Cheese rolling, kilts take spotlight at Belfast festival

Posted July 18, 2009, at 6:59 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Katy Lockard was in it to win it. The Orono woman laced up her running shoes Saturday afternoon and waited for her heat at the U.S. National Cheese Roll Championship, also known as a foolishly fun — and wildly popular — event at this weekend’s Maine Celtic Celebration.

“I’m really nervous,” Lockard said. “There’s so much pressure to get the cheese. But I love cheese, and I’m hoping that my passion for cheese will give me an edge on the other contestants.”

Lockard and the other contenders watched as a group of boys raced down a hill on Belfast Common, chasing after a wheel of cheese donated by the State of Maine Cheese Co. The boys seemed to reach it at the same time, and jumped on it in a savage-looking rugby-like scrum.

“Oh, my God. That was vicious. I’m scared,” said Ariel Cooper of Montville. “But I love cheese, and I intend to win.”

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As the women’s race began, Lockard, Cooper and others launched down the hill with cheese on their minds. There were other racers, but the race was between Lockard and Cooper, who both lunged for the wheel at the end of the racecourse and skidded underneath a net into the crowd.

Two women emerged from the collision.

But just one lay on her back, holding the cheese wheel triumphantly aloft as spectators laughed and snapped photos.

Lockard was the 2009 U.S. women’s champion cheese roller.

“It was exhilarating,” Cooper said after the race. “I had my hands on the cheese for just a second.”

The photo finish at the cheese-rolling championship by itself might have made the third annual celebration one for the record books. But a good turnout, a mostly dry afternoon and a full slate of music and events satisfied the organizers and thousands in attendance.

Donna Hughes of Belfast, who was announcing the popular Men in Kilts competition, said she helped come up with the idea for the festival when the City Council was searching for something to take the place of the longtime Belfast Bay Festival. She thought that a Celtic festival might be a natural fit for Belfast, which was founded by Scots-Irish immigrants and carries the name of the capital of Northern Ireland.

“It’s been fantastic,” Hughes said of the celebration. “This is something that people travel to.”

The rainy weather Saturday morning did not seem to be a deterrent, she said.

“This year people said, ‘Rain or otherwise, if I don’t get out of the house, I’ll go crazy,’” Hughes said.

As lines of people danced to the rollicking strains of a jig, Kathy Hayes of Belmont sat on the grass of Belfast Common, watching and listening to the happy commotion below.

“My priority was to come and hear music, and I’ve heard some great music,” Hayes said. “And it’s been great to see such an eclectic group of people around town. People from all over.”

One of those people was David Wilkins of Crystal, who almost didn’t have enough adjectives to describe the fun.

“It’s a really, really good, nice festival,” he said. “It’s not commercial. People are here to enjoy and have a good time.”

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