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

Of course, the grinding didn't prevent him from practicing today. As on most weekdays, Vu used his lunch hour to "school," as he calls it, kicking in the corner of the parking structure that abuts the Orinda headquarters of Dantz Corp. (which, luckily for Vu, also has a shower on the premises). Vu tests computer drives for the company to ensure they're compliant with Dantz's backup software, and he often spends his days peering into as many as 10 open computer drives strewn around his cubicle and laboratory. Computers have always come naturally to Vu, but he got the job, as fate would have it, through a connection he met while playing footbag.

More important, fate and footbag also brought him his wife, Lisa Monti. (Footbag even got a mention during their marriage ceremony, although the wedding site, sadly, wasn't conducive to a post-reception shred.) A former soccer phenom and San Francisco native, Monti met Vu at the 1993 World Footbag Championships in Golden, Colo. Monti, now a third-grader teacher, played mostly net footbag until she met Vu, who was competing in a pool of contestants she found herself judging.

"He was just a kid," recalls Monti, sitting at their kitchen table and watching Vu and their 3-year-old son, Joey, labor over a jigsaw puzzle in the living room. "He was unknown."

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.

Vu looks up -- and Joey is on his own with the puzzle.

"Unknown?" Vu asks, mock innocence in his eyes.

"You were new on the scene," Monti points out. "That was your first Worlds. Nobody knew you."

A grin spreads across his face -- clearly, Vu loves talking footbag, loves arguingfootbag, with his wife. "The freestylers all knew me," Vu insists. "I met Kenny at Funtasticks."

"Well, you met them. You didn't know them." Monti shrugs. "Actually, there was a buzz. I was a net player, so I didn't know the freestylers that well."

But Vu isn't quite ready to end the discussion. On his feet now, he presses home his point with a deliberately fanciful explanation of a Force-like energy that binds freestyle footbaggers and spreads their reputations far and wide. "As a freestyler," Vu says mock-solemnly, "if someone hits a "Torque' in New Zealand, you'll stop whatever you're doing, and you'll feel it."

But Monti gets the last laugh. "And if you don't feel it," she mutters, practically rolling her eyes toward the living room, where Vu has stationed four computers and five VCRs to edit footbag videos and DVDs, "you'll read about it on the Internet."

She continues the tale of their first meeting: "I was on the judging panel, and I was judging with some women. He had a Band-Aid on his knee, and I remember my friend turning to me and she said, 'A Band-Aid, that's so cute.' ... And he was a little Rasta boy back then, hair down to here, and I just thought he was the cutest thing I'd ever seen. But I had no idea I was going to marry him."

Actually, though, footbagging has some kind of matrimonial connection; Monti can name nearly two hands' worth of footbag couples whose love of the sport brought them together -- and kept them together. "I've known several people in the footbag community who have divorced their partners because they spent too much time playing footbag," she says. "It's hard for me and Tuan, sometimes, and I really understand. It's such an addiction. When Tuan was injured and down, I said, 'You have to go play, you have to get out there.' Because he's miserable if he's not."

Although Monti doesn't play nearly as much as she used to, she and Vu have often showcased their footbag skills together. During their honeymoon in Vietnam, Vu passed out footbags to kids in Hanoi; and on a vacation through Europe several years ago, they performed in front of the Eiffel Tower, passing around a Tupperware cup with a sign that said, "For your pleasure and our dinner." At that time, most Europeans had never seen anything like footbag, and American tourists hadn't seen anyone good at it.

"When you see people doing it in the street, they've got a beer in one hand, they're kicking it and chasing it," Monti says, sighing. "That's bad press. You don't think of people in footbag being this dedicated, but we are. And we're not getting any money out of it."

When Vu leaves to fetch a pizza, Monti reflects on the dedication her husband has for his ultra-obsessive hobby. It's a dedication that prompts him to drop the bag and kick whenever he has 30 seconds to kill -- for example, when he's standing in line at the grocery store -- and it's a dedication, despite the fitness benefits, that has led to deteriorating health in both of his ankles, his lower back, and his knees.

"I try not to nag, but he abuses his body really badly," she says softly. "His work is very demanding, his family life is very demanding, he has his video projects, he has footbag. And he's like, 'I think I'll play net this year, too.' And I said, 'What? Are you crazy?'

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