The Stanislaus State Track and Field team and the throwing community at large lost a pillar of their sport earlier this year when Ryan Vierra passed away at just 52 years old. This weekend, a fundraiser set to honor the late coach aims to support his family while celebrating strength.
The first-ever Ryan Vierra “Throw Out Cancer” Highland Games Celtic Classic will be held on Saturday and is being organized by those who loved Vierra most: his family, as well as the athletes he coached. When he passed away after a 13-month battle with prostate cancer in February, Vierra left behind a legacy as not only a beloved throwing coach for the university, but also as a Highland Games legend who will live on through the record books.
A graduate of Hilmar High School where he excelled in both football and track and field, Vierra traveled all over the world as a competitor in the Scottish Highland Games, which feature traditional Highland sports like the caber toss and hammer throw. During that time, Vierra was a five-time World Highland Games Champion from 1996 to 2006 and set numerous records throughout his career: 346 Games records, four World records, 10 North American records and six World Championship records.
Between 2008 and 2019, Vierra placed 14 NCAA DII All-Americans, 36 USATFCCCA All-Regional athletes, 22 California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Conference Champions and 33 All-CCAA athletes. The Warriors set 21 Stan State records under Vierra's guidance. In 2016, Vierra received a West Regional Assistant Throws Coach of the Year award from the coaches association before retiring in 2019.
Former Stanislaus State thrower Channing Wilson was one of the All-Americans coached by Vierra after trying out javelin in college. Eager to find a sense of team and belonging after playing sports and high school, Vierra’s love for throwing helped her become passionate about the sport as well and soon, she was throwing in all four events: javelin, discus, shot put and hammer.
“I was nervous, but he just knew how to simply explain all of the nuances and technicalities of throwing. He would spend all day out in that field if that’s what the athletes wanted, talking with us about throwing, life or anything, really. He was just there for you,” Wilson said. “It took me a while to understand that this guy is famous. If you go into the throwing world, people have so much respect for him.”
Another former Stanislaus State All-American thrower, Thomas Gesser, said Vierra was the only other person aside from his parents who made a significant impact on his life and shaped him into the person he is today, calling him a “second father.”
“The lessons he instilled in me go far beyond throws and training, although we did talk about those topics a lot...those lessons have carried over into every aspect of my life,” Gesser said. “I have never known a more enthusiastic, selfless, passionate and loving person than Ryan.”
While Wilson, Gesser and other Stanislaus State throwers had competed in a Highland Games competition together before, planning this weekend’s fundraiser has brought the group of athletes back together and reignited their love for the sport under the umbrella of helping their late coach’s family. The fundraiser was originally thought of while Vierra was still alive, but never came to fruition. Now, Wilson and the others hope it will celebrate his life while reminding his wife, Christina, and daughters Brooke, Faith and Cheyenne that they are not alone.
Brooke remembers her father as her and her sisters’ “superhero,” she said, adding that there was never a dull day growing up thanks to him. He put family above all else, Faith said, and always let his daughters know that he loved them and was proud of them. Cheyenne used to love having a “famous” dad, but Vierra would always let her know he was just a normal guy.
“Growing up to be a teenager, I realized why he would say that. He didn’t want attention and thinking of that now, I see that it wasn’t the ‘fame’ for him...he just loved the sport,” Cheyenne said. “That’s what he preached his whole life to me is that it’s not about fame in life, it’s about passion and to this day I still live by that.”
“Ryan was larger than life. He crammed into 52 years what some only dream of doing or becoming,” Vierra’s wife Christina said. “He was my best friend and my soulmate. But I didn’t mind sharing him as he traveled the world to become his best self. We thank everyone for working so hard on this event and want everyone to just enjoy themselves on this beautiful day remembering him.”
The Ryan Vierra “Throw Out Cancer” Highland Games Celtic Classic will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at the Turlock Sportsman’s Club, 13949 S. Carpenter Rd. in Crows Landing. There will be several competitions taking place throughout the day, including Scottish Highland Games and Strongest Farmer competitions for those who have pre-registered to compete.
Admission for spectators is $10 for adults and $5 for children. Food and drink booths, bounce houses, a silent auction and a raffle will also take place during the event. For more information, follow the event on Facebook.