I became an honorary Scotsman when I was invited to the Highland Games in bonnie Scotland, where throwing heavy objects is a national passion.
This came about after an International Track Association trip to Edinborough where I threw 73-1 and set the European record in the shot-put at the time, which would be in the last century, 1975 to be exact. It was a sensational moment. At least I thought it was sensational. I believe it was the great beer they have there that gave me the strength, courage and vision to throw against the best throwers of the day. That and the promised paycheck from the ITA, the professional touring track and field association of which I was a star performer.
I was living on the West Coast and was in and out of Los Angeles a lot because the ITA office was on Wilshire Boulevard. I was trying to make money, make connections and live life large. I am not sure how it came about, but I met Bill Bangert, a visually impaired athlete who set a world record shot-put for visually impaired athletes in the early 1950s. Bangert sought me out, as I recall, to compete in the Highland Games, he being a stout supporter and competitor in them.
Bangert was an amazing guy, about the same size as I was — 6-5 and 265 to 280, and had been a champion shot-putter and discus thrower in the 1940s and went blind due to a degenerative eye disease. He also was an operatic baritone and obtained a glee club scholarship to Purdue University in his final year of college, transferring from the University of Missouri. He sang his way to his degree. After an operation, he regained vision in his right eye.
Bangert eventually became mayor of Champ, Missouri, a town he founded, and was active in politics. In 1971, at the age of 48, he won a gallon of whiskey from the lord mayor of Aberdeen, Scotland. He did this by carrying the famous “Dinnie Stones” across the River Dee and back again. Named after the legendary Scottish strongman Donald Dinnie, the two stones weighed 778 pounds together. Bangert carried them across the 17-foot bridge and back, the first time someone had done it since Dinnie in 1851.
Bangert said at the time that it proved he was the strongest mayor in the world. He also said some of the Scots didn’t appreciate the fact that he had accomplished the feat. “I thought there was going to be a fight,” he told a reporter on his return with the jug of Scotch whiskey, which back then was allowable as carry-on baggage.
Bangert thought I might be interested in the Highland Games that were coming up in Long Beach. We went to a park to see if I had an ability for it. He had me do the stone throw with the 28 and 56 pound weights for distance and also the 56 pound for height. The weights go all the way down to a stone, which is 14 pounds. There is also the hammer throw in 16 and 22 pound weights. There is also the caber toss, using a long wood pole to approximate the throwing of a log across a stream, which in the old days had to be done in order to cross the moat and sack the castle.
I could tell right away I had a knack for it. It was a fun, free-wheeling competition with a variety of events and you could use some creativity. And you could wear a kilt and look like a right Scotsman, which appealed to me somehow. I always felt I had been some sort of palace guard back in the days of William Wallace, and before that a barbarian in the days of Stonehenge. I may have even sacked a few castles. I certainly hope so.
So there I was, being coached by a blind guy. There is something very Zen about that. Sometimes you can see more when you can’t see. I used to practice in the dark and try to feel the arc of the shot and hear the thump of the landing, rather than just looking for it. It develops your awareness ability, tunes you in to the flow of the throw. We all have three eyes — the two on your face and the one in your mind. Developing the mind’s eye is just as important as your sight.
This is how I set a record in the 56 pound weight for height at the 1986 Highland Games in Tempe, Ariz. I simply closed my eyes.
There’ll be more on the Highland Games in my next blog, including an account of my search for the Loch Ness monster. It took place at a pub in Edinborough.
By Brian Oldfield with George Houde
(this blog was originally posted on 7/19/2011)