The Pain of the Disco Ninja

Even with ankles so weakened by injury that doctors are all but useless, Tuan Vu relentlessly pushes himself toward the complex stylistic perfection that will earn him the world singles championship -- of footbag

Ask Tuan Vu to pinpoint when, exactly, he sustained a particular ankle injury -- one of the eight he defines as "serious" -- and he frowns, shrugs, and says he doesn't remember. Not because he's wiped the sprains, twists, and torn ligaments from his mind, but because, as he puts it, "there are so many, it's hard to put dates on them."

Only the darkest moments linger: limping home to apply ice to yet another season-ending sprain; struggling to board the bus for City College with his crutches under his arm; hearing the doctors tell him, point-blank, that his ankles are too chronically weak to continue playing. And Vu remembers the periods of forced inactivity, when he could exercise only his doubts about regaining his world-championship form.

"I've seen his ankle when it looked like this," says fellow competitor Peter Irish, spreading his hands to indicate a bulge the size of a softball. "And a couple of months later, he's back." Irish drops his hands and shakes his head. "I don't think anyone in the sport has been hurt as much as Tuan has."

As the Disco Ninja (left) and Sunil "Tsunami" Jani look 
on, Tu Vu, Tuan's brother, elevates for a tough trick 
during practice.
Paolo Vescia
As the Disco Ninja (left) and Sunil "Tsunami" Jani look on, Tu Vu, Tuan's brother, elevates for a tough trick during practice.
Competitive freestyle footbag requires a player to be 
ambidextrous with feet and legs.
Paolo Vescia
Competitive freestyle footbag requires a player to be ambidextrous with feet and legs.

Irish is standing against a far wall in the lobby of the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, the incongruously elegant host of the 2002 World Footbag Championships. Yes, there are championships in footbag, and the greatest players -- whose names and faces are unrecognizable to anyone who doesn't follow the sport -- flock to the World Championships from around the globe. In the waning moments before the start of the semifinal round, as the lobby pulses with the rat-tat-tat of suede footbags striking mesh shoes, one thing is immediately obvious: Competitive freestyle footbag, where the object is to impress the judges with high-difficulty tricks during a two-minute routine set to music, has virtually nothing in common with the slow, stoned sloppiness of beanbag-kicking in the park, where the general goal is to keep the bag off the ground. The sport is footbag, not "Hacky Sack" (which is actually the brand name of the world's most popular footbag); players are called shredders, kickers, or freestylers, never "hackers"; and even a freestyler's most basic maneuver requires a combination of speed, coordination, and practice that leaves the average dreadlocked Deadhead in the dust.

And some of Vu's maneuvers leave professionals there, too.

"Tuan's one of the all-time greatest, one of a select few," says Irish, whose five world singles titles in freestyle make him part of the same upper echelon. "He changed the game, pushed it to a different level, added a whole new vocabulary. When you watch him, it's just a blurry, insane thing."

Tonight, however, Vu is trying to complete a comeback from a series of debilitating ankle injuries that have prevented any hope of a title run during the past three years. Against the advice of doctors, his family and friends, some of his fellow competitors, and certainly common sense, Vu has trained feverishly, spending thousands of dollars on physical therapy, to get himself in shape for the World Championships. There's not much money at stake -- a footbag title barely pays for the flight home and a hotel room -- but Vu, who has collected three world doubles titles and is still searching for his first world singles title, paces the stage in purple Adidas shorts, shirtless, sweaty, and anxious. Twenty freestylers are trying to claim one of 10 spots in the open singles finals, and if Vu makes it into the second round, held two nights hence, he will get a shot at the title he has never won but most covets.

And there's added pressure, because this is the first tournament designed as much for the audience -- about 300 strong, at $15 a ticket -- as for footbaggers, who have realized, as one kicker puts it, "at the top level, we're worth watching." And they are: It takes several years for even great players to become ambidextrous with both feet and legs, and the hardest tricks require the coordination -- in midair -- of at least half a dozen flailing body parts.

Still, many would question the sanity of a person who pushes his body so hard for a sport most closely associated with noncompetitive slackers. But when Vu talks about footbag, he does so with the zeal of a religious convert: The tiny beanbag, odd as it may seem, has given his life a direction; steered him to his wife and job; and brought him from the dull suburbs of Washington, D.C., to the footbag-friendly charms of San Francisco. When he's not kicking a footbag, Vu is a mild-mannered computer hardware certification engineer who hates talking in front of crowds; when's he onstage, trading khaki for Adidas and a buttoned polo for a sweaty bare chest, Vu becomes a fierce competitor who hungers for the spotlight.

When Vu's song, "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," kicks in, its opening lyric sums up the fretful mood: "She was afraid to come out of the locker/ She was as nervous as she could be." Over the next two minutes, Vu -- his short black hair combed into an immaculate wave that never crumbles, even when he's airborne -- alternates lightning-quick shuffle steps during the chorus with violent hip thrusts that send his footbag soaring during the verses. Pulling off one implausible contortion after another, Vu keeps the bag flying until nearly halfway through his routine. When a tough trick finally causes Vu to drop the bag, the crowd's applause urges him into another series of spins, leg whips, leaps, and kicks, the footbag whizzing over his head, around his back, through his legs, off every inch of each foot, and, finally, with one last flourish as the music ends, into his hand.

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