IUPUI kinesiology professor a powerful force in Highland games

Zach RileyView print quality image
IUPUI associate professor of kinesiology Zach Riley will compete in the 2018 Celtic Classic Highland Games in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Photo by Tim Brouk, Indiana University

When he's not teaching kinesiology classes for the School of Health and Human Sciences, Zach Riley can be found at the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds in Columbus.

He's not showcasing cattle, and he's not getting an early spot for next year's county fair funnel cakes. Riley is throwing heavy objects on a field in preparation for the 2018 Celtic Classic Highland Games in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He was practicing throws with a 16-pound stone and weights measuring in at 28 pounds for distance and 56 pounds for height, respectively. These are part of a grueling nine-event gauntlet he and his fellow competitors will take part in this weekend.

A collegiate and professional career in track and field honed Riley's muscular frame. His long beard, shaved head and burly limbs covered in tattoos give him the perfect look to compete in kilted Highland game events. And his bright blue-painted thumbnails help hi-- Wait, what? Cue record scratch.

"I have a 10-year-old daughter, and it's a bonding time," said Riley with a laugh about his colorful manicure. "My toes are far more decorated, but my thumbs get really mashed up gripping and throwing things. My nails are actually black underneath, all bruised. We try to keep them fresh."

Description of the following video:

[Video: Zach Riley stands on the track at an outdoor sporting facility and spins around and around, throwing a weight for distance into the grassy middle.]

[Video: IUPUI Presents]

[IU logo and "presents" appear in left corner over image of Riley's target area]

[close-up of Riley's hands hooking up a metal ring to a metal cube with a chain and picking it up]

[Riley speaks] It's a 28-pound steel weight on a ring handle, and it's the most similar to a discus throw in track and field.

[Riley appears on camera, with words below: Zach Riley, Associate professor of kinesiology, Highland games competitor]

[Riley speaks: It's just a lot heavier, which almost all of our implements are.

[Video: Riley throws again and again in different shots. The weight lands far away in the grass.]

[Riley speaks: Three to four days a week usually. I try to year round -- even in the winter I'll be out here at least two days a week, if the weather is permitting, with a lot of layers on. It's my serenity place. It's my ... I love the actual art of throwing heavy objects and seeing it in flight ...

[Images of a kilt-clad Riley in various competitions]

[Riley speaks] ... and chasing that perfect throw that you may never hit in your career. And there's definitely something romantic about it to me, and so that's why I do it.

[Close-up of Riley's hands, with bright-blue polished thumbnails]

[Riley speaks] I have a 10-year-old daughter. And, uh, you can't see my toes right now, but my toes are far more decorated. But my thumbs get really mashed up from all the gripping, throwing things, so my nails are actually black underneath, all bruised, so we try to keep them fresh.

[Riley gives a thumbs-up]

[Riley speaks] But my 10-year-old daughter, it's a bonding time.

[Riley indicates a scar on the inside of his forearm]

[Riley speaks, acting out the motions in the next part of his story] I tore my bicep off the bone doing a throw in a game. I was down at the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, Highlander games down there. And one throw, I came around, and my bicep detached and rolled right up my arm. So this has been three-and-a-half months post-op, and we're going to chase it again, because that's what I do. I don't know any better.

[Video: Riley picks up the weight and walks away from the camera]

[IU logo in red-and-white and white words appear: IUPUI fulfilling the promise, iupui.edu]

[End of transcript]

Zach Riley's kinesiology studies have helped his form when he competes in strength-based Highland games. Video by Tim Brouk, Indiana University

A kinesiology associate professor at IUPUI since 2009, Riley said the competitions are just for fun -- they're a way to stay in shape and clear his mind. Additionally, years of teaching and researching the mechanics of body movement have only strengthened Riley's performance in the Highlands.

Question: What were you working on today to get ready for this weekend's Highland Games?

Zach Riley: It's a steel weight on a ring handle. It's most similar to a discus throw in track and field, but a lot heavier. Almost all of our implements are.

Q: What goes on during these throws before you release the weight?

ZR: Drop the hips, sprint and hold on for dear life, and pray you're in the right position to throw it and not yourself.

Q: How far were you throwing today?

ZR: A little over 80 feet. My best is 89 feet 11 inches, which is the second-farthest throw in the world this year.

Q: How did you get involved in competing in Highland games?

ZR: I was primarily a hammer thrower in track and field, and then I graduated from college and signed with Nike to throw professionally for two years while I was doing my master's degree at Ball State University. In the pursuit of education, I quit track and field in 2004 after the Olympic trials to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Colorado.

But when I became a professor and got some stability, I wanted to get into something similar to compete in, and the Highland games and Scottish athletics were a perfect fit for me.

Q: What goes on at Highland games?

ZR: We are purely entertainment. Especially at the professional level that I'm at, we're paid to come in and, yes, throw things far and throw things high, but we are paid to entertain. If the crowd around the field aren't entertained, they aren't coming back. I always say we're 50 percent throwers in the track and field sense and 50 percent entertainers. It's a fun world to be in.

It's nine events: You throw heavy and light weights, a heavy and lighter stone that's a lot like shotput. We throw Scottish hammers, a heavy and a light hammer, and we'll throw a caber, which is the crowd's favorite, flipping the tree end over end.

Q: How often are you out here training?

ZR: Three to four days a week, usually. I try to do it year-round. Even in the winter, I'll be out here at least two days a week -- if the weather is permitting -- with a lot of layers on.

It's my serenity place. I love the actual art of throwing heavy objects and seeing it in flight and chasing that perfect throw that you may never hit in your career. There's definitely something romantic to me about it, so that's why I do it.

Q: What does your department at IUPUI think of your Highland gamesmanship?

ZR: They know I do this. All of the faculty know I do this, and I get a ton of support from them. It's relatable to our students. They see me coming up on 39 years old, and I'm still out being active and pursuing competition and training and doing everything I need to do as I get older. I think it's very motivating to a lot of the students, and it think it earns a different level of respect from the students when I teach them.

Zach Riley practices his weight throwing for distance at the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds in Columbus, Indiana. Photos by Tim Brouk, Indiana University