I didn’t plan on the day going like this. While I loved the Sacramento Scottish Highlands Games and Festival, I came here for the Scottish culture, kilts, bagpipes, music, food, and the games. Since I love travel and sports, I got an early start on the Scottish Highlands Games. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about it but a chance encounter led me to one of the best travel experiences I have ever had.
While the day was just starting, I was learning about Scottish Games professional athletes. Before attending these Scottish Games events, I didn’t know they existed. So I shared the story of how I got to this point – a day in the lives of Scottish Games professional athletes (this is the background for this story – if you haven’t read it, check it out now). I finally got the courage to talk to these guys and my first question was for the Scottish Games world champion – Larry Brock.
Hanging out with professional athletes
Larry Brock was sitting on the bench with his arm wrapped. Russell told me that Larry had injured his arm recently and wasn’t at full strength. I stood there for 10 minutes just watching the guys compete and interacting with one another. Finally, I got the courage to say something to Larry.
“So how is the arm doing?”
“Well, it hurts but I am out here competing. Supposed to have surgery on it soon.”
Larry and I talked about his fitness, how he hurt his arm, and how he was doing today. The conversation puts me at ease as Larry makes me feel like one of the guys as I continue to stand outside the mesh fence which blocks off the athletes from the Scottish Games and Festival crowd.
After a few minutes, he noticed my pad and pen and asked me what brought me to the event today. While I am a huge sports fan, I’d never covered a sporting event – even one like this one. I told him that I am a local travel writer and blogger who came out to cover the event. Immediately, he invited me to come over and talk some more. I stepped over the mesh fence and sat down to chat with him. At that moment, I was no longer just a spectator.
For a world champion, he didn’t have the ego you might expect from a professional athlete. Larry seemed happy to have me there as if I was an old friend, connecting again after not seeing each other for a while. Soon, the rest of the guys noticed me and I began talking to them as well. Before long, I felt like one of the guys – a rather small guy in pants surrounded by big men dressed in kilts.
I spent the next 5 hours sitting on the benches with these guys. While they competed in the events, I sat alone on the bench watching and observing. After each event was completed, they came back to the benches to hang out and chat some more. These guys weren’t like any other professional athletes I had met, read about, or seen on TV.
Each of them had their strong events. Dan was one of the best in the world in the caber toss. Larry and Sean are strong in the weight over the bar. Guys like Greg, Chad, Rusty, and Mike each had their events as well. On every one of these events, each guy was doing his best and calling upon his strength and technique to beat the rest. Yet when a guy like Sean or Larry was done with his throw on weight over the bar, he would walk over to one of the guys, like Chad, and offer him advice and help him with his technique.
Throughout the day, these guys had a camaraderie with one another and really had fun just being together. After certain events were over, some guys would hang out and talk about different techniques and exercises for certain parts of the body to help them get better. At other times, they joked and talked about their personal lives and families back home catching up on the latest news. Yet here these guys were – professional athletes competing against each other for prizes and money.
In between events, we sat around, talked, and laughed. Before long, I was just one of the guys. And the more comfortable I became, the more questions I asked. I was intrigued by the camaraderie and competition. So I asked why they tried to help other guys get better when they were competing against one another. Dan told me that it’s all about wanting to beat the other guys at their best so why not help him get better to make sure everyone is competing at the highest level.
This is a small group of professionals and they are also close. They’ve been competing with each other for a number of years from the days when they first started. When you finally make it to professional, there aren’t a lot of other guys out there that know what it’s all about. So this small group of athletes are not only competitors but mentors, trainers, and coaches for one another. After all, there are thousands of people that may help you throw a football better but how many people know how to throw a caber?
After listening to each of these guys talk about events and life, I realized I had never been around athletes like this. They pushed to get the best out of themselves and each other. Yet there is probably not a group of athletes in sports that have a community and bond like this. And it went far beyond the competition. It extended into personal lives – knowing about each other’s families, hobbies, schedules, and more.
Yet there is the business and competitive side of the Scottish Games as well.
Becoming a professional athlete takes hard work, time, and dedication. The first step in becoming a professional is like every other sports – start off as an amateur by entering a Scottish Games event. There are hundreds of these events all over the country. You start out as a beginner and learn the tricks of the trade for throwing these stones, cabers, and weights.
As you get better, you compete with other guys in your same class – Novice, A, B, and C (there is also a Masters Classes for those 40 and older). C class is for the beginners. As you get better and meet certain standards for distance in the events, you can move up to the next class. As you continue to improve, you reach the AAA level for Scottish games athletes – A class.
Throughout the day, I had the opportunity to watch these guys. They were good and much better than B or C. However, there was a huge difference in distance and technique between A and the professionals. While these guys were much better than all the others, there was an elite level they had yet to reach. In order to be a professional, you have to meet standard distances for at least 4 different events – huge hurdles to climb in distance and technique.
Each Scottish Games tournament around the country (and the world) records the scores and and distances for events. The NASGA (North American Scottish Games Athletics) ranks athletes in all division, including the professionals. Once you meet the criteria for becoming a professional, you can now compete in the professional division in games all over the world. There’s no official declaration, no worries about your amateur status, or any official contract. Now you are free to compete against the best guys in the world like Larry, Dan, and Sean.
How do you make money as a Scottish Games professional athlete? You don’t. In talking to all of the guys, they compete in 10 to 14 events a year around the country. They make their own flight and travel arrangements, pay for their own hotels and transportation to the games, and compete for prize money (some events do sponsor and can help the guys with some of this). Every participant in the professional division gets money for competing. However, the winner may only receive $500 – $1000 for most Scottish Games events.
At the end of each year, every professional athlete hopes to break even. When I asked about the events in Scotland, I wanted to know who had the better professionals – the United States or Scotland. By far, it’s the United States. Most of the world champions all come from the US. Guys from the US go over to Scotland for a couple of weeks, compete in events every day, and can make a decent amount of money winning events. Over there, many of these events pay prize money for individual events won and guys like Larry, Sean, and others have all competed, made some money, and eventually went on to become world champions.
Because Larry is a world champion, he also has sponsors on his kilt so he is able to make a little more money than the rest of the guys. Every year, these guys travel all over the country, leaving families behind for these weekend trips. They fly in on a Friday night, compete on Saturday, and take a red eye flight that night or Sunday morning back home. They work out hard, have their routines, and train for these events to get better and be the best they can be.
These guys are professional athletes and many of the guys I spent time with are the top ranked guys in the world. Yet most of them don’t make much money. As Chad told me, it’s a hobby that pays for itself. If he played golf, he would spend $60 playing a round every weekend. At least with his sport, he can get paid to do what he enjoys and break even.
Being a Scottish Games professional athlete takes dedication, hard work, commitment, and lots of sacrifices. Can you make money from being a professional athlete? Probably not. However, knowing all of this helps me understand why these guys are so close.
They are close because they share a common sport which doesn’t leave a lot of room for egos. They compete but they also encourage. They have the right perspective on what matters in life and know that they will never become rich and famous – even by winning world titles and being better than the Scots themselves.
After spending my day with them, I realized these guys aren’t like other professional athletes. However, there is much more to these guys than throwing objects around wearing a kilt while making a little money. My favorite part of the day was learning about the guys themselves – their personal lives.
In part III, I get a chance to find out more about the personal lives of these guys and share my own thoughts about what it meant for me to spend the day with these Scottish Games professional athletes. Learn more about these athletes from their perspective with this interview of Scottish Highland Games athlete Jon O’Neil.