Ken Somolinos Footbag Interview 2014

ken interview

Originally from BSOS, circa 2014. Red Husted interviews super footbag player Ken Somolinos.

First, thanks for taking the time. We’ve known each other for a long time now, I’m glad they tapped me to interview you. I figure we can have this be nice and personal, but not too personal. You have a long history in the sport now, so I’ll start back at the beginning and move forward. There will be some greatest hits stuff mixed in with lesser known facts.

As the greatest actor of our generation is known to say: “alright alright alright!”

Ha ha yes. Kicking this off, when did you begin your freestyle career, and how did you get into it? I remember meeting you for the first time at Worlds ’99 and you were already strong.

I first got into hackysack in 1996. We were on vacation in the Fla keys and got locked out of our car, and my sister bought one so we could kill time. I spent the next year or so learning to kick basic kicks and fliers, and I think toe stalls? Then in 1997 my best hack friend told me he had bumped into players who were way better than us (which I was skeptical was possible) and that there was an actual tournament that weekend in NYC. I went to the tournament, met Goldberg, Tu Vu, Bruce Dole, Eric Wulff and Ian Brill, and realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what was possible. I started going into NYC every weekend to play and learn more, and by my first Worlds in 1999 I was pretty hooked. I’m pretty sure you were the one who challenged me to hit my first Superfly at 99 worlds.

I think I remember that, Ryan and I saw you playing and were like “who’s this guy?” Then we went out for lunch. You were definitely one of the strongest new players there. You dropped some big names with the people you first met which leads me into my next question; who were your role models back then? I think I can guess a few.

Ron Jeremy?

That’s one haha.

I remember going for Mexican with you, Ryan, and Brian McK.

That was it.

I was just so excited and in awe that the people I had watched on videos really existed, and that they were friendly and funny. My encyclopaedic knowledge of Simpsons finally paid off socially!

That did impress us greatly!

Ryan was probably my biggest influence back then.

That was another guess. He influenced about everyone past, present and future.

ryan mulroney
Ryan Mulroney

Yeah, I was a fan of lots of people, but if I had to single out one person it’d be Ryan.

Good to one to choose, he led the pack for that generation. As you were coming up, did you have any core schooling partners/buddies? There have been some epic schooling teams over the years, any shredder you played with more than anyone else when you were on the rise, or after?

Yes and no. My last year of high school I got to play with NYFA a good bit, but almost from the get go I was the strongest player in that club, so I didn’t feel anybody was pushing me. The next 4 years I went to undergrad in Rhode Island, and never built/found a scene there. So those first 5 years I only got to play with NYFA, and occasionally with Yacine and the Montreal crew on trips…but nobody on a regular basis.

Then after college, I moved to Japan…which had no footbag scene to speak of when I arrived. Over the next 3 years I helped build up a pretty strong scene, and got to play with them on a weekly basis. It wasn’t until the end of my time in Japan though that anybody was at a high guiltless level. I was always jealous of places with footbag scenes with players at a high level, like the first family in San Fran, or the Shred House in Boulder, or the dictators in Prague.

Yup, I always liked to call them houses, like the house of Sole Purpose. It is more difficult to stay motivated with no group around, I can see where some of your drive came from. That was great work you did in Japan, we have seen the seeds of that for years now and currently with Taishi and his success.

taishi badass
Taishi Ishida

So proud of Taishi. I’m so impressed by people who follow their dream, and he’s really going for it. Such a great guy too. But yeah, playing most of my career either entirely solo, or with small crews that are not at the guiltless level, you have to find other ways to motivate yourself, and there are times it can be hard to sustain that motivation.

I bet, but the payoff to the perseverance it built definitely shows. Ok, now that we are getting into your professional level career, let’s jump to 2003 and another one of your greatest hits so to speak. I remember in Prague you were invited into the Big Add Posse, but politely declined. That was the first time and last time I know of that happening. Can you give us some insight on why you chose not to accept the invitation? Not everyone knows this story, or your thoughts behind it.

Man, that feels like forever ago….and I guess 11 years kind of is a lifetime.

Yup, to me it went by fast, darn it.

We’re old dude. 11 years is longer than most people’s entire footbag careers.

Haha you’ve held up better than I, but yup, we’ve been in the game a while now.

You’ve got a couple years on me though. But anyway, to answer your question, I think it’s easiest to look at a few years/events.

Please.

From 97-99 I learned pretty fast, and was having a lot of fun. At 99 worlds people first started mentioning to me that I had a shot at BAP, and for some reason that changed the way I approached the game. I spent the next year focusing on trying to hit what the BAP guys were hitting, and frankly it wasn’t much fun at all. I went to 2000 Worlds, but at that point footbag wasn’t really fun for me, and it kind of showed. I didn’t play well that week, and I felt like I was disappointing everybody…which is weird, because it’s a hacky sack tournament, and what did I have to prove? I came home from that Worlds and reevaluated why I was playing. I decided if it wasn’t fun for me, and I wasn’t getting much out of it, then I should spend my time doing anything else. I took off 6 months from playing, and that could have been the end of my career right there. Instead, I found my shoes 6 months later and started messing around with the game again, rebuilding it from the basics up. This actually fixed some problems with my clippers and stepping set, and my strong clipper and weak clipper switched. Anyway, I rediscovered my original love for the game, and by consciously making a point to stop caring what others thought of my game or my potential, I ended up getting a lot better than I was before I quit. In the summer of 2001 I went to Denver for an internship, which meant I missed Worlds, but got to play all summer with Rippin, Daryl, Jon S, Red, and Sunny. I played really strongly, and even hit some tricks like Stepping Ducking Symple Blender clean on film.

I remember.

I had to miss Worlds that year, but I remember visiting Yacine in Montreal and he showed me the BAP vote paper, and I had gotten some votes despite not being at the tournament. He told me he thought I would have gotten in if I was there. If I was there, and was put on the spot with an invite, I’m not sure what I would have said. But when I talked to Yacine that summer, it made me start thinking about BAP, and since I had time to think about it, I realized that when I was motivated by BAP, my game went to shit…and that when I let go of caring about other people’s expectations, my game flourished. Once I had that realization, it seemed disingenuous of me to accept BAP. I thought that, since I benefited from playing for myself, there might be other young players who would benefit similarly, and that the best way to send that message would be to turn down BAP. At the end of the day, it really comes down to proving stuff to yourself, and being happy with yourself, and not caring what others think about you. That’s a lot easier said than done.

At least in the case of BAP, it didn’t cost me anything material. You look at Grigori Perelman in the math world for example, and that guy turned down a million dollars. You could also look at other sports too… Dirk Nowitzki was told his entire young career to play back to the basket and eschew 3 pointers. If he had followed other people’s advice, or done what he thought everybody wanted him to do, he wouldn’t have ended up being Dirk. Verbose enough response for you?

Yup, there’s a quote I always liked from Hemingway I believe; “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self”. Sounds like there’s a little bit of that here. I can tell you a lot of the BAP players and everyone else respected that, I certainly did. And yup, you nailed it! To move on, what has been your favorite Worlds tournament that you have been to, and why?

Well, to help me figure that out, let me tally up the list of Worlds I’ve been to: 99, 00, 03, 04, 05, 07,08,09,10,12,13

That’s a good run of Worlds.

I’m still kind of bitter I missed 2002 Worlds.

I’m bitter I missed 2003!

Really hard to say which was best. 13 was special to me because I finally made routine finals, but it wasn’t my best performance either. 99 was special because I got to meet everybody. 03 was the most fun in terms of partying and just shredding like crazy. 09 and 05 were run so well…I really don’t know which I would pick. Sorry for the cop-out answer on that one.

Ha ha no sweat, it is tough to decide, I don’t know if I could say either. Just glad we have gotten to attend so many.

Yes, we’re lucky. It’s weird, on one hand I can complain that my job doesn’t allow me to prepare as much or play as hard as I want in preparation for tournaments…but if I didn’t have a job there’s no way I’d be able to go to Worlds.

Yup, it’s that life/balance thing, we have to deal with it at one point or another. Relating to this, congratulations on your recent marriage. She’s awesome btw. Do you feel you’ve found a good balance between life and footbag right now? Of course priorities come first, but it looks like you are still making it work.

ken dancing
Ken dancing with his wife

It’s weird, because on one hand I could complain that I can’t dedicate as much time as I’d like to footbag, but on the other hand I know if/when I have kids in a couple years, I’ll look back on this time of my life and say: “look at all the free time I had to play back then!” I think in the future I’m going to have to adjust my goals and expectations for footbag, and while that is a little bit sad, I feel like I’ve had a good career, and it’s unfair to complain that I “only” had 17 years of playing.

That is a good stretch of time, and you’ve made good use of it. One thing I have always respected about you is the fact that since the late 90′s I don’t think you have ever taken a significant break from playing (six months isn’t too bad). You always seemed to stay excited for the sport, where many of us from that gen and later either retired or took long stretches of time off. It’s been quite an inspiration to the older players and new to see you doing so well now. Do you think you’re in your prime presently, and do you consider yourself in the OG category yet?

ken mohawk
Ken with a mohawk

Thanks Red, that’s very flattering. As for how I perceive my current game…I’d say I’m probably still in my prime. I set my new personal record for fearless (14) this year, I have done some of my best routines in the past year, and I’ve crossed off some dream tricks too this summer. Objectively, I think my game in the past year or two is better than any other stretch I’ve had. As for being an OG…it’s kind of crazy how few of us players from the 90s are still around. Lon is a year older than me, and he’s still crazy good, so no reason for us to stop yet.

Agreed, you guys are really showing how far you can take it, and your 30′s aren’t too old are they? lol. I believe it’s really a state of mind, and of course avoiding debilitating injuries. To keep it going, in 2013 you became the U.S. Champion and have consistently worked to present great performance routines.

ken us open
Ken, Nick Landes and Brian Sherrill at the US Open

Do you have any other aspirations moving forward, things that haven’t been checked off the list yet?

I turn 35 in April. As for goals, I think my last remaining one is to make Finals at Worlds again, and try to medal in routines. It’d be ambitious, but that’s a good thing with goals. Even if I don’t, I’d like to finish higher than I did in 2013. I think that’s achievable.

Congrats on finals at Worlds before as well. You are known for speaking your mind, how do you feel about where footbag is today, and what do you think will help it along? Anything you feel is hurting it right now?

I think lack of readily available footwear is hurting us. The days of people choosing easily between Lavers, G-Units, and Quantums are gone. And that adds immensely to an already-steep learning curve for beginners. I think it also hurts us that everybody makes the claim that the scene is significantly worse now than it was 10 years ago. I think that’s a negative attitude that’s not really supported by evidence.

As for what will help the scene, I think the key thing is for us to invest more in new players. That’d probably take the form of doing more promotion, more tournaments, more PR work advertising our tournaments, etc. I don’t think we need a radical sea change to our approach, I think we just need to do a better job of it.

The lack of current footwear is an issue at present, but something I think we can resolve. For where the sport is at, I can say I’ve been around long enough that I’ve seen it fluctuate so to speak, but don’t see it as being in trouble right now either. There are a few things to work on like anything, but I can say now I see interest growing in the sport which I am optimistic about. I also agree stronger promotion helps, just leveling up certainly ways we do things. The new players and veteran players such as yourself are inspiring, I say lots more of that. I sometimes wonder if the crazy advances we’ve made in terms of player skill may not have actually hurt us. Like, when I first saw real players in 1997, I was blown away by what they were doing, but on some level I thought I could get to the point where I’d at least be able to emulate them. Now though, if you’re a new player and you see Milan hit Nemesis Swirl…it’s kind of more daunting than what we dealt with.

I agree, and have thought exactly the same thing. There were still worlds to conquer (pun intended) when we got into it, new moves to invent and combos to put together, a whole lot of undiscovered country. Then Vasek and crew came along and it was like footbag was sent ten years into the future. The physical standard got extremely high, I just watched Claven’s Autumn video again from four years ago and it is absurd. Being a new player, if you’re not inspired I could see one being like “screw that” ha ha. Inspiring or disheartening, depending on your viewpoint. I would hope inspiring.

ken west coast
Ken on the West Coast

Yeah, though on the plus side, the few kids who don’t get scared away will be insane because they now know what’s possible.

That’s the way it should work, what was a mountain to the previous generation is a mole hill to the next one, you can hope.

Yeah….though I wish we had more casual players and intermediates. Like, with basketball I know I could never be an NBA player…but that doesn’t stop me from playing pickup. With footbag, I kind of wonder if we’d have more intermediates, or more motivated intermediates if we hadn’t brought the sport to the point where anything less than 10 fearless, or a 4 dex, or a beast, is considered blasé.

I would like to see it be more inclusive and spin more directions, say just more motivation for casual kickers to come to events and enjoy them/not be intimidated. There’s a lot of ground on the promotion side we can still cover methinks.

Agree.

Ok, so final questions;

Show your work?

Haha absolutely. And you have. First question of two here; what are you most proud of thus far in your footbag career?

Japan. Next?

I figured, and a good one to be proud of. Finally, what’s the most inspiring thing in footbag to you?

http://footbag.jp/

Hm. To answer your first question more seriously, “my involvement in the development of the Japanese scene.” Though on a personal level I’d probably say winning Circles and routines in subsequent USOs.

Ken Somolinos Open Routine – Finals – 2013 US Open Footbag Championships

Good accomplishments.

As for inspiration, I think it’s the same as in any sport or human endeavor. Seeing yourself and your friends try their hardest, and push past their highest expectations. I remember my earliest goals and dream tricks, and how thrilled I was to hit them, then surpass them with new goals. When you see another player push so hard, and achieve something they thought was impossible, you can’t help but be inspired. There’s nothing inspiring in seeing somebody do what they’re supposed to do. But seeing somebody grow, and improve, and strive….I met Taishi in 2003 when he had only been playing for a month. 11 years later he wins gold at Worlds, against a murderous field for that event. That’s inspiring.

Absolutely agreed. It’s a wonderful feeling seeing someone you mentored rise up like that, I still have a warm place in my heart for Nick Landes (shout outs) and all he has ended up accomplishing. Well, thanks a bunch Ken for doing this interview, your work has been quite motivating and I look forward to seeing where you go from here. Not to pay too much lip service, but you are one of the top players in the U.S. and I would love to see a tournament/event where you, Lon, Jim, Evan, Nick, and Bevier all converge. That would be a treat, meeting of masters ha ha. Hopefully soon.

Hey, thanks a lot Red. This was fun. Hopefully I’ll see you in Boulder or Boise sooner than later. Have fun at the party!

Agreed, will do. I’ll tell Daryl and Jim you said hello, and as always, see you in the circles my friend!

Right on. Take care Red!

Here is Ken’s most recent video, one of my favorites from this year.

Article by Ethan “Red” Husted

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