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

"He's always injured, but he recovers quick. He's playing by the next week, and I don't know how he does that. But he's getting a little older now, it's taking longer to heal, and he had to do some rehab, which I'm really glad he did. I don't think he could have kept up at that rate."

As the San Francisco 49ers open their season against the New York Giants in a nationally televised Thursday night football game, the Vu brothers and another local freestyler, Sunil "Tsunami" Jani, are poking around the University of California at San Francisco's student union to find a place to practice. The Bay Area has long been home to many of the world's greatest kickers -- including Carol Wedemeyer, a female champion in a sport traditionally dominated by men -- and Vu gets together at least once a week with local shredders who call themselves "The First Family." The trio settles in an unused basketball court, under the curious eyes of a few racquetball players who watch through a glass wall as Jani -- who must have the fastest feet on the planet, especially among medical students closing in on their Ph.D.s -- warms up.

After changing into black shorts and slipping on his trusty Rod Lavers -- one of several pairs he keeps in his car, at work, or at home -- Vu slides black ankle braces over each foot. The braces restrict his mobility and have robbed him, he thinks, of some necessary dexterity, so he jokes he's going to burn them when he feels 100 percent again. "Of course, after I burn them," Vu says wryly, "I'll probably sprain my ankle."

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 has never broken a bone, and that's part of the problem. While fractures can eventually heal, an ankle sprain -- the stretching and tearing of ligaments -- entails a risk of re-injury as high as 70 percent, and Vu's ankles have been significantly worn down over the past decade. "Both ankles, repeatedly, left, right, over and over," Vu says wearily. "Doctors are useless -- there's not much they can do." Physical therapy -- ultrasound treatments, massages, and strengthening exercises -- helps, but his ankles still ache when he wakes up each morning.

As the Vu brothers and Jani begin kicking, prominent calf muscles bulging as their feet rise and fall, Eric Wulff, a 33-year-old legend in the footbag world, shows up. Wulff has known Tuan Vu since Vu's first tournament in Hershey, Pa., and became his doubles partner about four years ago. A short, muscular guy, Wulff is known as "The Ironman," a nod to his endurance and unflagging devotion to the sport. Wulff describes that devotion in a slow drawl that speeds up only when one of the footbaggers pulls off an amazing trick on the court.

"For me, being on the cutting edge of a sport is just awesome," Wulff says. "You have an influence in what direction it's going, in whatever small way that is, and we're all in this weird discovery stage together. There's a bond, because no one is in footbag for any reason other than love of the game. Do we wish there was more money in this sport? On some level, of course."

Wulff pauses to gush over a "Paradox Whirling Swirl" unleashed by Jani, then asks Vu to perform one of his greatest hits: a combination of consecutive tricks -- an "Atom Smasher" to a "Legbeater" to a "Blur" to a "Legbeater" -- that Vu showcased on an early footbag video called Raw Shred.

"When everybody that watched this video saw that combo," Wulff says, "they hit stop, rewind, played it 10 times over, watched it in slo-mo. It's still impressive."

The rapid-fire "Legbeater" -- a four-add trick of astonishingly quick shuffle steps that move the bag from foot to foot, over and under crisscrossing legs -- put Vu on the map, earning him the nickname "Disco Ninja" for his choice of musical accompaniment and hyperkinetic style. But the dexterity required to land the trick has also been responsible for more than a few of Vu's twisted ankles; when he lands on the wrong side of his foot, the ligaments tweak easily. Wulff, for his part, understands and sympathizes with his doubles partner's repeated injuries, having blown out his own anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that sidelines football or basketball players for as long as a year and sometimes ends their careers.

"I started it with skiing, finished it off with footbag," says Wulff, who had the leg ligament replaced by one from a cadaver. "The doctor actually said, "If you weren't into this sport, if you just had your desk job, and you weren't kicking footbag at night, you'd never know your ACL was completely blown until you're 65, when it just buckles one day when you're walking around the corner. But since you play this sport, you're irritating it all the time.'"

Did it ever cross his mind to stop playing?

"Oh, yeah," Wulff says. "But it just crossed my mind."

Before the start of the Saturday night final of the 2002 World Footbag Championships, a Japanese tourist approaches Tuan Vu outside the Palace of Fine Arts and asks him for his autograph. The guy tells Vu he's seen him in magazines and on videos, and although Vu has had quite a few similar run-ins before tournaments, the notion that some people view him as a celebrity -- albeit a minor one -- still unnerves him. "They talk about me in the third person right in front of me, which is weird. 'Disco Ninja this, Disco Ninja that,'" he says.

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