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

As the audience rises out of its seats for only the second time this evening, Vu takes a bow.

The Disco Ninja is back.

Vu and his older sister were born in Vietnam and raised in suburban Fairfax, Va., where his parents moved in 1975, when Tuan was only 2. The Vus left a South Vietnam under extreme threat from the Communist north to begin a better life in the United States, where Vu's father was able to continue working as a doctor and his mother got a job as head secretary in an architectural firm; she gave birth to a second son here. Vu, an introvert who idolized Bruce Lee, showed little interest in sports until midway through high school, when he saw a couple of kids playing with a Hacky Sack in the hall. "I'd never seen anything like that," says Vu. "It was very alternative, and I guess that kind of drew me to it. I've never been very mainstream."

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.
For the past seven years, Tuan Vu has used the same 
trusty footbag.
Paolo Vescia
For the past seven years, Tuan Vu has used the same trusty footbag.

Indeed, as a teenager Vu's long, black hair hung to his tailbone, but he always tucked it under a Bob Marley-style cap when he was at home, so as not to draw the scorn of his mother. When he started hanging out with a new, footbag-loving crowd, however, his parents quickly grew concerned -- especially when Tuan's younger brother began joining the circles of dreadlocked kickers on the family deck.

Says Thao Giap of her sons' attraction to footbag: "When I first saw them do it, here was my feeling: 'They're going to drop school and everything.' But I found out later that it was good and very interesting. Not only did they love it, they didn't forget to do their homework. And it's got art in there."

Soon, Vu was subscribing to World Footbag Association Magazine, studying the instructional video Tricks of the Trade, and making weekend road trips to local festivals or concerts he thought would be footbag-friendly. "I would go to Dead concerts, and I wouldn't even go in -- I'd just hang out in the parking lot and look for circles, jump in when I saw people who were good," says Vu, the tuft of hair beneath his lower lip the only outward sign of an alternative lifestyle. "I went to the first few Lollapaloozas and kicked there."

His first formal footbag competition was in chocolate-scented Hershey, Pa., at a tournament called "Funtasticks" in August 1992. He found a friend to make the drive with him, and they arrived at the festival site at 4 a.m., more than two hours before the first event director showed up. Once Vu registered, however, he realized he had no idea what he was doing. The other competitors were wearing synthetic mesh shoes, and Vu had on slick indoor soccer shoes; they had $25 to $30 designer footbags and he had an ungainly crocheted bag. And when it came time to actually compete, Vu was nearly too nervous to begin.

"The music kicked in, I dropped the bag to my foot, and it rolled right off," Vu says, his usually guarded expression melting into a self-deprecating laugh. "I thought, 'Oh, yeah, this is going to be fun.' I had no routine. I had three tricks that I wanted to tryto do within that minute and a half. I was kicking to 'Free Will' by Rush." Vu pauses, the laugh dissolving into an abashed grin. "It was the longest minute and a half of my life. When it was over, I was breathing heavy, thinking, 'I've never done anything quite like that.'"

Despite his anxiety and inexperience, Vu's natural talent brought him a third-place finish in the intermediate level. And the professional footbaggers were definitely impressed.

"When he hit the scene, he hit the scene hard and fast," says Eric Wulff, one of the established legends who judged Vu's first Funtasticks performance and recognized a prodigy. "He was good immediately. Just a real flashy style that's hard to comprehend. Even great players, when they watch Tuan, they go, "What? What did he just do?'"

If the established freestylers were wondering where this new kid had come from, Vu was wondering, on the drive back home to Fairfax, when he could hit the next tournament. "The whole drive home, as we were listening to music, all I could think was, 'What would go well with this sequence? What kind of tricks would work with this?'" Vu says. "I was in love. I realized, right then and there, 'This is my sport. This is what I've been looking for.'"

Although Native Americans have been playing variations of sack-kicking games for centuries, the roots of modern footbag trace to 1972 and Oregon City, Ore. A guy named Mike Marshall had been kicking around a handmade beanbag in the style of local Native American tribes, and he found a fellow footbag enthusiast in John Stalberger, a soccer player who wanted to regain flexibility in his surgically repaired knee. They fashioned a game out of the exercise called "Hack the Sack," and its object was simple: Keep the bag in the air without using your hands, relying instead on your toes, insteps, and knees to bounce the bag back and forth. Marshall and Stalberger thought the game could fly with the general public, and soon they began designing and marketing footbags under the trademark "Hacky Sack."

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