Sepak attack: The sport of takraw is gaining a foothold in Minnesota

Gao Chang volleys the ball back to the opposing team // Photo by Ryan Siverson

Gao Chang volleys the ball back to the opposing team // Photo by Ryan Siverson

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.

A player connects with the ball on a rolling spike // Photo by Ryan Siverson

A player connects with the ball on a rolling spike // Photo by Ryan Siverson

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.”

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