A different kind of March Madness: ‘The Lumberjack games of mining’

College mining competition in Georgetown

Mining students from around the world compete in old-school mining skills at the 39th International Intercollegiate Mining Competition in Georgetown, Ky.
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Mining students from around the world compete in old-school mining skills at the 39th International Intercollegiate Mining Competition in Georgetown, Ky.

While most Kentuckians were focused on basketball this weekend, 201 college athletes from around the world came here to compete in another kind of March Madness: mucking.

The 39th annual International Collegiate Mining Competition took place on an old quarry at Hamilton Hinkle Paving in Georgetown, where teams showed their proficiency in seven old-fashioned mining skills, including panning for gold and laying railroad track.

This year’s teams came from the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Brazil. The championship was hosted by the Muckin’ Wildcats team of students from the University of Kentucky’s Department of Mining Engineering.

“It’s basically the lumberjack games of mining,” said Tristan Worsey, a UK doctoral student in mining engineering who works for RESPEC, an international firm with a major office in Lexington.

Missouri University of Science and Technology won first and UK took second in both the men’s and women’s competitions. Montana Tech was third in the men’s, but it won the co-ed competition with Colorado School of Mines second and Western Australia School of Mines third. Among alumni teams, Missouri S&T was first and the University of Arizona second.

The International Collegiate Mining Games began in 1978 to honor the memory of 91 miners who died on May 2, 1972, when fire broke out in the Sunshine Mine near Kellogg, Idaho, one of the world’s largest silver mines. Since then, the games have been dedicated to all miners who die on the job.

Teams competed in seven skills. Two involved drilling a hole through rock with either a hydraulic drill or a hammer and hand steel. There was a land-surveying contest with vintage instruments and “track stand” competition, which involved laying a section of railroad track with steel rails spiked into wooden cross-ties.

The “Swede saw” competition was a relay in which teams used a bow saw to cut a large timber into pieces. Teams also panned for gold — or, in this case, flattened BBs mixed into tubs of water and silt.

Mucking is the signature event. Each team must see how quickly it can roll an empty mine cart down a section of track and back, shovel it full of coal and then push it down the track and back again.

The competition is about more than having fun, building teamwork and helping future mining engineers learn the practical heritage of their industry. A lot of career networking takes place. Mining companies and suppliers sponsor the event, and executives come to judge, promote their companies and recruit talent.

“Our industry is a very small one,” Worsey said. “It’s not uncommon for students to meet people here and then end up with an internship or a job later.”

Women make up a small percentage of mining industry workers: About 13 percent in the United States, 14 percent in Canada, 9 percent in Australia and 10 percent in South Africa, according to recent surveys. UK reported that of the 26 students who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in mining engineering last year, only three were women.

But women are making inroads. This year’s international competition included 15 men’s teams and two all-male alumni teams. But there were 13 co-ed teams, each of which had at least three women, and two women’s teams.

“My dad’s a mining engineer, and I grew up in a mining town,” said Anis McGowan, who is studying to be a mining engineer and was part of a co-ed team from the Western Australia School of Mines in Kalgoorlie. “I like being underground. Each mine’s different.”

Jennifer Holloway, a mining engineering student from the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, said women are being accepted more in the industry.

“It depends where you are,” she said. “I think you have to earn your stripes a little bit more.”

McKenzee O’Neill agreed. The captain of Montana Tech’s co-ed team grew up in Butte, Mont.’s gold-mining industry and loves its family culture.

“We’re starting to see more women in mining, but it’s still and rough-and-tough industry,” she said. “After they figure out who you are and that you’re rough and tough like they are, you fit right in.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen