Kickin' it

Footbaggers heading to world competition

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Bruce Guettich and Peter Shunny have kicked the footbag around with Alaskan villagers, movie stars, Navajo Indian children and business people.

Both men know they are fortunate to make a living through the World Footbag Association by their ability to kick, catch, pass and sell a tiny bag filled with sand or plastic beads.

Guettich and Shunny have become successful at what some call a children's game. There are few others in the world more passionate about the sport or better at footbag, particularly net footbag, than these Steamboat Springs men.

Guettich and Shunny began competing in footbag, a game mistakenly called "hacky sack," at the international level more than 20 years ago. This year's appearance at the 2004 World Footbag Championships in Montreal will be Guettich's 24th and Shunny's 20th at the elite competition.

The two used to be top-level freestylers, but younger players -- even teenagers -- have developed intricate, difficult tricks that Guettich and Shunny can't match. Consequently, their attention has shifted to net, where they continue to thrive.

Guettich finished third in singles net footbag at last year's world championships, held in the Czech Republic. Two years ago, Shunny and his former partner, Chris Siebert, won the world title in doubles.

Guettich, nearing 47, and Shunny, 43, are two of the oldest competitors playing at the international level. Guettich said he expects to be the oldest in the Montreal tournament. But watching the pair compete against each other on the grass field adjacent to the old junior high building -- even if it's just practice -- shows that age has done little to slow them down or change their expectations heading into this year's championships.

"I expect to compete at a high level," Shunny said. "I expect my body and my partner to compete at a high level. Sometimes you do wonder, 'Did I practice and train hard enough?'"

The two will get their answer at the end of the month. The World Championships run from July 26 to Aug. 1. The footbag net preliminaries begin on the first day of competition. Footbag net is a combination of volleyball and tennis, but is played with feet instead of hands or a racquet.

To serve, set and spike the ball to an opponent, Guettich and Shunny have to be in good enough physical condition to last through a series of matches, be flexible enough to twist and bend in seemingly impossible positions to kick the ball and be quick enough to dig an opponent's spike.

In addition to outside conditioning, Guettich and Shunny get plenty of exercise through their full-time jobs, performing and conducting clinics throughout the world.

"The performing was what got me involved in the first place," Shunny said. "We not only do shows, but we stick around for P.E. classes and do a lot of hands-on work with the children."

During the Fourth of July parade in downtown Steamboat Springs, Guettich and Shunny could be seen kicking and catching their footbag down Lincoln Avenue, stopping at the judges' booth to do their freestyle program from 1989. They won an award for their performance.

"I pinch myself," Guettich said. "This is what I'll retire doing, but the light is not at the end of the tunnel. I still feel like we have to stay one step ahead."

People can follow the World Footbag Championships or learn more about footbag at www.footbag.org

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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