June 24, 2013
Amidst the majestic, regal sound of Scottish bagpipes and festive dancers can be heard the grunts and fierce primal shouts from a highly competitive and skilled group of world-class athletes engrossed in a contest of strength and ability, all while wearing a kilt. This is the scene you will witness at the Highland Games, an increasingly popular festival event held throughout the United States and across the globe.
The Highland Games are emblematic of Scottish culture and consist of exhibits, music, dancing, food, and entertainment to celebrate Scottish heritage. But the focal point of the event revolves around athletic competition that pays homage to unique aspects of Scottish traditions.
One of the competitors at the Highland Games is a familiar face, former Long Beach State track and field star, Jon O'Neil. O'Neil was an All-American and all-conference thrower at LBSU from 1998 to 2002. To this day, he still holds the school records in the discus, indoor shot put and indoor weight throw, and is number two all-time in the outdoor shot put. The 49er alum also competed twice at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2000 and 2004.
O'Neil has been competing in the Highland Games for four years and is currently the No. 2-ranked competitor in the nation. In 2009, he was working out and training with a group of local friends and former competitors from UC Irvine who introduced him to the Highland Games and encouraged him to participate in the event. Intrigued by the event, he decided to give it a shot.
While the Highland Games are similar to track and field events, there are subtle differences that make them unique. O'Neil describes the Highland Games as an all day affair made up of eight or nine events, including two stone throws, two weight throws, two hammer throws, a caber toss (basically tossing a large wooden telephone pole object) and a sheaf toss (using a pitch fork to hurl a burlap sack of straw over a horizontal bar).
All competitors participate in each of the eight or nine events with some representing different Scottish clans. O'Neil's favorite and best event is the Braemar Stone (22-lbs) throw, best described as a standing shot put, where he is the current North American record holder. You can watch him in action on YouTube to get a sense of the distinctive nature of the events.
The Games run all day and all competitors wear a traditional Scottish kilt. Initially, O'Neil had some reservations about competing in a kilt but he said, "Doing it for so long, I'm super comfortable. Now, I'll come home from competitions still in my kilt, walk around the parking lot and keep it on for a couple of hours. When I'm competing I don't even know I've got it on." It's all part of an atmosphere he calls competitive, but festive and fun.
To date he's competed in events in Arizona, California, Florida, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington. In 2012, he traveled to Scotland where he participated in four different competitions.
While the competition level is professional, there is much more camaraderie at the Highland Games, with competitors actively cheering each other on and even offering helpful advice or tips. O'Neil notes that it is a different type of atmosphere than what you would experience at a traditional track and field meet.
The athletes are a family and most of them do this as a hobby rather than for the money. In a day and age where sports are a business, these games offer a breath of fresh air. For them, it's about the competition and friendship.
Another difference that separates a Highland Games athlete is that the competitors have regular 40-hour workweek jobs. O'Neil currently works as a paralegal for a law office in Orange County and is going back to school to work towards a professional certificate that will allow him to start his own business. It is a unique balance that a Highland Games athlete must find between working full-time, training, competition and family responsibilities.
O'Neil says the Highland Games are beneficial for former collegiate athletes because, "It has given them an outlet to go compete and be active. The Games are a way to stay in shape and definitely are a way for people to catch up with old colleagues and meet new friends with similar interests."
Looking back at his collegiate career as a 49er, O'Neil has a strong family tie to Long Beach State, his parents and brother all graduated from the University. For him, the value of being a 49er is tied to the relationships he was able to build as he competed on the track and field team. That is one of the things that attracted him to the Highland Games because it provided a way to keep those relationships alive and to build new ones.
You can see that this former 49er has continued to strike gold in his life away from The Beach. O'Neil has continued to excel and succeed in athletic competition, in his career, in his family life and is a valuable member of the 49er community.
For more information on the Highland Games and Jon O'Neil check out his website: http://jononeil.net/.
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