To Have And To Hold

Husbands fling their wives over their shoulders and take off. It's not just passion, it's part of the Maryland State Fair's first wife-carrying contest.

September 01, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

It was an ugly beginning to a beautiful All-American evening of wife-carrying in Timonium.

Inside the State Fairground's Cow Palace - amid notices for the "Junior Angus Show" and "Heifer Competition" - 50 couples competed Thursday night in Maryland's first Wife-Carrying Contest. But before the teams dodged the first course cone or horse fertilizer, a radio station promotions director broke a leg after she and her partner fell at, on and over the finish line. The crowd thought it was a harmless fall. Maybe an act?

"Seriously, we need an ambulance," implored an announcer for WPOC, the Baltimore radio station that presented the contest. "She's hurt. Ice, quickly. Anybody. Please!"

Sheila Silverstein, the station's promotions director, was carried out of the Horse Show Ring on a stretcher. She had volunteered to be carried on the night's first trial race. And knowing how hard this woman worked on this radio promotion, it was especially lousy she got injured and missed the competition. On top of that, Silverstein spent yesterday - her birthday - in surgery for a compound leg fracture.

The contestants couldn't help but wonder what they had signed up for.

"I'm a little panicked," said Shawn Diddy, half of Couple No. 8. After the crowd gave Silverstein a round of applause, the contestants - mostly fit men and smallish women - took turns running the obstacle course.

A couple now and then took a header into one of the two tire clusters on the course, and the crowd gasped. Several men gave out before the finish line: their legs betraying them, their wives hurled onto a bed of wood shavings, words exchanged. Wedgies were reported. After Silverstein's accident, though, no one in the crowd ever again took for granted the perilous nature of the event. She had taken one for the team.

"Tony Siragusa would be proud," said WPOC news director Aaron Rehkopf, the man who dropped her.

Inside the Cow Palace on Thursday, respect and admiration for the ancient practice of wife-carrying had been earned the hard way.

That's no way to carry a former Miss Iowa - upside down like that, her bike-helmeted head bobbing just above the ground, closer still to her hubby's backside.

"I don't like this one, dear," mumbled Shawn Diddy, Miss Iowa 1997 and Wife-Carrying Contestant 2001. "Dear?"

But her husband, Eric Diddy, couldn't listen. He had his hands full carting his 110-pound wife through the Riverside Park playground in South Baltimore. Wednesday was training day. In a Death Valley of humidity, 32-year-old Eric first carried 31-year-old Shawn in piggyback fashion. In their first trial over seesaw and under playground slide, the two completed their makeshift course in 25 seconds. Not bad.

"I could breathe and everything," said Shawn, who enjoyed the ride. Piggyback is the way to go, dear.

But for the second and last trial run, the stocky 220-pound Eric went Estonian. In the classic wife-carrying style, he turned his beloved upside down; her legs attached to his neck; her hands clinging to his belt. Perhaps this is something best done in the privacy of the home, but one must be a grown-up when training for the wife-carrying championship of Maryland.

But what brings a couple to this point? The point of hanging upside down in broad daylight, having been promised twice that you won't be dropped on your Miss Iowa 1997 head? The answer is a simple yet effective four digits: $1,000, the contest's first prize.

Eric recently lost his Internet job. Shawn, a local actress and country singer, wants to send a demo of her original music to Nashville. Hard to justify spending $1,000 on a dream when the reality is that Eric is unemployed. So, the couple agreed: If they won Thursday night at the State Fair, the $1,000 could go toward Shawn's audition tape.

Using the Estonian carry, Eric and Shawn shaved two seconds off their 25-second piggyback run. A winded Eric was sold on the technique - better center of gravity, better time. Shawn, however, selfishly expressed concern over her safety. So what if her head nearly conked the seesaw? So what if her head slammed into her husband's backside and she bit her tongue? Hon, this isn't a swimsuit competition. We're talking State Fair.

OK, we'll go with the Estonian carry, Shawn said.

"But I'm definitely buying a mouth guard."

A romantic history

Finland claims to be the birthplace of wife-carrying. Finnish men, while plundering neighboring villages 200 years ago, would snatch up the wives and "make off with them." While the behavior was surely considered rude, it thrived for a time due in large part to the large, beefy plunderers, who could be stopped only by boredom or hernia.

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