NEWRY — Though the skies threatened rain for most of the day, Saturday’s weather did not stop the 50 couples, cheered on by hundreds of spectators, who took part in this year’s North American Wife Carrying Championships at Sunday River Ski Resort.
The event is held each year on Columbus Day weekend, a precursor to the world championships, which take place each July in Finland.
Wife-carrying is pretty self-explanatory. Teams of male and female partners (mostly married couples, though sometimes boyfriends and girlfriends or, rarely, folks who have just met) try to complete an obstacle course, racing to do it in the shortest time.
The only real caveat is that the male team member must carry his female partner through the course. Teams can use several carrying methods, such as the classic piggyback, the “fireman” (over the shoulder), or the “Estonian carry,” wherein the woman hangs upside down behind the man, her legs wrapped around his neck. The latter is by far the most popular option and was the method used by the winners of Saturday’s event, Taisto Miettinen and Reetta Sairanen of Finland.
The event was the 14th of its kind held since its inception on a roughly 300-yard course built onto the lower slopes at Sunday River. Unlike the world championships, in which the winner is the team with the best time, the North American race features a final lap that pits the two quickest teams against one another. The prize? The winning couple earns $5 for each pound the wife weighs, not to mention the lady’s weight in beer and entry into the world championship contest the following summer.
The events have evolved from humble beginnings. Now, as part of Sunday River’s two-day Fall Festival, the wife carrying races bring out between 1,000 and 2,000 spectators.
“As the Wife Carrying Championship continued to get bigger, we decided to build a festival around this weekend,” said Darcy Morse, director of communications for Sunday River. “Every year it gets bigger,” she said, adding that the event had “gone international.”
Jesse Wall and Christina Arsenault of South Paris have finished in the top three in as many years, losing out to Miettinen in 2012. They set the pace early on during Saturday’s races. Asked how they got into the sport, Wall said, “I have a very little wife who said to me, ‘We’ve got to go try this; it will be a lot of fun.’”
Arsenault’s advice: “Just hold on as tight as possible” with the legs.
Dave and Lacey Castro of Alfred won the North American championships in 2009. They have “been working hard to get that title back,” a panting Dave said after his heat. The former Lewiston assistant football coach said he had watched the event get bigger in the past four years. “The competition’s gotten bigger ever since (2009). It’s become international and there are a lot more athletes.”
“We like to compete against the world’s best,” Lacey chimed in.
Asked about her strategy, Lacey said, “I just hold on as tight as I can.”
“It’s always amazing to see. Always a good bit of fun,” said Gary Pritchett of Newry, who had missed only one year of wife-carrying championship action. He also had seen the event grow over the years and had seen its participation increase. “There’s always (now) a large Asian contingent. And Finns, because that’s where the world championships are held, so that makes sense.”
Besides the Finnish competitors, there were participants from around the continental U.S., Hawaii and a number of racers from South Korea. The Korean teams were being filmed for an upcoming television show.
Chris and Maureen LaSalle of Portland were competing for the second year. Asked if they had learned anything important after their initial attempt, Maureen said, “We learned we needed to be in better shape. Last year was painful.”
“We did a little bit of training,” Chris said.
With the appropriate, race-ready position assumed? Oh, yeah.
“We went around the neighborhood a little bit,” Maureen said. “So the neighbors were probably like, ‘What are those people doing?’”
Chris added: “We were doing it around suppertime at first, but then we changed it to like 9 o’clock at night.”
Many of the racers, even those who took chilly dips in the water hazard, were looking forward to next year. Completing the course, as opposed to winning, seemed to be the main achievement.
That is, for everyone except, perhaps, the defending world champ. Miettinen and Sairanen clinched the victory after a tight final heat racing against Chris Poirier of Waterville. (Poirier was carrying an unidentified woman, as his expected partner was unable to attend.)
Asked the secret to wife carrying, Miettinen said, “You must have power, you must be fast and you must have sustained strength.”
And of course, he said with a laugh, “The woman’s weight, it is important.”