During the week, Zach Riley is a kinesiology professor at IUPUI, and Victoria Lee is a science teacher at Jennings County High School.

But if the Columbus residents build any pent up emotions on weekdays, they have an outlet to release them on weekends. Riley and Lee are nationally-ranked Highland Games athletes who travel around the Midwest throwing telephone poles, large stones and other heavy objects.

Despite picking up the Highland Games only about a year ago, they have made a quick ascension in the sport. Riley is ranked No. 4 overall in North America, and Lee is ranked No. 13 among women.

Riley, 36, was a standout football player, wrestler and shot and discus thrower at Columbus North. At Ball State, he was a three-time Mid-American Conference champion and two-time All-American in the hammer throw.

Story continues below gallery

After college, Riley spent two years throwing professionally and competed in the 2004 Olympic Trials. Last year, he was inducted into Ball State’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

“I’ve always been good at throwing heavy objects, so it wasn’t a surprise to see I was good at this,” Riley said. “I started doing this because my daughter is starting to get into competitive sports, and my past track history was well before she was ever thought of. I didn’t expect to do this well.”

Lee, 27, threw the shot and discus at Blackford High School and threw the shot, discus, hammer and javelin at Indiana Wesleyan. Like Riley, the hammer was her main event.

Last summer, Riley decided to prepare for and enter the Highland Games at Columbus’ Scottish Festival. He talked Lee, a fellow personal trainer at Tipton Lakes Athletic Club, into joining him, and they both ended up winning.

“He came into the gym one day last August, and he said ‘Columbus has a Highland Games at the Scottish Festival. You should do it,’” Lee said. “So a little bit of peer pressure, and I decided, ‘Why not?’”

After that, both Riley and Lee were hooked. Riley has competed all over the Midwest most weekends this summer.

Lee, who was slowed by a broken ankle early in the year, has been to four events this summer. She was ranked in the top 10 in North America for about a month.

“I knew about Highland Games,” Riley said. “I just had given up on doing anything like that. I talked Victoria into joining, and we ended up winning, and that was that. I had planted the seed in her, and now she’s all about it, like I am.”

When they began, Riley wrote some of the training programs for Lee. Having never seen a Highland Games, she was getting tutorials on what she was supposed to do right before she would throw each implement at last year’s games in Columbus.

“I anticipated doing well because I never stopped lifting weights after college, and I’m fairly coordinated,” Lee said. “But I did not anticipate winning by any means.”

The Highland Games consist of nine throwing events — the heavy stone (or Braemer stone), open stone, 56-pound weight for distance, 28-pound weight for distance, 22-pound Scottish hammer, 16-pound light hammer, caber (flipping the tree or telephone pole), sheaf (16-pound burlap bag filled with bailing twine) and weight over bar (56-pound weight for height). The weights are lighter for women.

The games usually are contested at Scottish or Irish festivals, such as the one in Columbus.

“Highland Games, you’re really just an exhibition for people,” Riley said. “Thousands of people attend the festival, and you’re one of the attractions. You’re more sports entertainment than pure sport.”

Two weekends ago, at the Irish Festival in Dublin, Ohio, Riley nearly set a world record in the sheaf. The world record is 40 feet, 1 inch.

After throwing the sheaf over a 37-foot bar by a large margin, Riley tried 40-3. He had the height but it came a few inches early.

“I could easily go professional with my marks, but you don’t get to do as many games,” Riley said. “I’m just enjoying going to games right now. There’s not a lot of professionals in the world, and honestly, they don’t get paid a whole lot. It’s a pretty blurred line between the high-end amateurs and the professionals, anyway.”

Although he has qualified for the Amateur World Championship in Minnesota in two weeks, Riley won’t be doing that event. The competition includes marks from the previous two years, and Riley has only one year of records in the books.

One event where Riley is planning to compete is the North-South All-Star Game in January in Florida. The event pits the top five throwers from the North and South.

“The goal is just to have fun and travel some with my family,” Riley said. “I like records and stuff, but I’m also no spring chicken, so I’m just doing it to have fun.”

Riley and Lee also plan to try to defend their titles in Columbus’ Scottish Festival. The Columbus event includes only seven of the regular nine events.

Throwing will take place from 10 a.m. until late afternoon Sept. 10 at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds.

“The last couple years, (attendance has) fallen off, and we’d like to get as many people out to enjoy the throwing,” Riley said. “Come watch guys and girls in kilts throwing trees.”

Big Throwers

Name: Zach Riley

Age: 36

High school: Columbus North

College: Ball State (doctorate from Colorado in integrative physiology and neuroscience, post doctoral fellowship at University of Chicago in biomedical engineering)

Occupation: Kinesiology professor at IUPUI, personal trainer at Tipton Lakes Athletic Club

Family: Wife Karmen, daughter Danniella


Name: Victoria Lee

Age: 27

High school: Blackford

College: Indiana Wesleyan (masters at University of the Cumberlands)

Occupation: Science teacher at Jennings County High School, personal trainer at Tipton Lakes Athletic Club, throwing coach for Columbus North track and field

Other activities: Youth Sponsor at New Hope Christian Church

Author photo
Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.