot put,” said Pilling, who competes in the lightweight division. “We throw a 42-pound weight with one hand. It’s a technique similar to the discus, but, of course, the weight is significantly heavier.”

That same 42-pound weight is thrown over a bar for height.

The caber toss is the marquee event, Pilling said.

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Greg Pilling prepares to throw a caber at Magnus Mayhem’s Highland Games in 2019 in Plainfield.

“It’s a log you are flipping over, and the goal is to get it to land as aligned in the direction you are moving in,” he said. “Caber is Gaelic for ‘tree.’”

The last event is sheaf toss, where a pitchfork is used to throw a burlap sack with 20 pounds of twine over a bar.

“It comes from a sheaf of hay or straw that the farmers would use with a pitchfork,” said Pilling, a 38-year-old mortgage banker with Teachers Credit Union.

The lightweight division is for competitors less than 200 pounds. The 5-foot-11 Pilling said he weighs around 205 pounds and usually drops a little weight before competitions.

Pilling’s favorite event is throwing a 28-pound weight for distance, which won’t be part of the festival because of indoor restraints.

“My best for that is 69 feet, 10 inches,” said Pilling, who began helping coach the throwers this year at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. “It’s the most comparable to discus throwing.”

Besides weightlifting, Pilling said he prepares by throwing outdoors.

“It makes it difficult when there is snow on the ground,” Pilling said. “The sheaf toss, I don’t necessarily throw it at a bar. I can go outside in my cul de sac and throw it for height. I can work at the technique and not worry about measuring how high it’s going.”

Pilling said the caber toss is a technique event, and because he has done it for 10 years, he has a good feel for it.

Pilling threw the discus and hammer for Central Michigan University, completing his eligibility in 2010. He set the school record in discus with a throw of 197 feet, 2 inches. Pilling, who grew up in Canada, placed eighth in the 2009 NCAA Track and Field Championships.

“The way things are going it seems like I’m going to always have that (record),” he said.

Central Michigan cut men’s track and field in May 2020 to save money after being hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After graduating, Pilling moved to Saline, Mich., which had a Celtic Festival featuring Highland Games. He and his brother, John, competed in the Celtic Festival for the first time in 2012.

Pilling’s brother continues to compete as a pro while Pilling competes in the amateur division. John, who also competed in throws at Central Michigan, lives in Saginaw, Mich.

Pilling, who has Scottish ancestry and whose great-grandmother was named MacDonald, owns seven kilts, including the MacDonald tartan, which has a pattern of plaid for members of the MacDonald, or Donald, Clan.

Pilling typically competes in five Highland Games per summer. His wife, Elizabeth, and three children, Daniel, 13, Andrew, 10, and Sarah, 6, sometimes come to the events.

“They show up for a couple hours and cheer me on, but then it gets kind of old,” Pilling said.

Chris Snodgrass celebrates after a perfect turn of the caber at the Indianapolis Highland Games. (Photo courtesy of Chris Snodgrass)

Pilling often trains with another Carmel resident, Chris Snodgrass, who competes in the open division. However, Snodgrass has a conflict and won’t be able to compete at the Arnold Festival.

The 6-foot-3, 275-pound Snodgrass competes in six to eight Highland Games per year. His wife, Jessica, previously competed but has retired from competition.

“Greg is an awesome competitor,” Snodgrass said. “He has a phenomenal throwing background. He is a super good friend on the field. He’s not in my class, but I know he and the other guys in his division get pretty intense. He trains really well.”

Pilling placed third in the lightweight division in the 2020 national championship, the only time he has competed in that competition.