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May 31, 2011 > Swiss wrestling 'Schwings' through

Swiss wrestling 'Schwings' through

By Gary van den Heuvel, Photo by Mike Heightchew

One of Switzerland's most colorful and durable customs, one which was imported to California and has found a home here over the last several decades, returned to Newark Saturday, May 28, at the Swiss Park restaurant.

This custom is a form of wrestling known as Schwingen, which means "to swing." Every year, usually twice annually, Swiss Park hosts Schwingfeste on the lawn and park areas outside the restaurant, and it is a festival not only promoting a rugged style of grappling, but Swiss culture, music and food.

The event, usually 10 of which are held throughout Northern California each year, is organized by the Swiss Club. Swiss Club board member Arnold Ambiel described Schwingen as a "folklore sport," and it is indeed considered a national sport of Switzerland. The national championships are televised for the whole country.

While much of Schwingen is inherently similar to its more well-known cousins in the grappling arts - particularly Greco-Roman wrestling and judo - certain obvious differences are apparent on one's first viewing of the sport. Competitors do not grapple on a mat, nor do they wear a wrestling singlet or a martial arts gi. Schwingers (as Swiss wrestlers are known) do battle on a circular "mat" of shaved wood about 12 meters in diameter. Schwingers who are not involved in a match are usually easy to spot - they are the ones with sawdust on their hair and clothing.

The other conspicuous difference between Schwingen and other forms of wrestling is the attire. Schwingers dress in comfortable street clothes for their matches (usually a T-shirt, jeans and athletic shoes), with the only required uniform being a pair of shorts made out of burlap. This distinction is what sets Schwingen apart, as both grapplers are required to maintain a grip on their opponent's shorts in order to execute a takedown. The match is declared over if one competitor's shoulders are pinned to the ground.

Much like Greco-Roman wrestling, this style of grappling favors the big and broad-shouldered. Schwingfeste events also differ from traditional amateur wrestling styles in that there are no weight classes - only age classes, with the "major" classification open to ages 18 and over. So in this type of event, size carries a significant advantage.

A Schwingen match starts with both wrestlers tied up in a rugby-like scrum, both Schwingers on their feet with one hand gripped on the belt of their opponent. Both athletes try to move each other off their feet, sizing each other up and looking for an avenue for a takedown.

During a bout, a Schwinger may often change his grip - going from hooking the back of the belt, or the bottom of the burlap shorts, to hooking the front of the opponent's belt in an attempt to gain leverage. This type of maneuver is often countered by the opponent switching his leg position to retain his balance. Tripping, much like what is seen in competitive judo, is also allowed. At the end of a bout, it is not uncommon to see the Schwingers brush the sawdust off each other in a form of competitive respect.

The traditional Schwingfeste format is that each competitor (on Saturday, there were 28 total at the Swiss Park event) wrestles six matches. The winner of the event is the Schwinger who has accrued the most cumulative points over his six bouts, regardless of his age level. A clean takedown which leads to a pin is worth 10 points. If a match ends in a tie, both Schwingers get 9.25 points. To the victor goes the Treichle (pronounced "try-kle"), which is an actual cowbell attached to a colorfully designed black belt.

The winner of the Treichle on this day was Andrew Betschart, a 17-year-old student who attends Central Catholic High School (Modesto). He doesn't wrestle for his school's team, but he does play football and basketball.

"My dad got me into [Schwingen] when I was 7," Betschart said after his win. Betschart doesn't belong to a formal Schwingen organization, but he hones his skill by practicing with his cousin. It's obviously paying off; Andrew has been competing in the major (age 18 and over) group since he was 14, and he's never been injured in the sport.

18-year-old Dustin Gwerder describes Schwingen as "more of a club sport" due to its lack of mainstream exposure. Gwerder has been involved in the sport since age 5, and he has also competed for the Truckee High School wrestling team.

Comparing the two forms of wrestling, Gwerder likes the weight classifications in freestyle wrestling, but "I like this [Schwingen] way more," he said. "It's more fun, and more of a challenge, when you beat a bigger guy."

Schwingfestes have been held in California for nearly 80 years. The sport originated in the Swiss Alps, and featured the strongest members of the community - those who worked with their hands, such as carpenters, laborers or cheese makers. In the 1800s, Switzerland institutionalized and started regulating the sport, and the tradition has stayed alive in California through the efforts of the early Swiss immigrants and their descendants.

Most importantly, Schwingfeste is a highly enjoyable day-long experience where one can witness a grueling and, at times, brutal traditional sport while feasting on bratwurst and beer to the sounds of traditional Swiss music (accordion, clarinet, bass and piano are prominent instruments) constantly playing on the PA system. Following the Schwingen tournament, Swiss Park served dinner to the attendees, followed by an awards presentation to the competitors and an evening dance.

The West Coast plays host to about 10 events per year, from March until the end of the summer. And it will be "schwingen" through town one more time this year: Schwingfeste will be back in Newark, at Swiss Park, on August 27.

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