In a recent post, I mentioned my dad’s uncle, Juan Uberuaga, who was renown for his strength. He was called “Oizko Lehoia,” or the Lion of Oiz, the mountain peak very near Munitibar. I was recently in the Basque Country and had dinner with his son, who had seen my post, and provided me with a lot more information. It turns out that, like for most of us, once you did a little deeper, there are some fascinating stories waiting to be told.
One story involved a contest between Juan and another strong-man, Gandiaga. In February of 1957, Gandiaga had carried the txingas for “8 1/4 clavos y 5.25 metros”, according to Lucio Doncel Recas in his book Deportes tradicionales de fuerza en España. A clavo is about 28 meters, so this is 236.25 meters, or about 775 feet. This was a competition in Abadiño, where Gandiaga was the winner out of 7 contestants. A few months later, in May, Juan and Gandiaga had a “dual” of sorts in Durango. Gandiaga could only muster 119 meters this time, while Juan won the day with 261 meters. The very next day, Juan left for America to become a sheepherder, where he joined his brother, Jose, who had already been there a few years.
(A funny aside regarding Tio Joe, as we call him. My dad would simply call him Tio. Well, my mom, when she addressed my uncles on her side, would always call them by their name, so I always thought Tio Joe’s name was Tio, so we called him Uncle Tio. Funny how kids think.)
In the United States, Juan continued his feats of strength. The book The Super-Athletes, by David P. Willoughby, mentions that, in 1958 in Boise, Juan “carried two 103-pound stones equipped with handles a distance of 240 yards.” That’s nearly two and a half football fields, effectively carrying two “suitcases” that each weigh about 100 pounds.
When he returned to Euskadi, Juan entered more txinga contests. In 1977, twenty years after his battle with Gandiaga, Juan won a contest in Mallabia, where he was first out of thirteen contestants, carrying the txingas for a distance of 281 meters.
Juan, the Lion of Oiz, was the txinga champion of Bizkaia, at least once. It was in recognition of his skill and excellence in the sport that they threw that homage to him I mentioned last time, the sporting exhibition in which he was a guest of honor. By that time, Juan had had a stroke that left him in a wheelchair and he was no longer the paragon of strength he had been his whole life, but it was a touching moment to remember one of the old great ones. Juan was also a champion in the US, in 1961.
It is interesting that, in the time of Juan, the longest distances were about 10 or so clavos but, in the 1980s and later, the distances doubled or tripled. This is because, as pointed out here, the txingas used by athletes such as Juan had thick rings to hold and they swayed a lot, making carrying them much more difficult. The basic design changed in the 80s and gave the athlete more control and made carrying the txingas much easier. Today, the best carry 100 pound weights in each hand for over a kilometer, or more than half a mile! I wonder how far Juan might have carried the new fangled txingas?