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Local laddies and lassie compete in Highland Games

When you ask General Manager Mike Baltren about the philosophy behind the Encinitas-based gym Ambition Athletics, he says:

“We are just there to teach people how to make themselves better. It’s not all about just being in the gym and grinding away. It’s a few days a week in the gym and then, go outside, have fun, do the things that you like to do.”

Baltren and a few of his friends have taken that advice themselves, in a really unique way: Scottish Highland Games. In addition to traditional workouts at the gym, Baltren, his girlfriend Felicia Baker and training buddy Sean Smith have been practicing and competing in Highland Games at Scottish Festivals around the U.S. for the past few years.

Baltren got into the sport in 2011, joining gym owner Max Shank, who originally had the idea.

“We are former athletes and we are always training,” said Baltren, a former Division III hockey player at UMass-Dartmouth. “We enjoy being in the gym, but it is fun to have a goal to go out and use whatever you do in the gym.”

There were four of them, all affiliated with the gym, getting into the sport that first year, competing at the local competition in Vista. The group got a little bigger in 2012. That year, it was a big event as a lot of friends, family and gym members came to watch the crew compete in the San Diego Scottish Highland Games and Gathering of the Clans.

In 2013, the local group added some women to the mix, growing their numbers even bigger to almost double digits.

As they began to get more serious about it, traveling to events throughout the west coast, the crew has shrunk down to the three core members: Baltren, a 35-year-old who came from Massachusetts and lives in Pacific Beach, Baker (30, born and still residing in Vista) and Smith, a 40-year-old who lives in Carlsbad and teaches business at MiraCosta College. The three spend a lot of time at the gym in Encinitas.

Baker played softball in high school, while Smith participated in various prep sports, including baseball, football, basketball and track, and was a thrower on the track and field team at University of La Verne. Baltren said a lot of the best Highlands Games athletes participated in high school or college throwing (discus or shot putt).

The trio trains locally, sometimes in and around the gym, alongside Brian Austin, an Encinitas resident who is a longtime Highland Games competitor. They can only do some of the practice in the gym because the nine events that make up a competition all involve throwing very heavy objects.

Events include stone tosses (shot put style and over a bar) for height and distance, hammer throws, tossing a sheaf (bundle of straw in a bag) with a pitch fork, and what some call the signature event, the log throw. In that event, called “caber toss” the caber is a prepared tree or log that is 16 to 22 feet long and weighs between 100 and 180 pounds. Competitors cup their hands under one end, take a running start and then pull up so that the caber flips forward.

The throw is scored for accuracy, as the log should go straight forward to land at the 12:00 position of on imaginary clock. If the log doesn’t flip, a side judge will make a call as to what degree it made it to (up to 90 where the caber would flip forward).

With such unorthodox events to learn and perfect if they want to be successful and participate in more prestigious events, Baltren, Baker and Smith have gotten serious about practicing the past two years, and it has paid off. And the help of Austin has been key to help them get to the next level.

“He’s been involved (with Highland Games) for probably a good 10 years,” Baltren said. “He’s been a good mentor for us, a really good coach, because he is a veteran (of the sport). He has a really good eye for technique and it really helps us out because, on some level, this is still new to us.”

Last year was the first time the three really started to travel to events, with Baltren competing five times and Baker doing six. The Highlands Games are just one part of large Scottish Festivals that take place all over the country.

“The community is pretty awesome, you see a lot of the same faces out at the events,” Baltren said. “There’s a lot of people that are willing to not only give their time to put on the games, but also to help each other out and teach each other.”

So far this season, the three locals have gone to competitions in Phoenix, Long Beach, the northern California town of Woodland and, earlier this month, went to Oregon for the Portland Highland Games. In Phoenix, at the Arizona Scottish Gathering and Highland Games in March, Baker competed in the Women’s World Championships.

Later this month, Smith is off to Buffalo, N.Y. for the two-day Scottish Masters Athletics International, where more than 5,000 people are expected to compete. He is ranked fifth in his master’s class, but hopes to break into the top three by the end of the games.

“It’s difficult, but it’s fun. Plus, everything has to be done while wearing a kilt,” Smith said. “You definitely have to be comfortable in showing a little leg.”


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