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Footbag players go toe to toe in the world championship

Published August 5, 2010 on Oakland North

For years, no one thought that “the nemesis” was possible—that’s a freestyle footbag trick in which a player must kick a small leather ball, also known as a hacky sack, into the air, circle it twice with each leg then catch it on their shoe behind their back.  Seven years ago this legendary trick was accomplished during a competition but, even today, the nemesis remains a trick very few people in the world can achieve.

“Normally it takes a hundred tries,” said U.S. footbag champion David Clavens, a 22-year-old player who demonstrated different tricks and maneuvers at Oakland’s convention center on Monday during the kickoff to the 31st Annual World Footbag Championship. “It happens quick,” Clavens warned. Then he flung the bag into the air with his foot, his legs whipped and spun, and a second later, his fans and colleagues were clapping, cheering and shouting “Yeah!” because he’d conquered the nemesis.

This week, 150 footbaggers from 16 countries gathered in downtown Oakland to compete in the championship hosted by the International Footbag Players Association. As Clavens demonstrated his moves, young people from Japan, the Czech Republic, Poland and other countries crowded into the convention center and helped lay down mats, stretched, and practiced their footbag tricks in preparation for the week’s competition.

Footbag is played with a soft small woven ball filled with a combination of plastic pellets, beads and some type of metal shot. The bag is controlled solely with the player’s feet. For the game known as “freestyle footbag,” the main object is to keep it off the ground while executing a series of complicated kicks and balancing maneuvers.

There are several types of footbag games, but two are the focus of the Oakland competition—freestyle footbag and footbag net. In addition to keeping the bag off the ground, freestyle footbag players also complete a choreographed routine set to music. The player quickly performs a succession of difficult tricks and moves—these may include twirling, ducking and hopping while the bag is in the air. Footbag net is similar to volleyball—teams compete against each other by hurling the bag with their feet as fast as possible over a high net in order to score points.

The organizers at this year’s World Footbag Championship were very careful to differentiate between people who play hacky sack with their friends on college campuses and the professional footbaggers who compete. “We are definitely playing a sport here, it’s not a toy or game,” said Chris Ott, the World Championships Director and a former professional footbagger. “These players are athletes.”

The Bay Area is popular for net players; P.T. Lovern, one of the world’s top net champions, lives in Oakland. He said that he moved to Oakland from Chicago specifically to play footbag and get better at net. “It’s a hotbed,” he said, referring to the Bay Area’s footbag net scene. He explained that he goes through vigorous training to keep up with the sport, particularly to be able to jump as high as possible. He even experimented with plyometric training, which involves using muscles in quick successive bursts, to “increase my vertical leap,” he said. “The net is five feet high and my feet need to be higher.”

Still, footbag is a relatively obscure sport. One of Ott’s goals is to raise the game to a higher level of recognition so that these players might be able to make a living off of their talent. “Over the last 10 years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to make my sport step up,” Ott said. “This sport has come a long ways and we’re ready to jump on the scene.” His hope is that the Oakland contest, which has the “biggest collection of superstars we’ve ever had,” will bring more attention to footbag.

On Sunday night, 50 footbaggers gathered on the grass in front of Oakland City Hall, tossing around the bag—pulling off tricks, kicking and stalling it, which is the footbag term for catching it with their foot, holding it momentarily, then kicking it again. The idea was to show passersby their athletic prowess and let people know about the competition, which is open to public. “The tricks freestylers are pulling off are more than you can imagine,” said Ott. “It’s a ‘you have to see it to believe it’ type of thing.”

Among those to compete this week are 23-year-old Vaclav Klouda, a seven-time world men’s freestyle champion from the Czech Republic who is known for pulling off the most difficult tricks and choreographing his routines to classical music, and Tina Aeberli, the 22-year-old world female freestyle champion from Switzerland, who is one of the few women who can pull off the nemesis.

Events such as freestyle finals, singles and doubles net finals and the freestyle champions showcase will be held Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons and evenings. Freestyle exhibitions will be held all day on Saturday. Afternoon sessions from noon to 3 pm are free, and evening sessions beginning at 4 pm cost $10 per ticket. For more information go to the International Footbag Players Association.

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