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

Seeking to allay his fans' fears about his injuries, Tuan Vu emerges for his finals performance -- two minutes that could bring him, after a decade in the sport, the elusive world singles title -- hobbling on a cane, which he dramatically tosses away once "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" starts up. Although Vu has run through all of his usual pre-routine diagnostics -- mapping out the stage beforehand, tossing the bag in every direction to make sure he can spot it in the lights, warming up during intermission with his brows locked and headphones cranked -- he is clearly rattled by a disappointing second-place finish in doubles earlier in the evening. By the midpoint of his singles routine, when he's juggling two bags with his feet at once, he's dropped the sack too many times to challenge for the top spot. He finishes in 10th place, last among the finals contestants, and his quest for a world singles title will have to wait until next year; Vasek Klouda, a 15-year-old Czech prodigy whose near-flawless performance brought tears to some crowd members' eyes, beats out last year's winner, an American named Ryan Mulroney, for the hotly contested first-place prize.

"I think I still have enough in me to win one year, but it had better be soon," Vu says after the tournament, his lips drawn and eyes grim. "Getting out of bed each morning is harder and harder."

Then he tells a story from nearly a decade ago, when his father was dying of cancer in Virginia, his mother was expressing concern about his infatuation with this strange new sport, and he felt pulled to San Francisco by Monti and footbag. As part of a traditional Asian family, his parents wanted him to remain close, but although he stayed in Virginia until his father passed away, he soon moved to the West Coast.

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.

"People saw it as harsh, me leaving my mom and my brother, but it was a point in my life where I was ready for a change," Vu says. "Footbag was such a big part of my life -- people don't know how much it's changed my life."

He pauses, reconsidering a question he's asked himself many times, especially during the periods of rehabilitation and depression: "What is it about footbag that I love so much?"

"When I'm out there, it's the only time I really get to express myself," he continues, his words coming in an excited tumble. "When you're competing, and you're going to the music, and you're hitting your stuff, there's nothing in the world like it. When you nail a trick, and you're looking at the bag, and a dexterity goes around, and it's sharp, and it just feels good, and the set goes straight up, and you're ready for your next move, and you hit everything on cue, it just feels so good."

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