Growing up in Singapore, Kalwant Sandhu spent many afternoons playing a pick-up game that he learned about from his Malay friends. It was sepak takraw, translated as kick ball in Malay and Thai.
But kamikaze volleyball was more like it, Sandhu said, describing the flying scissor kicks and acrobatic feats of players who launched rattan balls over a high net with every part of their body except their arms and hands.
Sandhu moved to the Bay Area in 1980 and did not see sepak takraw again. Instead, he played and coached soccer in Palo Alto and settled his family in Mountain View. All this changed a few years ago when he met Jeremy Mirken, a former sepak takraw player who now is an event organizer and head coach for the USA National Sepak Takraw Team.
Together, Sandhu and Mirken are introducing the popular Southeast Asian sport to those living in the United States. Were trying to reach out to athletic leagues and let them know theres an inexpensive sport that doesnt use much space and is very entertaining for kids, Sandhu said, adding that some enthusiasts like to describe the sport as martial arts ballet.
Traditionally played three-on-three in an arena about the size of a badminton or pickleball court, sepak takraw players use different parts of their bodies heads, knees, feet and occasionally their chest to bump, set and spike a small ball over a five-foot-high net, Mirken said.
Each player has a specific role. A server initiates the rally by making the first kick; a feeder or setter puts the ball in the air; and a spiker ends the point. Its very much played like volleyball with kind of acrobatic martial arts-style kicks, Mirken said, adding that elite players jump between seven and nine feet high up in the air.
The arrival of sepak takraw to the U.S. can be traced to refugee groups displaced from conflicts in Southeast Asia, Mirken said. Many ethnic groups, like the Lao and Hmong, learned to play sepak takraw in Thai refugee camps; when they came to the U.S. about 40 years ago, they brought the game with them. Other refugee groups, like the Karen from Myanmar, came to the U.S. more recently and play sepak takraw to keep their culture alive, according to Merkin.
While an immensely popular sport in Southeast Asia, sepak takraw is relatively unknown in the U.S. Mirken, who was living in Oakland, only learned about it from a friend when he was 23-years-old. Even if I had walked right by it, I wouldnt have noticed it, he said, explaining that the game was taking place inside the parking lot of an apartment complex that was hidden from the street.
Nearly 20 years later, the invisibility of the sport is still its greatest barrier to access. You can play with almost any pair of shoes. All you need to find is a ball and a net, Mirken said. But man, to find the people who play can be a challenge. There are only about 500 active tournament players and most clubs do not have trainers or coaches.
Despite its limited resources, the USA National Sepak Takraw Team has made inroads competing at the international level, where they play against teams that have a lot of support from athletic federations. In July, the U.S. team competed at the Kings Cup Sepaktakraw World Championship in Thailand, which is considered the sports most prestigious international tournament.
The mens team won two gold medals in the Division One competition, just a step below the Premiere Division. Because of these victories, they likely will compete in the Premiere Division next year and will face off teams with superhero status, like Thailand and Malaysia.
This also was the first year the USA National Sepak Takraw Team sent a womens team to compete at the Kings Cup. While other countries regularly have women playing the sport, the U.S. has lagged behind, Sandhu said, adding that they hope to change this with greater exposure of sepak takraw in the U.S.
In the meantime, the U.S. team plans to celebrate its gold wins in Oakland with former national team members who taught Mirken how to play the game.
Now we've won some things, and Id like to thank them for their support of me and other players that ultimately helped us grow the game and inspired us to try to bring it to communities outside of just the Laotian population. Mirken said.
And so that's what we're doing. We're keeping the legacy alive and growing it, he added.