When Israel Enrique Mateos was a 17-year-old student at Sylmar High School, he discovered a fun new pastime: American handball. Back then he never imagined that his favorite hobby would later introduce him to a similar sport called “Frontball” – and the chance to compete on an international stage.
But that’s precisely what happened. This week Mateos, 31, boarded a plane bound for Santiago, Chile, where he will become the first-ever American to compete in the Frontball division of Pelota Vasca at the 2023 Pan American Games.
“Honestly, when I was growing up playing handball at Paxton Park [in Pacoima] – I never thought I would be competing at this level,” he said before leaving for South America. “Now I’m going to the actual Pan American Games.”
Mateos is one of three Team USA athletes competing in Pelota Vasca (also known as Basque ball), the umbrella term for several ball-and-wall court sports that are played using a wooden racquet, a paddle or with bare or gloved hands. Four variations will be played at this year’s Games: Doubles Trinquete, Individual Fronton, Doubles Frontenis and Mateos’ division: Frontball. He is the first and only one on Team USA to compete in Frontball.
From Handball to Pelota Vasca
Mateos’ ability to play Frontball grew from playing handball.
He grew up in Pacoima, where he lived until he was a teenager, and then his family moved to Sylmar, where he still lives today. He started playing American handball while at Sylmar High.
“My friends and I used to spend a lot of time playing at Paxton Park,” said Mateos, “Handball really helped keep me out of trouble when I was younger.”
After high school, Mateos – who works in construction as a stonemason – continued playing handball in his free time. He regularly competed in tournaments, including one in Las Vegas held every September. At 23, he won his first Division B tournament and moved up to Division A competitions.
“I started playing Pelota Vasca about three or four years ago,” he recalled. His current coach, Francisco Mancilla, approached Mateos after spotting him practicing handball in the park and introduced him to the variations of the sport.
“He was always looking for new talent, for someone to train,” said Mateos.
It wasn’t long thereafter that Mateos began qualifying for tournaments in Trinquete, and he even competed at the Basque Pelota World Championships in France in 2022.
He later traveled to Lima, Peru, in October of last year, to take part in the qualifying tournament for this year’s Pan Am Games.
“That was actually my first time playing Frontball,” Mateos recalled. Despite his inexperience playing Frontball, his talent and zeal for handball – which is very similar – gave him the competitive edge he needed, and he beat out numerous other athletes to qualify for the prestigious Games.
Frontball is a cross between various handball games played around the world. It’s a relatively new sport that is more commonly played in Spain and Latin America.
The key differences between American handball and Frontball? The ball used in Frontball – which can only be obtained directly from Spain – is heavier and denser. Also, certain rules differ. Unlike handball, in Frontball the ball must hit the wall above a certain level.
Mateos practices at 5 a.m. at McDonald Park in Pasadena three days a week with Mancilla, but in the weeks leading up to the Pan Am Games, he started training every day.
Just days before traveling to Chile for the 2023 Pan Am Games, Mateos met with the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol at Paxton Park. Mateos shared that being there felt very much like coming full circle.
“This is home,” he said of the park and the old handball court where he played with friends more than 14 years ago.
The 2023 Pan Am Games began on Oct. 20, and the Basque ball competitions will start Oct. 31. A total of 66 male and female athletes representing 12 countries will compete across all four Basque ball divisions, with eight countries competing in Frontball.
Now in Chile, Mateos has his own personal cheering section – his girlfriend Christina Chaidez, his sister Viridiana Mateos, his 6-year-old niece Kyle and his mother Guadalupe Bernal all traveled there to watch him compete.
“I feel very, very fortunate to be Israel’s mother, to have such a determined son who pursued what he wanted, and really made it happen,” said Bernal.
“Having my family in Chile – that in and of itself is really a blessing. We’re all very excited,” said Mateos.
He hopes that after this year’s Pan Am Games, more people – especially kids – will learn about Frontball, leading to a growth in the sport’s popularity in the U.S.
“For me to be able to do something that’s so much greater than where I started makes me feel blessed,” he said. “Now I hope I can help the next generation and open the door for them, too.”
The San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol will follow Mateos’ progress at the Pan American Games. He will be posting on his Instagram page: www.instagram.com/frontballteamusa.