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June 25th, 2014 MARTIN CIZMAR | Culture Features
 

Hotseat: Chris Dean

Footbag championships organizer explains modern hacky sack.

cultfeat1_4034CHRIS DEAN - IMAGE: Joe Bourguignon / IntrepidHerbivores.com
     
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Of course Portland has high-level, competitive Hacky Sack. Considering our city is home to sizable Quidditch and unicycle scenes, you shouldn’t be surprised to see serious interest in the lunch-period pastime that brought together soccer guys, band geeks and bad kids in a circle where they could hand-pass low-grade pot while knocking around a small beanbag.

But Hacky Sack—known to die-hards and intellectual-property lawyers as footbag—has grown to the point that there are two specialized branches. These days, few players can be competitive in both “freestyle” and “net” play. We asked Chris Dean, a Portlander who placed eighth in freestyle routine at last year’s World Championships in Montreal and who is organizing this weekend’s U.S. Open Footbag Championships in West Linn, to explain the modern sport.


WW: What’s your background in footbag?

Chris Dean: I used to play Hacky Sack in high school when I lived in western New York. My friends and I never heard of footbag, and I thought I was the best at hack. You know, doing jesters and stalling it on my head and stuff like that. But in 2002, I was visiting a local college campus and saw these guys doing the craziest tricks I had ever seen, and stringing together dozens of hard tricks without dropping. My mind was blown. It looked nuts, and I honestly had to go home and watch slow-motion footbag videos to understand what was going on. I remember running up to those guys and saying they had to teach me how to do that. That summer, we drove up to my first freestyle tournament in Montreal, where freestylers were doing even more unbelievable stuff. I got to party with some of the world’s top players at that event, and ever since then I was hooked.


How is footbag different from Hacky Sack, or why do you shun the name Hacky Sack?

Well, we don’t necessarily shun the name Hacky Sack. I often say “hacking” to refer to casual circle kicking. But Hacky Sack is a brand name owned by Wham-O, the same people who own Frisbee—another term for the flying disc. The official term has always been “footbag.”


Tell me about the Oregon roots of footbag.

Well, footbag as we know it began in Oregon City. In 1972, Mike Marshall and John Stalberger sewed together a leather bean bag and began kicking it around as a way to rehabilitate a knee injury, calling the activity “hacking the sack.” Wham-O began marketing it as Hacky Sack, and it spread all over the country. The athletic disciplines of net [kicking an object over a 5-foot-high net similar to volleyball] and freestyle [doing tricks] grew out of that original activity.


Who’s the Pelé of footbag? 

Oh man, I’m gonna catch flak for this, but in my opinion the greatest of all time is David Clavens of the USA. Most would say Vasek Klouda of the Czech Republic, and with good reason. Among active players, Honza Weber of the Czech Republic is unquestionably the favorite to win any tournament he attends. Portland has its share of elite players, too. Notably, Nick Landes is a freestyle superstar who is defending his title as U.S. champion. As for net, that’s probably Ken Shults of Oregon.  He will be defending his U.S. title from last year as well.


So what are the various events at the championships?

First, there are freestyle events, which are judged subjectively. There are two main freestyle events. Circle contest looks similar to your traditional hack circle, except the players get their own turns with the footbag to do a combo or  string of tricks. Play moves from one competitor to the next, and when you drop, you pass the bag on. The winner of each circle is decided based on criteria like difficulty and variety of tricks. The other main event is routines, where each individual gets two minutes to perform a choreographed routine to music. Then there’s net, which is similar to volleyball or badminton, except with a hard leather ball you kick over the net. Players often execute aerial spikes and play in fast-paced volleys. It’s pretty exciting.


Does everyone do both, or are some competitors just into freestyle?

Most people just specialize in either net or freestyle. The two disciplines have progressed to the point where it’s too difficult to keep up with both. It’s a pretty exciting time in the sport: The average level of play is higher than ever, and people are executing tricks that were thought to be impossible 10 years ago.


Does the competitive aspect harsh the vibes at all?

No way. There have definitely been friendly rivalries, but it’s a small enough community that we’re all friends. In freestyle, we all want people to take it to the next level. That’s what motivates us.


GO: The U.S. Open Footbag Championships are at Willamette Park, 1100 12th St., West Linn, on Saturday and Sunday, June 28-29. 10 am-dusk. For more information, visit footbag.org/events/show/1386623061.

 
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