With dance underway, I wanted get going on my other gap year dream, which is to explore Swiss culture below the surface and discover it more fully, even after living here so long. Having mentioned this quest to a friend, one surprising connection led to another, such that I found myself driving on a cold, dark December night to the small village of Herznach. To a gym, where I met two successful athletes, Gian Waelchli and Simon Hunziker, who introduced me to their sport: Steinstossen.
I’d heard of it before, even seen a few pictures in the news.
But now exactly how does a clearly-athletic man come upon stone throwing as his sport of choice? Gian explained with a sly smile that he started Steinstossen – literally translated, stone pushing – when Simon recruited him. (Turns out Gian brought some “extra enthusiasm” to Simon’s youth training class, which Simon thought to channel elsewhere.)
And who introduced Simon to Steinstossen? His mother. (Really!?) She competed in the women’s league. Though it was not Mom who taught Simon his technique. That was his mentor Urs. Urs took Simon to his first competition; Simon took Gian eight years later. Both spontaneous “give it a try” kind of events in which the men actually came close to winning.
So it goes in this oldest of Swiss athletic contests – handed personally from one generation to another. The new season will start in March. Until then, these men of Herznach will train together weekly, nearly daily, preparing to defend their titles.
Titles, they certainly hold. An August 2016 headline (click, German) read: favorite beaten by his own trainee. Gian won the 20 kilogram (kg) stone weight class during the huge, tri-annual Swiss Federal “Schwingfest” Tournament. Simon placed second.
Simon says that Gian, 20, is unusually strong for his youth. And Simon would know – now 34 and active for a decade, he’s three-times a Swiss Champion and an excellent ambassador for the sport (click, German).
The Swiss are well-recognized for inventing Steinstossen and tending to its original form – stone, not iron (as in Scotland, Germany or the distant Olympic cousin of shotput). The men see it as an important example of “Swissness” – the cross region, well-trained sport played as originated in the rural areas, that lives on and lately gains in popularity.
- There’s quite something to know about Steinstossen and a BIG event this year. Click here for a short summary (English). And here for the 2017 tournament schedule (German).
I sensed a Steinstossen character. What motivates Gian, he says is “the challenge, when you see you might win and then wanting to win. Also great when fans come to watch.” Yet the best part “is the group of four men training together and how athletes from the different regions know each other, still go out for a drink after they compete.”
In fact, Steinstossen might illustrate exactly what roots are about: tradition and technique handed from mentor to new player. A healthy athletic striving. Competition yet fraternity. The sense of pride, understated drive, and genuine heart seen in their eyes.
Sport that makes one’s life better. That’s strength from the feet on the floor up, if you ask me.
I want to learn more. There will be a tournament or two on my 2017 gap year schedule. I’ll keep you posted.