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The Mystery Behind Becoming A Basque Pelota Athlete Explained

By Kendra Hansey | Aug. 07, 2019, 6:45 p.m. (ET)

Agusti Brugues competing at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 5, 2019 in Lima, Peru.


LIMA, Peru – What in the world is Basque pelota? And what would interest someone in dedicating his or her life to it?

When it comes to the average American, chances are they have no clue what Basque pelota is, unless they’re well-versed in the culture and history of the Iberian Peninsula or have lived in the north of Spain.

Even for the most experienced of players, breaking down the sport in 20 seconds to someone with no prior knowledge can be a difficult to task to simplify.

“I would say, ‘Try to Google it,’” Agusti Brugues said of the best way to understand what exactly the sport is. “You have to see it, and you have to live it. It’s something that will impress you so much, because it’s that quick and so fast.

“For us, obviously it’s a beautiful sport to watch and to play,” Jose Huarte said. “It’s very fast – you won’t get bored watching it or practicing it.”

Basque pelota and its various disciplines originated along the Iberian Peninsula in modern day Spain. Dubbed the “fastest ball sport in the world,” the sport consists of four modalities and 14 disciplines, each constituting a variation of a racket sport.

After an eight-year hiatus, Basque pelota made its return to the Pan American Games Lima 2019 program for the fourth time in history.

Brugues and Huarte are two of the five athletes that comprise the Team USA cohort representing the sport in Lima. The duo competes in paleta cuero.

Paleta cuero is a discipline that involves a wooden racket, leather ball and a 36-meter court with a front, left and back wall.

So, how did Brugues and Huarte manage to find themselves involved in what most Americans would perhaps find to be an abstract sport?

Tradition and family. For both athletes, competing in Basque pelota runs through their veins.

“When a family plays this game, it’s like involved in your DNA,” Brugues said. “It’s forever.”

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Both Huarte and his brother Tony play. Raised in San Francisco, the city built a pelota court, and Huarte’s earliest memories of learning the sport involve the him and his brother going to the court with their father who played pelota.

From there, the 35-year-old has gone on to compete in three world championships, and Lima 2019 signifies his second Pan American Games appearance. At Guadalajara 2011, Huarte won silver alongside his brother in the handball discipline of mano doubles fronton.

While a revered sport in the culture and community influenced by the Iberian Peninsula, the athletes still celebrate the chance to be able to showcase the notoriety of pelota with the rest of the world.

“To come to these big events with all these other big sports, it’s good news for us,” Huarte said.

“It’s amazing to share (Basque pelota) with all these organizations and other athletes,” Brugues said.

Brugues began seriously competing when he was age 12 or 13, so Basque pelota has been something he’s grown up with.

“I have my first pictures as a baby with my mom in a court of Basque pelota,” Brugues said. “I don’t remember my life without it.”

And truly, Brugues’ life is ingrained with pelota. 

His father, also named Agusti Brugues, is the president of the Catalan Basque Pelota Federation. With such close ties to the love of the sport as well as competing in it, Brugues grew up with his sport life and his relationship with his father as two separate entities.

“At home, with my dad, it was really separated from the sport,” Brugues said of the sport dynamic with his father. “I always wanted him to coach me, and it was impossible. He hated because he would get too nervous watching my games and finally said ‘I won’t come anymore.’”

But now that Brugues is playing on the world championship and elite level, his dad is back attending his matches with slightly less nerves and more enjoyment.

To say that competing at the Pan American Games is a lifelong dream for Brugues isn’t an understatement.

“A world championship was the limit, and, now, being here is like a present for me,” Brugues said of his Pan American Games debut.

For both Huarte and Brugues, they take pride in being able to represent the U.S. at the Games and expose people back home and abroad to their treasured passion.

“In one word – it would be ‘honor,’” Brugues said of representing Team USA – a sentiment Huarte unequivocally agreed with.

The duo came into Wednesday prepared to compete a serious game against the hometown favorite of Peru, after losing their first two matches of the Games. Their grit paid off and they overcame Peru, 2-0.

Next up for the Brugues and Huarte is facing off against Cuba on Thursday.

Related Athletes

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Agusti Brugues

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Jose Huarte