MOUNT VERNON — One of the strongest groups of men on the planet happens to include some very good dancers.
Who knows what their two-step, polka or Macarena might be like. But when it comes to the push and pull of the dance the eight of them have to do together, their skills might just have them waltzing to a world championship.
The Tug-of-War World Championships are coming to Madison for the first time this week, beginning Thursday.
As the strongest teams in the world descend upon Olin Park , joining them will be the men’s club from Mount Vernon in southwestern Dane County. And, in a mixed event, four Mount Vernon men will be joined by four women from a club based in Brooklyn.
A medal would be the strongest-ever showing for the U.S. men, represented this weekend by Mount Vernon after the team won the national championship in Monroe in July in three weight divisions. Another big prize for area competitors is the chance to have the competition on their own turf after traveling the world for the better part of the past two decades.
“It’s the World Series of tug-of-war in some ways,” said Craig Judd of Verona, who has been a member of the Mount Vernon club since 1984. “With it being in Madison we wanted to step it up a notch.”
Those who haven’t seen the sport at this level might be in for a surprise. These aren’t volunteer firefighters at a town festival or grade-schoolers at a play day. The competitors aren’t big and burly so much as fit with powerful legs. Technique and timing are as important as strength; with the Mount Vernon pullers, the team in the lightest division — eight men with a combined weight of 580 kilograms (about 1,278 pounds) — can beat the team in the 700 kg division (about 1,543 pounds). The 580 kg team placed fourth two years ago in Switzerland, the highest finish for a U.S. men’s team.
“It’s not just about strength, and it is a bit of a dance,” Judd said. “Our team has been trying to perfect that dance since we started going to the world championships.”
Sixteen countries will be represented at the event. Flags of the nations will fly, the Swiss will bring their cowbells, and opening and closing ceremonies will be held. Traditional European powers such as the Swiss, Dutch and Irish will be joined by teams from Nigeria and Taiwan.
“What comes here is the cream of the crop,” said Shelby Richardson of Oregon, president of the U.S. association.
They compete in a sport that is recognized by the International Olympic Committee despite not being offered at the Olympics, with strict rules, drug testing and weigh-ins.
“A lot of people think we pull over a mud pit in our bikinis,” said Ali Goeden of Monroe, a member of Girls Love Dirt from Brooklyn, whose members are teaming with Mount Vernon in the mixed division. “It’s a lot more than that, and it takes a lot of dedication.”
For pullers in Wisconsin, it’s a chance to bring the world’s best to an area of the U.S. that has been a hotbed for tug-of-war for more than a century. Once an Olympic sport, the U.S. won the gold medal in 1904 with a team made up of men representing the Milwaukee Athletic Club.
Four U.S. teams will be competing in Madison in the closed competition, those who had to win national titles: the Mount Vernon men in three weight classes, as well as combined with the Brooklyn women’s club in a mixed division; a men’s team from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the under-23 division; and a club from Lakeville, Minnesota, in the two women’s divisions. Other U.S. teams will participate in the open divisions, which require registration but not a national title.
The national organization, U.S.A. Tug-of-War Association, has about 200 members, Richardson said. Clubs from Mount Vernon, Oregon and Brooklyn make up a part of that.
The Midwest is a strong base for the sport, with clubs in Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa, too. Besides the U.S. championships, Milwaukee’s Irish Fest is one of the biggest national competitions.
“The last few years we’ve seen an increase,” said Richardson, who also coaches the Oregon women’s team and participated in 11 world championships as a coach and competitor. “I think this being in Madison has helped that.”
The world championship-level competition represents a shift for area pullers in the past 20 years. Tug-of-war once had its own local Blackhawk League. Community clubs competed at festivals such as Waunafest or the Mount Horeb Summer Frolic. But there was a whole other level of tug-of-war out there – one that sent competitors around the world representing the U.S.
Traveling the world
Cuba City’s Keith Dieter, 59, is in his 39th year competing in tug-of-war. He got his start when friends on his softball team asked him to compete. He did, for a club in Monroe, and soon found himself traveling to Ireland for a world championship.
As a dairy farmer with six kids, he couldn’t do much traveling at the time. But since then, tug-of-war has taken him to South Africa, Switzerland and the Netherlands, among other countries.
“I never gave any thought about going to Europe,” he said. “Now when they say ‘tug-of-war’ I say, ‘Let’s go. Where?’”
Dieter competes on the Mount Vernon team, which has become a kind of all-star tug-of-war team for the area since the demise of the Blackhawk League in 2000. Few of the members are from Mount Vernon but still represent it, sort of the way the Brewers aren’t made up of guys from Milwaukee.
Even before the league disbanded, Judd, who grew up on a farm outside Mount Vernon, said the club knew something had to change.
“We were left with a choice to step up a notch or hang up our boots,” Judd said. “For a while we were always hearing, ‘You guys having a team again?’ and we’d say, ‘Well, we’ll see what May brings.’ And we’d see how many guys would gather.”
Another part of stepping it up was learning from the best in the world. At a world championship in the mid-1990s, Mount Vernon team members saw Switzerland dominate and liked its technique. They invited the Swiss to come to them, and offered to put them up for a week to learn.
“We spent a whole summer changing our style,” Judd said. “And we’ve been perfecting that.”
The Swiss — and now the Mount Vernon team – pull at a more pronounced angle. Coaches’ demands to “push” when they need to pull are a plea for pullers to push on their legs for strength.
It’s a style that hasn’t just proved successful to the Mount Vernon men; it’s also helped their health. Where competition was once a matter of pulling and jerking back and forth, it’s now won on team technique and core strength.
“I keep telling people it’s a non-injury sport,” Dieter said. “You can do it your whole life.”
Injuries come, Richardson said, when tug-of-war isn’t done right. The wrong kind of rope – nylon instead of manila or hemp – can snap. Wrapping a rope around body parts can cause horrific injuries, the kind that travel the Internet and give people a wrong impression of the sport, she said. Richardson fields emails and calls from groups wanting to do tug-of-war at a recreational level, and provides them with resources to do it safely.
Experienced pullers can feel in the rope when another team is weakening, they can also do their homework to know if a competitor is going to come at them hard or just try to wait it out. An experienced team can catch a new team off guard at the very beginning and the match can end in seconds.
“Unless you’re a student of it, you don’t see how good they are,” said Rick Skindrud of Mount Horeb, a former competitor and coach of the Mount Vernon team and former state legislator. “They’re in tremendous shape and at this level, it’s very technical. It’s a thing of beauty.”
The team practices three times a week, pulling barrels weighted with cement through a pulley system mounted onto old utility poles. Two teams compete against each other, with a mismatch of an eight-person team pulling against as many as 12 on the other side.
Practices are a time to work on technique, with calisthenics and strength exercises, too. Team members run before practice, a big change from the days of more recreational competition.
“I don’t know if we ever ran unless it was to get to the beer tent,” Skindrud said.
For this tournament, the team started practicing in November and did so throughout the winter in its indoor facility near Brooklyn.
“It’s an old pig barn, but it works,” Judd said.
Fitness is key because of the demands of the tournaments. In round-robin play, a team might pull 20 to 25 times in 2 hours, with only a 5-minute break in between.
Costs are now offset by sponsors, including Monroe ’s Colony Brands. Many team members are from the Monroe area.
It has all given continued life to a longtime club from an area where it has been popular in an under-the-radar way.
No matter how things end up for the local competitors this weekend, they’ll no doubt be back to try again.
“I’m a glutton for punishment,” Dieter said. “A lot of us are.”