LOCKPORT -- It's safe to assume that Bob Vail is quite strong.
He looks like a guy you don't want to make angry.
But this hulking 51-year-old hasn't always looked like one of the strongest men in the area, let alone the world in his age group.
"I used to smoke three packs [of cigarettes] a day. I weighed 170 pounds. They thought I had cancer [he didn't] so I quit smoking," said the 6-foot-5 Vail, who recently placed fourth in the 50-54 age class at the World Championship of the Highland Games in Inverness, Scotland.
"I never dreamed I'd be able to . . . compete in anything. To be able to do this is phenomenal. It was a lot of work for 10 years, but something I never thought I'd be able to do."
The Highland Games are a competition similar to a decathlon, except it involves feats of strength -- no running or jumping. Events include the caber toss, the Braemar Stone throw (similar to shot put), Open stone (shot put), heavy hammer and light hammer throw, heavy weight and light weight for distance, weight over bar throw and sheaf toss (U.S. only).
Event winners receive one point, second place gets two points, etc. Scores are tabulated, and the competitor with the fewest number of points wins.
Vail finished with 31 points at the world championships last July, finishing 1.5 points out of third place while age-group champion Al Stagner finished with 12 points.
Vail is ranked second in his age class nationally, according to the North American Scottish Games Association Web site poll (www.nasgaweb.com). He'll try to improve his ranking later this month when he participates in the Niagara Celtic Heritage Festival and Highland Games on Sept. 19 at Olcott Beach. The two-day festival ends Sept. 20, but the competition will be held on opening day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"This year has just been phenomenal," he said. "I've been breaking personal records and my standings with the North American Scottish Games has just gone through the roof."
Ten years ago, Vail wouldn't have thought this would have been possible as the cancer scare provided a moment of clarity. It was at that point that he realized this is his only "go around" in life. He had tried to quit smoking in the past, but it literally took the scare of a lifetime -- and the love of family -- to give him the strength to beat the addiction.
"It really did scare the life out of him," said Debbie Vail, Bob's wife of nearly 25 years. "He just got a different perspective on everything and he realized the things he was doing weren't good. His mom died of cancer [when he was 19] and it was painful for him to watch, and that really scared him. With five kids and me, and he was the sole supporter, that just got him going. That lump just ended up being a Godsend because up until then he didn't listen."
Vail now weighs 270 pounds. At first, his additional weight gain was all fat, but he turned that extra 100 pounds into muscle through weight lifting. Vail works out two to three days a week at the gym, as he has a specialized 45-minute workout with cardio principles in which he works quickly without any breaks. He practices his throwing techniques during the weekend.
While weightlifting helped him become healthier, it didn't completely satisfy his competitive hunger.
Three years ago, the father of five and grandfather of four asked Paul Krest, the athletic director for Niagara Highland Athletic Club in Olcott, about the possibility of participating in Highland Games-style competitions locally.
"I talked to the athletic director of the Games and said, 'How do you get into this?' He looked at me and said, 'Well, you look big enough. Give me your name and phone number and I'll give you a call,' " Vail said.
Six months later, Vail got the call from Krest to attend a practice session/competition in Olcott. He placed third in his first sanctioned event.
"At the time, I had a torn meniscus in both my knees and I was still throwing," he said. "After I did my first year, I did pretty well. Second year, I did a heck of a lot better because it's not just [relying on] strength. There's a lot of technique in it. It's probably 50 percent technique and 50 percent strength. If you can't lift a 160-pound caber [wooden object that looks like a road-side pole], technique doesn't come in until after you've lifted the [darn] thing."
By finishing fourth at the worlds, he automatically qualified for next year's event -- which will be held in Denver.
Vail qualified for worlds last summer in Saline, Mich., despite his wounded knees -- which he had surgically repaired last winter. While he finished dead last, he got a chance to see what the competition was like and learned what he had to do to improve his results in future competitions.
While he didn't complete a worst-to-first finish, he still feels like he's on top of the world.
"This was like probably the biggest event in my life," Vail said. "Being of Scottish decent, being able to go to Scotland [for the first time] and being able to compete in a world championship in Scotland, that's like something you kind of like dream about. It was one of those life moments."