This is not your average group of world-class athletes. They lounge in folding chairs in preparation for their event. They gulp beer and chain-smoke. They carry knives and have the scars to prove it.
And that's just the women.
But the chanting fans who crowded onto the wooden bleachers in a pasture yesterday in St. Mary's County realized they were in the presence of masters: the best oyster shuckers in the United States.
"It amazes me that they can do it so fast without cutting their fingers off," said Cheryl Arvidson, 56, of Falls Church, who had a front-row seat. "Those knives are really sharp."
The National Oyster Shucking Championship was once again the climax of the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival, a two-day celebration of the sea that began in 1967. The tournament finals pitted six men and six women against each other, with the men's and women's champions advancing to a battle-of-the-sexes showdown.
The contestants, standing elbow to elbow on a stage set up in a horse pen at the county fairgrounds, attacked the Maryland oysters with stainless-steel blades flying. They were judged not only on how fast they could pry open two dozen oysters, but also on presentation. Penalty time was tacked on for broken shells, or damaged or overly dirty oyster meat.
There is no single path to shucking greatness. Deborah Pratt, 51, of Urbanna, Va., is a four-time national champion who grew up working in a dank shucking plant. "I always hated it. It smelled awful," she said. "But you know what -- before long you get pretty good."
Robert Daffin, 40, of Panama City, Fla., won last year's Florida state championship after more than two decades shucking at raw bars. He also learned the hard way. As a young man, he severed an artery in his left hand trying to pry open an oyster. It was like, "Poosh! Just spurting blood," he said, "but those were my training days." He, like all the contestants, bears the crisscross scars of years of shucking.
Now Daffin and others can pry loose 24 oysters in about two minutes. When amateur Brian Goldsmith tried for the first time Saturday, he shucked seven in 10 minutes until the announcer called off the contest "in the interest of mercy." "I just couldn't find the hole," Goldsmith, 24, of Fairfax County said. "It's definitely harder than it looks."
Shuckers are divided about how to best bifurcate a oyster. Some prefer the "Chesapeake method," attacking through the front lip of the oyster in a quick swivel motion. Those from down south go in through the rear hinge.
The professionals said some Asian shuckers use a double-bladed knife and dice with a quick wrist flip. But technique is not everything.
"You really have to be one with the oyster," said John Hanowell, 25, a medical student at George Washington University who competed with the amateurs. "You have to love the bivalve."
More than 10,000 oyster lovers strolled through the festival grounds sampling raw, grilled, boiled and deep-fried oysters. The winner of the national oyster cook-off prepared a creamy oyster jalapeno soup.
Stacey Gebler, 13, of Hughesville scrunched her nose and stuck out her tongue after her courageous first attempt at raw oysters. "I didn't want to humiliate the shuckers, so I swallowed it," she said.
The final shucking showdown featured Scott Stiles, the owner of a direct-mail business in San Antonio, against Cathy Miliken, a nurse from North Carolina. The crowd roared as the finalists held their knives to the sky.
Miliken was confident about her preparation. "I drank a lot of wine," she said, ashing her cigarette. "That's my secret."
Stiles prevailed in 2 minutes 48 seconds, his fourth national championship. He won $300 and a trip to the international finals in Galway, Ireland, in September. Stiles, who shucked at an oyster bar in college, studied among the masters at the last international competition, of which he said, "I learned some real things about partying there."