They’re called the Rural Games, but for the athletes who flood Palmerston North every year there’s no games about it – just dead serious winning.
While the city of sails was watching the America’s Cup, the city of roses was watching the real peak of human physical achievement: the Rural Games. The three-day event celebrates the sports that built the nation, and the skill and strength required of rural athletes is extreme. Taumarunui’s Jack Jordan could swim 100 metres, but there’s no way Michael Phelps could springboard two metres up a tree and chop it down in less than three minutes.
Palmerston North is an agricultural centre, a university town, and an incubator for artists like Rita Angus, Shane Cotton and Jeremy Corbett. Its major draws usually include the Plaza shopping centre and the New Zealand Rugby Museum, but this year 42,000 people packed out Te Marae o Hine for an extravaganza of national championships in every functional sport you can imagine: speed fencing, timbersports, coal shovelling, cow pat throwing, tree climbing – the list goes on, and its contestants go hard.
Every major sport here is one that’s based on real-world rural tasks, and that means the competitors can work at their craft full-time. All tree climbing contestants were professional arborists. Someone tried telling fencer and 14-time winner of the Wiremark Golden Pliers New Zealand National Singles Championship Paul van Beers that fencing is a good way to make a living. “It’s the only way to make a living,” he replied.
The major titles are all-day events, so there’s time to walk between the stages and get emotionally attached to star players. When local lad Bradley Fountain got a knot in his fence’s top wire during the speed fencing finals, he knew he was getting third place. He yelled “FRICK”, and my heart broke for him.
He ran back to his first post, breathed, and launched into the wire again. When he tried to staple the wires to his middle post, both staples flew off. “Aw yeah,” he laughed. In the space of a minute he’d gone through anger all the way to acceptance. That’s speed-grieving.
Speed isn’t everything, though. Sometimes it’s brute strength, like when southern hemisphere Highland Heavies champion Craig “the Skinless” Manson hoisted a 156kg rock onto a wine barrel. He got his nickname in the weight-for-distance round, when he threw a 12kg weight and it took a lot of his hand skin with it.
Sometimes it’s practice, like axeman Jack Jordan’s years of passionate dedication to wood chopping. He’s a natural athlete – he played rugby for Taranaki until a knee injury put him out last year, and when he’s not putting in hours on his old man’s farm he’s blasting through every wood chopping competition he can sink his axe into. He’s won the underarm wood chopping world championships multiple times.
“I wouldn’t say ‘born athlete’, but I do try to give a few things a nudge, yeah,” he said. “I’d go overseas at least twice a year [for timbersports],” he said. Jordan said the competition at the Rural Games was stiff, but New Zealand desperately needs more axepeople. “It’s a dying sport,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with Covid and that, if we can get some virtual thing going.”
When, after six long hours of competition, he finally won the Stihl men’s timbersports national champs and stood amongst the sawdust grasping a bottle of bubbly, he looked totally at peace. He leaned into the microphone and spoke to the gathered crowd. “I love the old wood choppin’, so it’s great to get a win here,” he said.
Sometimes it’s about technique, something that’s kept Kristin Churchward winning the gumboot throw year after year.
Churchward is a Taihape sheep and beef farmer and mother of three, and she was one of the most decorated athletes at this year’s Rural Games. She not only broke her own record for gumboot throwing – hitting the 36.88 metre mark – but also came first in the women’s doubles coal shovelling, alongside teammate Dell Adams.
Despite the shovelling win, it’s the gumboot that’s closest to her heart. “I was just giving the coal shovelling a go because I hadn’t done it before,” she said.
Coming from Taihape means gumboots have been a part of her life since she was born. “There’s been a gumboot day running since I was born,” she said. “I was winning it. I was beating the women when I was school age. There was good prize money too, which motivates you to have a go.”
At the Taihape show, first prize means $300 cash. At a national level, winning means a fresh set of Skellerup gumboots – flash ones – and a little jet-setting. “They fly you round the country to go and throw and run the gumboot throwing, where it’s needed,” she said. “So you get to see a bit of rural New Zealand.”
She’s honed her technique with a combination of strength training through farmwork and high school sports experience. “I threw a few techniques together and managed to throw a gumboot,” she laughed, like 36 metres was no big deal. “It’s like the discus, really,” she said when pressed. “It’s about throwing the toe bit first and letting it go at the right height.
“It’s a gumboot, they’re not aerodynamic. They could end up anywhere, really.”
Rural athletes can end up anywhere, too. Lumberjack Jordan and the Stihl women’s winner, Kylea Heaton, would be getting ready to be sent out for international championships if it weren’t for the pandemic. Two of the competing arborists – Stephanie Dryfhout and Nicala Ward-Allen – already have experience on the international stage.
While timbersports might not join skateboarding or surfing in the Olympic ranks anytime soon, it’s still a damned hard sport to master and a thrilling one to watch. If we’re going to celebrate sports, why not the ones that built our houses and supplied our kitchens? They’re tough as Skellerups to master.
A one-hour condensed version of the Rural Games will air on TV3 on March 27, at 5pm. For the full 18-hour version, click here.
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