ERIE — When the American Legion Post 102 in Erie posted it was sponsoring a wife-carrying contest to kick off this year’s Old Soldiers and Sailors Reunion in Erie, most people thought it was a joke.
“They said, ‘The Legion is an old organization. They’re not going to do that,’” said Chris Ellis, the organizer of Monday night’s event.
It was no joke. However, it was great for laughs, not only for the audience but for the competitors who weaved through the obstacle course in the Erie rodeo arena.
“I’m a member of the American Legion, and I’m a young guy. A lot of the young people in town said, ‘Why do we call it Reunion Week when we don’t do anything on Monday?’ I was like, ‘What do you want to do? Dream something up.’ So three Facebook videos later, here we are,” Ellis said.
There are a few legends upon which modern-day wife-carrying contests are thought to be based and a few more on how the sport was created.
As told by wife-carrying.org, a man named Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen (aka Ronkainen the Robber), who lived in the late 1800s in a forest, ran around with his gang of thieves, stealing food and women from villages. Another version suggests young men from neighboring villages would steal men’s wives to marry themselves, carrying them away on their backs.
With no real wife nabbing going on, the competitions today are in good fun.
The contest usually consists of male competitors racing while carrying a female teammate through an obstacle course. It was introduced as an actual sport in Finland in 1992, and the prize is the “wife’s” weight in beer. Matrimony is not an actual requirement for the teammates and through the years, the competition spread to other countries, including North America.
“There is an actual national organization,” Ellis said. “They just had their finals last week.”
In Erie, Ellis said he was not as strict with the rules as the major competitions for the first year.
“We just wanted to try something and see how it goes. If it goes well, we’ll expand it maybe. If it doesn’t go, it doesn’t go,” Ellis said before the competition began.
No one signed up initially. At the last minute six teams jumped in to compete.
Ellis said because the wife-carrying event was being followed by a rodeo the next night, organizers did not include a water obstacle this year as required in world competitions.
Also, he said, organizers made the course shorter than the official length of 278 yards to help those in not such great shape. In some official competitions there is a minimum weight requirement; in others, the person being carried simply must be over age 18.
Several types of carry are used, including the piggyback and fireman’s carry (over the shoulder). However, the most popular is the Estonian carry in which the wife hangs upside-down with her legs around the husband’s shoulders, holding onto his waist, as this helps the carriers keep a good center of balance as they move through the obstacle course. Helmets are not required for the carried competitor, except in the world competition, but they are recommended.
Monday’s course required the competitor to carry his teammate over a series of railroad ties, weave in and out of four poles, circling the last one before moving on to a hurdle and then running across a wooden plank to the finish line.
The entry fee for the competition was $20 per team. Richard and Kim Reazin officiated the event.
Though six teams signed up, only five teams competed: Lauren Coover and Fred Heitman, Jed and Beth Daniels, Decker Summervill and Marcketta Gates, Jennifer Harding and Daniel Harvey and Chris and Brandi Ellis.
Of those teams, Summervill and Gates claimed the positions of being the youngest and oldest competitors; Summervill is 19 and Gates is 63.
Summervill said his grandmother is the one who coerced him and Gates to team up and enter the contest.
Asked if the competition was as difficult as he thought it would be, Summervill said, “No, not really.”
“It was awesome,” Gates said of the race. “I wasn’t afraid. He had full control.
“His mama taught him well how to hang on to his woman,” she said, laughing.
There were a few spills as competitors lost their footing, but all made it to the finish line with no injuries.
Coover said she had seen videos of the competition in other countries and thought it looked fun.
“It seemed like a silly thing to do, and plus it being the first year, I thought we’d have a chance,” Coover said.
“I just do what she wants me to,” Heitman said, smiling at Coover.
Heitman said it was as difficult as he thought it would be, “but that’s because I know how out of shape I am, but we’ll definitely do it again next year.”
Unlike the major competitions, Erie’s allowed a chance for competitors to buy back in for another chance to compete in the finals, so some teams ran the obstacle course two to three times.
In the end, Gates and Summervill nabbed the first-place title, $60 and the trophy, even after Summervill carried Gates through three races. Harding and Harvey placed second, winning $40, and Coover and Heitman took third place, winning back their entry fee.
“It was a good time,” Ellis said, adding that everyone enjoyed it so much they definitely plan to do it again next year.
“It takes time. We did a ranch rodeo again this year, and we doubled it in numbers this second time. The first year is always tough, and you hope there is at least enough people to make you want to do it again.
“We’ll do this again.”