“Good for you, you beat a guy with cancer.”
Bittersweet laughter ensues among the participants.
Former world record holder for number of skips from a single stone tossed, Russ Byars, of Franklin, has esophageal cancer. In the last year, he has battled it and he has lost over 100 pounds. His friends and family know of his battle and of the toll it is taking on his body.
But Saturday, in Franklin, was the annual Rock in River Festival, which he has helped put on the map with his Guiness record and national media attention (see videos below.) He wasn’t going to let it stop him from being there to compete with his old friends.
His snarky remark was aimed at long-time friend and fellow skipper Dave Ohmer of Meadville, who bested Byars for third place.
Rock skippers form a bond like anyone does who shares a passion. They meet up to compete, each wanting to best the other, each having wise cracks for the other and each supporting the other. They even give each other rocks. Sometimes even really good rocks. (Yes, there is a difference.)
Kurt “Mountain Man” Steiner earlier in the day was telling a story about giving someone a rock, a good rock and that person went on to have a better toss than Steiner. He and old time friend Byars stood together to talk on the rivers edge. Steiner asked about Byars health and Byars shrugged it off mostly. He felt good that day and was there to throw stones. On Steiner’s shirt was a button “Team Russ.”
“I have hopes for this one,” Steiner told Byars as he handed him the rock to look at.
“If you can avoid snagging it on a ripple,” Byars replied indicating it was a good rock.
These athletes (not sure what else to call them) have a dialogue all their own and each knows what the other means. For instance, I was handed a sheet of paper of terminology and definitions as I was photographing up close during the competition.
“Take note of the term Agnew,” I was told by skipping judge Patrick Pelletier.
“Agnew – A stone that hits a person, judge or bystander.”
I can only surmise that the term was coined after someone named Agnew lost control of their stone and it didn’t go where he or she intended it to go, i.e. towards the water.
I backed up a little.
After looking at the fierceness of the thrower’s face and the power put into each toss, I felt it might be wise.
The conversation I witnessed between Byars and Steiner was fun for me. In the videos below you see a stark contrast between the two in their approach to skipping stones. Byars doesn’t practice, he just throws. Steiner studies and takes it to an art form. By the way, Steiner is the current world record holder with an insane recorded 88 kisses off the water.
Saturday’s event was as much about honoring Byars as it was going for a Rock in River state championship. Team Byars is what everyone there thought. They were there to support their friend and a legend in field (or should I say a legend on the surface and just inches above the water.)
Old friends wanting to take a picture together. Shaking hands, hugs and laughs.
“Keep fighting the fight!” Byars heard over and over.
Other funds were raised and given to him on Saturday as well, along with fudge, a traditional prize given to the winners. But mostly people were there to show him support and hope it gives him strength.
“All I do is throw 6 stones,” Byars told the crowd after being honored by event coordinator Ronnie Beith (hugging him above.) “This has been a lot of fun, I have gotten so much from skipping stones. Just keep it going!” he told everyone.
RELATED: My blog from covering 2016’s event: venangoextra.com/i-am-a-rock, ahich by the way, I watched Russ Byars walking around the river picking up stones and sending many back in towards shore. I also watched him seek out a spot behind some tall grasses for a pre-competition ritual. (At least in my mind it was a ritual and he neither denied, nor confirmed it.)