Terri Ventress wasn’t looking for love, but she found it anyway. There she was at a Scottish festival in Midwest City, Oklahoma, with her husband, Laurence, and two young children. She was focused on managing the kids’ strollers and meals while enjoying the music, the food and the people when she heard her name.
“Hey, Terri, I’ve been watching these athletes over here and I’m going to throw,” she recalls her husband saying. “I’m like, ‘You’re going to throw what?'”
Laurence had been talking to some of the kilted athletes in the Highlands Games competition while watching them toss a variety of heavy objects. And he had decided to try it.
So, Terri and the kids spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out with their new friends, learning about the sport and watching Laurence actually win his category. When one of those friends invited her to work out with his training group to prep for a local competition in two months, Terri said aye. Then — surprise again — she won it.
From that day in May 1997, she’s been head over heels for an unusual sport where she flings large stones, logs, Scottish hammers and even hay bales. At just under 6 feet tall, Ventress — a former competitive swimmer, softball and basketball player and track athlete — found her perfect athletic calling at age 35.
“I’ve got long levers and I’ve always really been athletic, so it’s kind of a good fit for me,” she says. “But I think, too, I really like having to work hard. I’m not happy if I’m not.”
At 56, Ventress puts in the effort every week to keep herself fit. Even after a hip replacement three years ago, she lifts free weights three to four times per week with a trainer as part of her regular regimen. She’s stronger and better than ever at what’s known as the Scottish Highland Games, or heavy athletics. Ventress won three consecutive world masters championships in her 50-55 age group from 2012 through 2014 and set eight world records. Since returning from hip surgery, she’s set six world records in her new age group.
There’s a lot she enjoys about the sport, aside from the sweat she has to put into it. Near the top of the list are the people. Many of those she met at that festival 21 years ago are dear friends. She and her husband have been struck, too, by how willing athletes are to help their competitors with advice.
There’s also the constant pursuit of the perfect throw. Yes, she has to be strong to heave a caber (log) or heavy stone. But her technique has to be exact and her timing perfect or she could injure herself or send the heavy missile off course. She likens it to hitting a perfect golf shot.
“You know how it feels when you hit that shot that’s just beautiful and exactly what you intended?” she asks. “Well, virtually each one of these events is that very same way. The technique is hard enough that [often] things don’t come off just the way they should. But then there’s that time that everything is timed exactly perfectly and that weight goes flying out of your hands, and it hooks you. It keeps you coming back. So in that way it’s like golf. Maybe there’s a reason they’re both Scottish. We kind of torture ourselves.”
Competing in a Highland Games — which consists entirely of throwing disciplines, either for distance or height — is an all-day marathon. Each competition goes from morning to late afternoon. Every athlete must do each discipline, usually starting with a throw of the “Braemar” stone — which weighs about 13 to 18 pounds and has no uniform shape. Other objects thrown range in weight from about 8 pounds to nearly 30. Perhaps the best-known event, though, is the caber toss, with athletes balancing and then throwing a log of about 70 pounds (for women) and 16 feet. “Everyone’s seen the log, the telephone pole, right?” she says. “Everybody knows us by that event.”
Ventress’ favorite — and possibly best — event is the sheaf toss, which involves tossing a small simulated hay bale of about 10 pounds over a crossbar at a height similar to what a pole vaulter would clear. Ventress set the open division record for women in 2001. That record was 26 feet, but it was broken two weeks later, and the top women are so much stronger now that the current record is 35 feet.
All the events derive from something in Scottish culture, warfare or farming. Some competitors don’t like the sheaf toss. “A lot of them think it’s kind of hokey,” she says. “What are you doing, throwing hay bales up in the barn? Probably, right. But I think a lot of us really embrace it because it’s unique.”
To be successful, Highland Games athletes need a combination of strength, explosiveness and technique, plus timing. You can’t let go early or late. You need the right release point like a baseball or softball pitcher, particularly with the for-height throws. You can put together a world-record heave, but if it goes wide right or left, you’re out of luck.
Ventress and her husband (who had to give up competing because of an injury about five years ago) live in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She recently left Oklahoma State, where she worked five years as a senior design engineer at the New Product Development Center, to launch her own business, which will produce clean nutritional supplements.
Ventress pays a lot of attention to her nutrition — especially focusing on proteins for strength — but grew frustrated because so many of the supplements contained chemicals and ingredients she believes are harmful. It’s a big leap to start something new, but she says “at this point in my life, I figured it was either now or never.”
She takes an analytical view of everything she does, whether in sport or business. She has her masters in chemical engineering and has worked as an engineer in manufacturing and design for about 30 years. Just a few years ago, she started working with a new trainer, James Bullock, whom she wishes she’d met 20 years ago. She started lifting weights when she was 14, but since working with Bullock, who emphasizes free weights, she’s stronger than she’s ever been. Her three to four sessions a week with him can last an hour to 90 minutes, and she loves her progress.
Over the years, Ventress says she’s come to terms with the fact she doesn’t need balance in her life. She cites 2014 as an example. After winning the masters age group world titles in 2012 and 2013, it was important to her to win a third straight in Scotland — the sport’s birthplace — in the city of Inverness.
She says getting that third straight championship “was like everything I was living for.” All she did was work, train and compete. All her energy was focused on getting to the top of the podium in Inverness.
“That whole balance thing? That’s kind of a myth,” she says. “If you’re really going for something like that, it affects everything, every day, your focus, your meals, your training.”
But, she won the title and had a great vacation in Scotland and Northern Ireland with her husband and mother-in-law to boot. Says Ventress: “It was fantastic.”
Because of her new venture, she’s not competing as much this year. She’ll compete in about five Games in 2018, but in some years, she’s done as many as 17. Still, she continues to train hard.
When she received her new hip, her surgeon told her, “You’re never going to wear this hip out.”
“I thought, ‘Challenge accepted!'” she recalls, laughing.