126 stones, twenty men and one woman may not sound like a fun-filled family afternoon in some parts of the world, but in Franklin, PA it simply meant it was time for the annual state stone skipping tournament. Competitors from as far away as The Great White North, New York City, California, Kansas, and Michigan (including former World Record Holder John “Skippy” Kolar) assembled to take on local favorites: current and former Guinness World Record Holders Russ “Rock Bottom” Byars and Kurt “Mountain Man” Steiner, the only men to have won the championship since its debut in 2000 (with Byars up 5-4).
Adding to this year’s festivities were Emmy Award-winning CBS news correspondent and American pop culture devotee, Bill Geist who was in town to interview Byars for an upcoming Sunday Morning piece. ESPN, documentary filmmakers, and Eric “The Voice” Steiner were also on hand to record and report on the day’s action. The excitement was palpable while the Allegheny remained favorably calm and fully prepared to take on all skippers.
Col. Edwin Drake, who was in town to represent the 150th anniversary of the oil industry, kicked off the day with a ceremonial skip. The field of pros were prepared to make their own bit of history as the round robin casts got underway.
After two rounds, Mark Elwell of Erie made his mark with a tournament lead of 30. Perhaps inspired by Lake Erie legend Oliver Hazard Perry, Elwell put forth an even more impressive third round of 33 skips, showing he was by no means prepared to “Give up the ’skip’”.
“Canadian” Drew soon took things to another level with a 34 that elicited thunderous applause from an already captivated crowd. “Rock Bottom” Byars, the reigning state and national champion, would soon scale all Canadian obstacles.
A relatively sleeping giant through four rounds, Byars was ready to unleash some trademark speed & spin with his fifth cast of the day. Sporting his now customary “SKIPS STONES FOR FUDGE” t-shirt, his stunning 39 had fudge written all over it as the locals gave him a hearty standing ovation. A sixth round 35 gave the World Record Holder the only back-to-back 30+ tosses of the day. His 156 total skips would top all chukkers. The excitement had only begun.
Allister Cooper, representing Scotland via California “with a stop-over in Vegas”, made his way to Franklin after a personal invite from 5-time national champ Byars. He soon established himself as a fan favorite with his kilt attire and “rock star” persona. After the audience helped him choose his final stone of the day, the 2009 national amateur champ made the masses feel even more engaged as he launched a seemingly endless 38. His box of fudge would be secure.
Bill Geist, playing the Stone Lion role of participant/reporter for CBS made his jovial presence felt even as he concentrated on besting his amateur level prowess from earlier in the day. Geist’s acceptance of a stone from Byars during the sixth round brought about a moment of uncertainty, but concluded with the judges’ sage decision that, “Any time someone helps someone else – that is America!” The growing gallery of bystanders clapped their approval and play continued unabated. Verbal exchanges with color commentator Eric Steiner had the spectators laughing as the tournament progressed
Another Steiner, Kurt “The Mountain Man”, may have had the best toss of the day, but it was unfortunately his 7th and was unable to be officially counted. The “cleared bucket” syndrome was immediately evident as participants often showed marked improvement once the stress of competition was lifted. Tension still remained though as the final round of throws skimmed their way across the river.
The weather was perfect, but a mid-western cyclone soon made his away across the horizon of obscurity. Like a sudden Kansas tornado, Wichita native and current Penn U. med student, Grant Mitchell dissected the mighty Allegheny. His final effort became the first stone in tournament history to cross the 40 barrier. A last minute, mad dash drive across the Keystone State earlier in the morning paid off as Mitchell’s formidable 42 gave him a 2010 ticket to Mackinac Island, MI where he and Byars will have another chance to make history.
The competition was inspirational, but not as much as the camaraderie displayed by the unique group of sportsmen (and woman, Dr. Carolyn Easter) who came to compete. There is little wonder why some would travel countless hours to throw stones across water. The skips may be closely counted, but other things are immeasurable. As the day’s final ceremony and group pictures were taken, the competitors already began looking forward to next year. The Allegheny, the crowds and the fudge will be waiting.
– Tom ‘The Professor” Mayrant