A couple of years ago, my fascination with the Scottish Highland Games began. At my first Sacramento Scottish Highland Games and Festival, I met the athletes for the first time. I spent the entire day hanging out with the guys and talked about the personal lives of Scottish Highland Games professional athletes.
In 2012, I was back again this time learning more about the history, music, and food at the festival. I even met up with my old friends and posed for a photo wearing a kilt. I learned about some Scottish clans history and how we all put on our kilts one leg at a time.
This weekend celebrates the 137th Sacramento Scottish Highland Games and Festival. Rather than share my experiences and stories about the games, festival, and athletes, I wanted to share the story from a Scottish Highland Games professional athlete.
Jon O’Neil’s story is similar to many athletes. Most of the athletes were introduced to the games and have a background in athletics. Here’s Jon’s story about how he got introduced to the Scottish Highland Games and what his life is like on and off the field.
Meet Scottish Highland Games athlete Jon O’Neil
Jon O’Neil was born in Long Beach but has lived in Orange County his entire life. He lived in Fountain Valley until the age of 14 before moving to Rancho Santa Margarita. At Santa Margarita Catholic High School, he played basketball, football, and track and was the first student to be on a CIF Championship team in three different seasons.
After high school, he received a track scholarship at Cal. St. Long Beach. He threw shot put and discus for the 49ers from 1997-2002 and became an NCAA Div. I All-American shot putter with school records in the discus and indoor shot put. He competed at the Olympic Trials in 2000 and 2004 in discus and shot put respectively, with NCAA and USA Championships from 1998 through 2004.
In 2006 he decided to hang up the throwing shoes competitively and would compete at local meets for fun only. In 2008 Jon decided to start training competitively again and joined the local track club, VS Athletics.
After the 2008 season ended, a good friend convinced him to try the Highland games. He competed at his first Highland Games in May 2009 at the Costa Mesa Highland Games as a “B” Class athlete and won. Jon was hooked and moved up to “A” Class. After 3 years in “A” Class, he wanted to move up to professional. In September of 2012, Jon made his professional debut at the IHGF World Team Championships in Pleasanton, CA.
Jon has been 2010 Amateur US Champion, 1st place (Pleasanton, CA), 2011 IHFG World Amateur Championships, 3rd place (Spokane, WA), 2011 World Amateur Championships, 2nd place (Minnesota Renn Festival), and 2012 IHGF Wolrd Team Co-Champion, 1st place (Pleasanton, CA)
Today, he competes in 10-15 competitions a year.
Scottish Highland Games interview with Jon O’Neil
Where did you grow up? What were your interests as a kid?
I grew up in Orange County, CA. As a kid I was very active in sports. I played baseball and basketball growing up. I played on traveling and all-star teams and was able to compete with the best in the sports within my local area.
How did you learn about the Scottish Highland Games? Why did you want to be a part of it?
I learned about the Scottish Highland Games from some college track friends that I knew from local competitions. They attended UCI (University of California – Irvine) but I became close with them as UCI and CSULB (Cal State – Long Beach) are in the same conference. They had done a Scottish highland games the year before and told me I would love it.
Being a collegiate thrower, I knew I would have an edge and I guess it came fairly natural to me. At first I did it just as something else to do to stay active. I never knew I would get as far in the sport as I have. The friendships made and the atmosphere of the games is nothing like regular track meets. However, nothing compares to walking out onto the field at the Olympic Trials to thousands of people in the stadium.
Even as an athlete, connecting with people is one of the best experiences – both sports and travel.
Your rise to professional athlete came very quickly. What made you so successful?
My rise to becoming a professional athlete might have been short (in Scottish Highland Games) but was definitely a long one. I am 34 years old now and have put in many hours in the gym and on the field. Being a multisport athlete in high school and a multi event thrower in college with a continued passion outside of college, has helped mold me to what I am today.
I have also run into a lot of people that believed in me and gave me the encouragement to stick with it. I have also encountered a few people that didn’t believe in me which gave me the fire to prove them wrong.
What’s life like as a Scottish Highlands Games professional athlete?
Life as a professional athlete for me hasn’t changed who I am. I am a typical guy. I work the typical 40 hour work week behind a desk. I just got married last September. I am expecting my first child in July.
I try to get to as many competitions as I can and I try to be a great ambassador to the sport. I try to get to the gym as often as I can and out to the field to practice as much as I can. Getting the invites to the big games has helped get my name out there and has given me some loyal followers.
I am not very outspoken and often fairly quiet and usually keep to myself. I am not a big showman. However, I feel like my performance on the field does the talking for me.
As an athlete, you get to travel around to different states and countries. What have you enjoyed about traveling?
I love traveling. I got to travel a lot in college with track. As far as the Scottish Highland Games, I’ve really only competed in California, Washington, Arizona, Florida and Minnesota. This year I will be going to New Mexico and hopefully to New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
What I like about traveling is just seeing other parts of the country, how people live, and what things are like. Most of my travels have taken me to the populated areas of the states, like Sacramento, San Francisco area, Phoenix, Minneapolis, etc But some of the games are in smaller towns, like Enumclaw, WA, (1 hr outside of Seattle) and Winter Springs, FL (1 hr outside Orlando). Definitely neat small towns where everyone knows everyone and events like the Scottish Highland Games are something that the whole town goes crazy for.
When we last spoke I told you that I was going to the Amateur World Championships in Riga, Latvia and that was what I was gearing up to be my last amateur competition before making the move to become professional. I was very excited for the trip to Europe as I had never been before, and booked my ticket to the competition. In fact, my dad, who likes to travel with me and has traveled to most all of my track meets and Scottish Highland Games, purchased a ticket to travel with me to Latvia.
You obviously know me and my size, and my dad is about my size as well. So instead of flying to Europe in a sardine can known as economy, we opted to fly first class. This is where things turned. About a week before we were to leave for Latvia I got an email stating that the competition had been cancelled. Great – together we were out like 6 grand. As a last minute thing, I was offered the opportunity to go to Scotland and compete over there for a few days.
So $800 bucks later, my flight was changed from Latvia to Aberdeen Scotland, where I was there for 4 days and competed in 3 local highland games. So it cost me close to $4500 to go to Scotland for 4 days. Not to mention this was all just a few weeks before my wedding. I went to Scotland, the following weekend I was in Pleasanton at my pro debut at the IHGF World Team Championships, the following weekend was my bachelor party in Vegas, then wedding the following weekend, then Aruba for 10 days for my honeymoon. Let’s just say the months of August and September flew by.
The 137th Sacramento Scottish Highland Games and Festival
This weekend Jon will be competing in the Sacramento Scottish Highland Games and Festival. Learn more about Jon O’Neil, his competitions, life, and travels on his site www.jononeil.net. If you want to follow the athletes in their competitions at the Scottish Highland Games, you can follow the competitions and rankings all year on the North American Scottish Games Athletics (or NASGA). Currently, Jon is ranked 4th in 2013.
Read Part II of my interview with Jon where he talks about his favorite travel destination, how Scottish Highland Games pro athletes are different than other professional athletes, dreams and goals, and what lessons sports and travel have taught him.
What’s the most interesting experience you’ve had attending a sporting event or meeting a celebrity or athlete?