By KEITH McMILLAN
On an afternoon drive down a quiet road near Lake Jackson, Chris Siebert might be visible in his front yard, wearing a T-shirt and shorts with his blond hair pulled into a pony tail, appearing to play a game of hacky sack.
Some might immediately think hippie or slacker, not knowing a world champion was at work. The 31-year-old physical education and special education teacher has a passion for challenging himself, and nothing pushes him harder than footbag net, the sport in which he won the 2002 world doubles championship. He left Thursday to defend his title with playing partner Peter Shenny at the 2003 championships in Prague, Czech Republic.
Siebert describes footbag as ”volleyball played with the feet,” and it isn’t uncommon for him to jump and spike the small pellet-filled bag across the five-foot high net onto his opponent’s court.
Though athletic while attending high school at W.T. Woodson in Fairfax, he was far from a typical jock when schoolmate Tuan Vu introduced him to the world of competitive footbag.
”I played hacky sack in high school,” Siebert said, ”and I didn’t even know what a tournament was.”
Vu, who now lives in San Francisco and still competes, returned from a tournament and piqued Siebert’s interest. The seed was planted.
Always a lover of athletic challenges, Siebert played ultimate Frisbee, winning some competitive events while teaming with his future wife Beth. He also spent seven years practicing various martial arts, including Judo, Tae Kwon Do and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.
”I made a conscious decision when I was about 20,” Siebert said. ”I asked myself ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ I said I want to be a professional athlete. That sounded cool.”
By the time he entered his first open footbag net tournament in the mid-1990s, he thought he’d found his sport.
He joined a club, the D.C. All-Stars, a group of other local players that played regularly on the Mall in Washington and now plays at Founders Park in Alexandria.
There are two main factions in the footbag-playing population. Siebert was more intrigued by competing than performing. Freestyle kickers exhibit ”stalling” tricks and do demonstrations for onlookers. On a regulation badminton court, net players score points using specially altered running shoes with flat surfaces on the inside and outside of the foot. The net game is played in both singles and doubles, and after the serve it is much like volleyball. Singles players can set to themselves, but Siebert, an expert finisher, excels in the two-on-two game.
”Chris’ game, especially in doubles, is quite imposing because of his skill, determination, size, range and flexibility,” said Jeff Bowling, a La Plata, Md., native and member of the D.C. All-Stars. ”He’s hard to beat.”
”He definitely has the drive it takes,” said Vince Bradley, another D.C. All-Stars teammate. ”And the arsenal. Few people can do as much crazy high-powered kicking mid-air as Chris can.”
Bowling, Bradley and Matt Quint are each some of D.C.’s top players in their own rights, but they also have good things to say about Siebert. The footbag community is a tight-knit one.
Many of Siebert’s friends were made on or around the footbag circuit, including some who juggle, play Frisbee or enjoy Takraw, a similar sport popular in some Asian cultures. Siebert enjoyed the people so much that he and his wife actually moved to Oregon, the birthplace of the sport, for a couple of years.
Part of the reason he says he makes friends on the circuit is because they’re so easy to befriend.
”The game itself is so hard, you’re always being humbled,” Siebert said.
There are five main parts of the game to master: a serve, serve reception, set, spike and dig. Footbag can also feature high flyers on both sides of the net blocking each other’s shots.
Mark Daniels is a 50-year-old Prince William County resident who played with footbag Hall-of-Famers while living in Seattle for 22 years. He’s active with the D.C. All-Stars and praises Siebert’s game because he’s well over six feet tall and still quite agile. In a videotape of a recent tournament in Montreal, Siebert could be seen making — and missing — several spikes by finishing off high sets from teammates.
”It’s pretty amazing that the guy’s that tall and is that coordinated,” Daniels said. ”[It helps that] he’s got a solid martial arts background.”
Daniels also thinks the patience necessary in Siebert’s job at the Independent Hill School, which includes coaching Special Olympics athletes, helped Siebert grow as a footbag star. It’s that same patience Siebert must have displayed while mastering the skills necessary to compete at the world championship level.
”It takes so many years to get good,” Siebert said. He claims it took him four or five years from the time he started playing in competitive tournaments to even his career won-lost record.
But Siebert has come a long way since he first started kicking. At the recent 20th Annual East Coast Championships in Laurel, Md., Siebert teamed with Montreal’s Emmanuel Bouchard, the five-time world singles champion, to win his 17th footbag title. Siebert has five singles titles from various tournaments, nine in doubles and three in service poaching — a serve-block competition held during an annual tournament in Harrisburg, Pa.
For now, Siebert is focused on defending his doubles world title.
He and Beth will mark their five-year wedding anniversary while on the way to Prague for the Worlds, which start Monday. Siebert had hoped to play singles, doubles and mixed (co-ed) doubles, but says he may have to abandon singles to stay fresh. His trip is also his summer vacation — Chris and Beth, both teachers, are spending a week and a half in Europe, visiting Ireland and Germany as well.
Over the years, many of Chris’ vacations have really been excuses to go to footbag tournaments from the Pacific Northwest to Montreal to Texas. The prize money he wins, if any, rarely covers expenses.
The Sieberts have summers off, but for most players, work and family commitments eventually limit their participation in the sport.
Jason Langis, one of Siebert’s inspirations in the game, moved to New Zealand. Bowling is currently in Kuwait working for a software development company. Daniels still gets out and plays, but he’s a long way from the long-haired, striped-sock wearing fellow who did demonstrations at SuperSonics games and elsewhere in the 1970s and ’80s.
Daniels laughs when he says he has ”stamina issues” related to keeping up with the under-30 players in footbag. Siebert admires a pair of older players on the Montreal videotape who ”look like somebody’s father” but play a systematic, excellent game. Siebert will be older someday, but probably still challenging himself.
”I keep waiting for the day I hit it and my leg just doesn’t come down,” Siebert said, with a laugh. ”But it always does.”
If Siebert has reached his peak, he seems happy with his place in footbag history.
”I’ve beaten everybody in the sport at one time or another,” Siebert said, though he admits he usually beats who he’s seeded ahead of and loses to higher-seeded players. ”To just be some guy in Manassas … I can honestly say I’m happy just to be playing at the very highest level.”