Thirty people are are dispersed between two nets on a near perfect August night outside Olson Middle School in North Minneapolis. Younger players, roughly between 20 and 40, play at one court, 50-and-60-somethings at the other. The courts are twined-off, the grass worn. Spectators cheer from the sidelines.
From a distance, this might seem like some version of badminton or volleyball. But linger, and you’ll see it: a player close to the net will rise up, hurl his body into the air and twist, extending one leg out and up and doing some deft combination of an aerial cartwheel and front flip, all the while connecting their foot with the ball to spike it over the net. This is Sepak takraw.
Teams of three volley a five-and-a-half-inch woven ball back and forth using their feet, head, and chest—everything but their hands. “Server, feeder, striker,” says Gao Chang, pointing to players and denoting their positions. Chang, a Ramsey County Sheriff’s deputy by day, plays with the younger guys, set back, leisurely kicking the ball when it comes his way. He admits he’s “getting old” and can’t spike, but he still enjoys playing.
Chang is the secretary of Sepak Takraw of USA, Inc., a local nonprofit founded in 2014 seeking to promote the sport, organize leagues, educate the public and eventually lobby for the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics. The organization is currently working hard on getting a few outdoor takraw courts built in the city.
“We feel positive,” Chang says. “We have a lot of support from the community, but we need to raise $250,000 to build four courts.” In March, they presented to St. Paul’s District 5 council and received unanimous support from the board members. If the plan goes through, and if they can get the funding, the courts will be the first professional takraw courts in the U.S.
The sport is widely popular throughout Southeast Asia, and many countries claim it as their own. Some accounts date a variation of the sport back to the 12th century. The modern version most likely evolved from a Chinese military pastime where soldiers would kick a shuttlecock back and forth. In 1829, an official rulebook was drafted by the Siam Sports Association in Thailand. Shortly after, the association implemented the volleyball-style net and held public matches.
The sport spread throughout Southeast Asia, but every nation had slightly different rules and called the sport different names: In Malaysia, Sepak takraw is called “sepak raga”; in Thailand, “takraw,” which means “hand-woven ball”; in the Philippines, “sipa”; and in Laos, “kator.” Takraw eventually became implemented into Southeast Asian schools for physical fitness, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that Southeast Asia saw the first international competitions, which systematized official playing rules.
Since then, takraw has steadily grown out of its cult status, with international competitions burgeoning all across Europe, including the Swiss Open in Switzerland and the Chicken’s Cup in Germany. Domestically, SkillCon, an eight-day “skills convention” in Las Vegas, hosts takraw tournaments, exhibitions and workshops for players from all over the country.
Watching from the sidelines, Chang explains the rules. The server extends his leg and windmills it in the air, making sure to the keep his left foot planted. “If you lift it, it’s a penalty,” Chang says. The ball soars over the net. A player from the other team kicks the ball on the inside of his foot, a move common to hacky sack. Another player, the setter, then kicks the ball high and closer the net. The man on the right side—“Alex,” Chang says, “He can go all day, it’s crazy”—springs into the air, flipping his body backward as his foot connects with the ball and smashes it to the other side, where it lands within bounds.
Photos by Ryan Siverson
“Point for them,” Chang says. The court itself is 13.4 meters long by 6.1 meters wide, and the net stands 1.52 meters above the ground. If this sounds a lot like volleyball, that’s because it is, only with the no-hand contact rules of soccer. Indeed, one of Sepak takraw’s nomenclatures is “foot volleyball.”
The sport requires a unique mix of acrobatics and flexibility. When the spiker leaps, if he’s right-footed, he’ll jump from his left foot and sail upward, spinning and kicking the ball in a line drive over the net. He’ll land either on his knees or feet or, sometimes, plain fall to the ground, absorbing the blow to scramble back and ready himself for either blocking or another round of spiking. This move is called the rolling spike and is similar to Taekwondo’s 540 roundhouse. It’s the most common form of spiking, but each player puts his or her flair on it. More experienced players can perform what’s called the sunback spike, where the player jumps from his dominant foot with his back to the net and sends that same foot high above his head, as if doing the splits in mid-air, and then landing on his butt.
Perhaps the defining thing about takraw is its pace, which can go from leisurely to intense in a matter of nanoseconds. One moment, a player might serve the ball or give it simple knee kick, and the next, he’ll be hurling himself through the air, flipping and stretching and tumbling to the ground. Volleyball and badminton compare, but only in concept. Takraw players must have intensely dialed reaction times, requiring the coordination of football and the strength and flexibility of yoga and martial arts.
Kerr Cha and John Thao tell me what it takes to be good. Both have been playing for about 10 years. Both are in their mid-twenties and are headed to the King’s Cup International World Championship in Bangkok in October, where 35 countries will compete.
“One of the main things is know the basic moves,” Thao says. “Get used to using your whole body, left and right legs and chest and head. Second, a lot of stretching and flexibility to have a competitive advantage. Third thing is to do a lot of conditioning. The spiker, for instance, will practice spiking the ball 10 or 20 times in a row. Train for three years and you’ll see a big change in your game.”
Cha, who was recruited for the King’s Cup team at a tournament in Sacramento in 2012, says he wants to be able to compete against the best international players. Thao, who shares that ambition, has competed in King’s Cup twice. Last year, his team won gold in Division 2. This year, their team will compete in Division 1, against the most challenging teams like Thailand and Malaysia.
Chang says other takraw groups meet regularly at Prosperity Heights Elementary School, near Lake Phalen in St. Paul. One of the proposed takraw court sites is near the Duluth and Case Recreation Center in St. Paul across from the Hmong Village Shopping Center. The other location is near the Scheffer playground in Frogtown. If and when these sites get approved—Senator Foung Hawj is helping Chang get funding—they want to build two more courts, one in Minneapolis and one in Maplewood to help the sport’s visibility and to recruit more players.
The sun is setting, but both games roll on, maintaining the same energy and occasional whoop and cheer as they did when I got here. Two kids dart between us, one of them urging the other to “play dragons.”
“California, Wisconsin, Texas, Iowa, Minnesota—those are the big takraw states in the U.S.,” Chang says. “But Minnesota is the best. Every time we show up to play tournaments in California or Texas, these guys show up, and the other team says, ‘No way, let’s just play for fun, because no one can beat them.’” Chang is eager to get schools to set up demonstrations, to spread the good news of Sepak takraw. After a night of hearing about all the local players’ successes, of seeing the community come together, of watching players heckle and laugh and high five, it’s easy to see why.