By Kollin Miller
School has just let out all around Lincoln. Children of all ages are beginning to gather for afternoon games.
Games of football, basketball and soccer are played across the city.
But behind an apartment complex to the south of Lincoln High School, a different game is played. A ball pops over the wooden fence, then falls behind it, back out of sight. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d never know that Karen refugees have gathered for games of sepak takraw.
And they’ve been doing this for years.
Eh Moo is a 16-year-old boy who just started playing a few weeks ago. Everyone else was playing the game and he wanted to learn it as well. Since then he’s been out there every day, practicing.
He races home from Lincoln High School every day and is sometimes the first one on the converted cement basketball court. He doesn’t care who shows up next, he just wants someone to play with.
Today, Mook Shaw is the next boy to appear. He is only 9 years old, but he has already been playing takraw for a year. He’s not big enough to be able to do many types of kicks. Instead, he relies on simple touches with his feet and head to keep the ball in play.
Eh Moo sets himself up to practice more difficult kicks. He kicks the ball high into the air, jumps, spins and connects. Everything is timed perfectly, and he shoots the ball to the ground on the opposite side of the net. Impressive for only having played for a few weeks. But Eh Moo says there is no secret to how to do those types of kicks though.
“You just learn it,” Eh Moo said.
More and more children start show up.
They come through the hole in the fence or show up on bikes. Soon the small court is packed with 15 or 20 children.
When enough players show up, seats are at a premium. Only a couple of chairs sit next to the court, so the children sit anywhere they can. They sit on the swings of the jungle gym or on the cement ground. They even crouch on top of the fence or climb the tree overlooking the court to watch.
Sepak takraw is very popular in Southeast Asia, and Karen refugees brought the game to Nebraska when they began to resettle here. Sepak is the Malaysian word for kick and takraw is the Thai word for woven ball, referring to the ball used to play. It is traditionally made of woven rattan strips, but it is more commonly made from woven plastic.
The sport has been played in the United States since the 1980s. Kurt Sonderegger had taken some time off from the University of Maine and was working and going to school in Switzerland. There he was introduced to the ball. He was so intrigued by it, he flew to Thailand to find out more about this strange-looking ball.
He came across some people playing the sport in Lumphini Park in Bangkok. He played with them and learned from them. He met with the president of Marathon, the No. 1 manufacturer of Sepak takraw equipment.
Sonderegger saw an opportunity to introduce a new game into the United States.
When he returned to Maine, he learned that he needed to go west.
“I thought it would be a great sport to introduce here,” Sonderegger said. “We started it in the Venice Beach area.”
Venice Beach was perfect. Hacky sack and foot bag were already popular there, and a strong population of people from Southeast Asia lived around Los Angeles. It didn’t take long for it to catch on.
Sonderegger took it to schools that were looking for different sports for young people to play. He taught them how to play and hoped to instill the same passion he had for the game. The schools liked the sport because of the minimal equipment necessary. All they needed was a net and a ball.
Sepak takraw was even featured on the television show “MTV Sports.”
Sonderegger formed a national team that still competes in international tournaments today.
Ker Cha has played on the national team since 2012 and was recruited to play for them after playing local tournaments in California. He was born in Thailand and now lives in Circle Pines, Minnesota. Cha surprised to find out that the sport had reached all the way to Nebraska.
“It’s good to see how the sport has grown,” Cha said.
Sonderegger admits it’s a long shot for takraw to shed the traditional game label and grow as a sport.
“It’s hard to compete with soccer,” Sonderegger said. “With takraw, maybe you can play for the national team, but soccer, you can potentially make millions of dollars.”
But one thing is for sure. The people that play have as much passion for it as any sport.
Sepak takraw athletes can leave you mesmerized by feats of athleticism. The sport combines elements of several different sports, including soccer, volleyball, badminton and gymnastics.
The basics of the game are very similar to volleyball. A match is the best-of-three games. Each game is played to 15 and you must win by two. If a game is tied at 15, then the first team to 17 wins, regardless of winning by two. Three players make up each team and, like volleyball, each team has three touches to get the ball over to the other team’s side of the net.
For the children that play in Lincoln though, you only get one game. The winning team stays on the court, losing team must wait their turn to play again.
The court is roughly the size of a badminton court and the net is the same height. For this makeshift court in Lincoln, white paint outlines the court and PVC pipe stuck in concrete and is anchored to a tree overlooking the
court on one side and a jungle gym on the other. It’s quite a sturdy setup as it takes a lot of abuse. The net is hit by the ball, kicked, head-butted and run into, but a simple adjustment to the net and it’s set for play again.
Hands are illegal, just like in soccer. In fact, the use of hands to help you kick the ball is illegal. So this means no handstands while attempting to kick the ball.
So how are you supposed to kick a ball over a five-foot tall net without any use of your arms and expect to score points? Being able to keep a soccer ball in the air is not much of a challenge for soccer players, so you have to get creative with how to kick a ball at a downward angle. That’s where gymnastics come into play. Flexibility and powerful legs are a must. And so is foot-eye coordination. The simple answer is skill.
Professional players are able to do flipping and twisting kicks. They call them the sunback and roll spike. The sunback spike is equivalent to a bicycle kick in soccer. The roll spike refers to when a player jumps and twists over their opposite shoulder to kick the ball. A well-struck spike can reach speeds of 90 mph.
The momentum created by their legs allows players to twist around and strike the ball just like a spike in volleyball. The momentum of the kick spins them back around so their feet hit the ground first.
“There’s a pretty steep learning curve to be able to do those types of kicks,” Sonderegger said
Those are the shots that gets the reactions.
Just as incredible though are all the other shots: such as bringing their leg straight up in front of them to tap down a ball too close to the net, using their head and neck to whip the ball to an empty spot or place it just over the net. They make split-second decisions that seem incredible, but to them, it’s just another shot. Nothing special about it.
The children that play after school in Lincoln, Nebraska, aren’t able to do those types of kicks. Most of them anyway.
Av Le is one of the best players in Lincoln. The 17-year-old attends Lincoln High and plays. He doesn’t speak much English, but his abilities on the court can’t be missed. He is the only one who can do a true sunback or roll spike. It sends some of the children playing against him running. His kicks rifle through the air with incredible speed. He has incredible leaping ability and ability to adjust to the ball in midair.
He’s also very polite. Le always says “thank you” when someone retrieves a ball for them. He gets everyone on his team involved, even the young ones that play with him.
But make no mistake, he’s on the court to win. When his team starts to lose, his intensity goes up a notch. He takes over the game. Flip kick after flip kick and the children on the other team are helpless to stop it. Their only defense is to hope he kicks it into the net or out of bounds.
His teams don’t lose much.
The children that play are a mix of tall and short, most are thin while some are a little bigger. The common trait they all share? Powerful legs. Each and every one of them have very strong legs that allow them to sky up and hit the ball on a downward trajectory.
As the sun begins to set, some of the children start to head home. Enough always stick around to play until it’s too dark to play. Darkness is about the only thing that can stop them from playing. They’ll be right back at it the next day. Playing until dark.
Behind a fence in the backyard of an apartment complex, an incredible sport is being played. You’d never find it if you weren’t looking for it. But if you venture over and watch, you’ll be amazed at the athleticism of these refugee children.