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.
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.

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.

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."

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."

Marshall died of a heart attack three years later at age 28, leaving Stalberger to spread the gospel of footbag. To that end, Stalberger formed the National Hacky Sack Association and eventually sold the rights for the Hacky Sack to a company called Kransco (which also makes the Frisbee), whose Wham-O subsidiary began mass-producing the bags for an even wider audience. Although much of that audience consisted of teenagers and hippies who enjoyed the game for its communal aspect and easygoing pace, the Hacky Sack soon found itself at the center of two very competitive -- and very different -- sports, which bore only passing resemblance to the passive kicking more widely associated with the Hacky Sack.

Footbag net came first. With rules similar to volleyball and tennis, players kick the footbag over a 5-foot-high net strung across a badminton court. Although initially more popular among kickers because of its objective point-scoring system, the net game has gradually ceded center stage to freestyle, a high-adrenaline exercise that combines elements of dance, juggling, and aerobics.

The freestyle genre found its wings in 1981, when a young kicker named Kenny Shults grew tired of merely keeping the bag in the air and invented a trick to perform when the sack was passed to him. He called the move "Around the World," because it requires the player to kick a bag, circle the flying bag, in midair, with his foot, and then kick the bag again with his toe.

"At first, there was a strong cultural bias against trying hard tricks, because you'd drop it, and the circle would be angry," says Shults, who is often called the "Michael Jordan of footbag" because of his towering stature in the game and the 45 world championship titles he's won. "But when people saw 'Around the World,' they were just floored. The reaction I got from the playing community was so dramatic, and that fueled my inspiration."

The "Double Around the World" -- two circles of the footbag between kicks -- soon followed, and in 1984, Shults made a fashion discovery that would forever change the sport. He tried a pair of lightweight court shoes, manufactured by Adidas, called the "Rod Laver," after the Australian tennis great. Constructed of breathable nylon mesh with a square toe, the Rod Laver instantly transformed footbag, making it easier for players to catch the bag on the outside, inside, heel, or toe of the foot.

Around the same time, Shults arrived for his freshman year at the University of Texas in Austin. He started playing freestyle Frisbee games and was intrigued by the concept of difficulty levels attached to tricks. A couple of years later, Shults and another freestyle legend named "Rippin'" Rick Reese -- who had closely followed Shults' emergence and attained similar status as an innovator of tricks -- came up with what kickers call "the add system," and competitive freestyle tournaments would never be the same.

Complex and esoteric, the add system (as in "add one level of difficulty") rates tricks on a scale of one to seven, and mercifully replaced the practice of awarding first place in tournaments to the person who keeps the bag in the air the longest. (The record is eight hours and 50 minutes, in case you're wondering.) An "Around the World," as easy as falling out of bed for top-tier freestylers, is a one-add trick; a "Clipper," wherein the player catches the footbag on the inside surface of his foot with the catching leg tucked behind the support leg, is a two-add trick. The names of tricks -- "Paradox Blender," "Symposium Whirling Swirl," "Shooting Torque" -- get zanier as the level of difficulty increases, and now, more than a decade after he invented the scoring paradigm, Shults thinks the arcane add system might be one of the biggest barriers between freestyle footbag and mass appeal. Although footbag groups are lobbying the International Olympic Committee for a tryout, Shults thinks the sport's bizarre scoring methodology will prevent it from catching on as other so-called X Games have.

"Watching someone flip a motorcycle 40 feet in the air, you can tell it's cool," Shults says. "Someone doing a 'Blurry Whirl,' well, it doesn't have the same kind of immediate impression. On the really big tricks, you have to be highly knowledgeable to tell what people are even doing. Most of the X Game sports have a level of involvement where anybody off the street can have a reasonable amount of fun -- anyone can coast down the sidewalk on a skateboard, ride a bike down a short set of stairs. Footbag takes a pretty high level of investment before you get beyond the point where you're just picking the damn thing up. And you can't appreciate other people doing it if you can't do any of it yourself."

As a pleasant midsummer evening settles on the Richmond District, Vu opens his apartment door and shares some troubling news. "My right knee is hurting," he says with a wince. "When I go like this," and he simulates an inward kick with his right foot, "I can feel it grinding."

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."

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?'

"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."

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.

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.

"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."

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.