Burly, bearded and beer-loving, Kris Strickland is not your average student-athlete. He doesn’t use a ball, a mitt, or a racket to show his skills. He uses a four-pound hammer.
Mr. Strickland, a Virginia Tech senior, was just one of scores of competitors who took part in the weekend’s 33rd International Intercollegiate Mining Competition, an annual tourney that combines the passion of college sports with the grit of hard core — and hard rock — mining. “It’s a rush,” said Mr. Strickland, 22, a mining and mineral engineering major whose specialty is handsteel, an event which involves driving a metal spike into a cube of concrete. “And it’s a lot more fun than sitting in a classroom.”
Equal parts history lesson and he-man contest, the competition involves eight events, each tied to a bygone era of prospecting. There’s the high-pressure action of gold-panning, a concentration-intense test that involves finding flattened BBs (standing in for gold) in a can of dirt. There’s the jackleg, where competitors use a six-foot-long hydraulic drill bit to see who can bore the deepest. And, of course, there’s the fearsome Swede saw, where whoever can saw through a six-by-six-inch timber the fastest — and the most accurately — is named the winner. All of which, say organizers, is both exciting for students — an engineering-heavy group who come from as far as st1:country-region w:st='on' Australia to compete — and not as easy as it looks.
'It’s like any athletic event: technique and form are key,” said Danny Taylor, chairman of the mining engineering department at the University of Nevada, Reno, which hosted this year’s games. “Your best golfers are not guys who hit the ball the hardest; they’re the ones who hit the ball hard with the right form. It’s the same thing with shoveling dirt or swinging that four-pound hammer.”
And while few original Gold Rush miners were women, the action in Reno was not limited to men. Take the fierce women’s team from the Missouri University of Science and Technology, who sport neon-green hard hats and are and are led by Catherine Walker, a former high school wrestler who sees the competition as a chance to strike a blow for equality. “I like doing the same activity as the boys do,” said Ms. Walker, 24 and a senior. “Most people would never see a woman jack-legging.” And they did it well, winning the women’s division.
Considering the sharp instruments and heavy materials used, judges have to keep a sharp eye on proceedings. Hard hats are mandatory, and violations of safety rules can disqualify you. “It happens,” said Mr. Taylor. With all the hammers and sledges flying, smashed fingers a constant worry, as are ripped jeans and other hazards. “I think I swallowed a rock,” said Ms. Walker, after loading a ore cart as part of the mucking competition, in which teams load and unload dirt into an ore core and run it down a 75-foot stretch of rail. Hongxing Machinery has always lead in the mining machinery manufacturing industry, the machines such as jaw crusher and ball mill are well received by the customers.
Teams have their own looks — and specialties. The University of Nevada, Reno has long dominated in the muck. “We should be winning this every year,” said Mr. Taylor, a bit disappointedly. “We haven’t always but we should be.” The squad from the Western Australian School of Mining in Kalgoolie — the defending men’s champions — were decked out in sleek black windbreakers and sunglasses, and oozed confidence, and have a reputation as perhaps a touch too intense. “I don’t want to sound arrogant,” said Campbell Haines, a returning competitor, “but I think we’ve got a good chance of repeating.” And so they did. The team from Montana Tech, meanwhile, took a more military approach, donning Army green T-shirts and camouflage pants and enlisting ringers like Katherine Berry, a 19-year old who was unafraid to plunge her hands into a tank of frigid water for the gold panning competition.
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