The Day Vasek Took Over

Another one from the archives. Circa 2009. Many thanks to Eric Wulff, Elliot Piltz and his Flipsider contribution, and Erik Chan. Special thanks to Ken Somolinos for the editing work.

 

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The Day Vasek Took Over

There are many moments in footbag history that are recorded and remembered; sadly a few are not. Many of those remembered moments have involved great freestylers, events, and accomplishments. Starting from the creation of footbag, through the arrival of Kenny Shults, to the very first World Footbag Championships, there have been occurrences in which great changes in footbag have occurred. In my years in the sport, I have witnessed some legendary events unfold; the story that most stands out in my mind also happens to be one of the more recent groundbreaking events in footbag in the last decade. It chronicles the rise of the great Vasek Klouda to the throne of World Champion. This event occurred back in 2002. from that Worlds, Vasek would go on to massively evolve the sport of footbag.

This story of course begins long before Worlds 2002, before Vasek even began playing. It really begins with the previous World Champion, Ryan Mulroney. Though I wasn’t there to see Vasek as a beginner, I was around to closely witness the rise of Ryan Mulroney in the late 1990’s. In fact, much of my own roots in freestyle footbag link to Mulroney, from the very first time we shredded together in San Diego (with Richard Abshire) to his own conquering of Worlds in 2000 (a tale for another day). Relevant to this story is what I witnessed leading up to the change in power in 2002, mainly from my vantage point in North America and proximity to Ryan.

In the late 90’s, freestyle was extremely strong in California and Colorado. California had two major areas of concentrated freestyle; San Francisco (the capital of footbag for some time) and Los Angeles. In Colorado, the Denver/Boulder area was extremely strong with the good amount of Big Add Posse players in the area. I had the honor of being part of both groups; San Francisco first, then Boulder. When I lived in SF, Berkeley was my main haunt. At the time Ryan Mulroney was also in the area; we had shredded a great deal in southern California before, and met back up in Berkeley to re-energize the scene there. In 1998 Ryan had not yet won his own World titles, but was widely considered the top freestyler on the planet. He had a wealth of groundbreaking combos, including strong fearless runs for the time, and advanced ‘shuffle’ combos (stepping, pixie, blurry links). Ryan simply outplayed his competitors with sheer talent and a vicious drive to be the best; this is what made him # 1 before ever taking a Worlds. Though he had not taken the top tournament yet, Ryan was consistently dominating or placing very high at many other tournaments with some amazingly executed performance routines. As sharp as Ryan was however, like any player of the time, there were areas in his game that were underutilized. This wasn’t so much with the routines he performed, but it certainly did affect them as we would later see with the introduction of the next generation. Mulroney’s ability was only checked by one person; Ryan himself. Mulroney as a younger freestyler and person could get very set in his ways; this did not pose an issue with him as there was no one in the circles who could truly challenge those habits. As much as he pushed the boundaries of freestyle, Ryan actively chose not to pursue/school certain elements in his game. One such element was being equally sided in his shred. Ryan favored his right side heavily and chose only to rotate one way (off his osis) and spin one direction. It was noticeable, but Ryan did not care; what he was executing was still phenomenal. If someone did call him out on it, he would simply bust a combo out that did include almost everything both sides. This, however, was not natural to Ryan; it simply wasn’t part of his normal flow to play even sided. I remember having a conversation with him about his flip side around 1998 . We were chatting after a session, and I asked him if he ever thought that not evenly schooling his other side might come back to bite him. He didn’t think it was an issue as his attention at the time was more on overtaking the previous gen players (Peter Irish, Eric Wulff, Tuan Vu, Scott Davidson). These were freestylers whose games he knew very well. He simply wasn’t thinking about the gen that might rise up after him. For the next couple of years, Ryan would continue to ascend in tournament ranking and improve his shred while other players like Chad Devlahovich and Ahren Gehrman developed strong, even-sided games. They were acclaimed for this, but still Ryan wasn’t compelled to work his links on both sides. In 2000, Ryan won his first World Championship title in Vancouver, BC with an amazingly executed and exhilarating routine. Now it was 100% official: Ryan was the top freestyler across the board. But somewhere overseas in Europe, the intensity and inspiration he had brought to freestyle had quietly ignited something. A young Czech kid picked up a footbag and began to play. Now, the story that led up to this is not mine to tell, but I did bear witness to its final outcome a few years later.

Now is the part of the story that I did not witness first hand, but rather heard from two reliable sources; Eric Wulff and Ryan Mulroney himself. By early 2002, I had knowledge of Vasek Klouda thanks to Rippin’ Rick Reese, who showed us video of this young European kid tearing it up. At that time I had moved to Colorado to join the Boulder Blades footbag group and attend school. I still had San Francisco in my heart, thus once a year I would travel back and see all my old friends in the bay area. I of course visited my mentors, which included Eric Wulff and Carol Wedemeyer. Eric had recently visited Europe and attended the 2001 European Footbag Championships, the premiere footbag tournament in Europe. Also in attendance was Ryan, who frequently traveled Europe around that time. Up to about 2001, the European scene simply did not hold the same clout as the North American scene did in regards to footbag; only two years earlier the first European Big Add Posse member (Mika “the Iceman” Koistinen) had been inducted. The 2001 European Championships however would be an important moment in footbag, and act as the precursor of what was to come. It was at this event that Ryan and Eric were introduced to a young kid named Vasek Klouda. There is video out there of this day, and in it you can clearly see Klouda is certainly on in his game. From Wulff’s recollection, one moment very clearly stood out when the three players were shredding together for the first time. The moment as I was told happened when the super young kid with impressive combos and unheard of ankle crank was shredding. Eric glanced over at Ryan and recalled seeing something he hadn’t seen in the uber confident Ryan Mulroney before; fear. This stood out to me, as I knew Ryan wasn’t easily shaken and always up to meet a challenge. I think what Mulroney probably was thinking that day was that he would again have to put his work in; this time not to get to the top, but now to maintain that position. Later at the event, Ryan and Wulff would have a short conversation about Klouda, mainly making something of a pact not to let “this kid” beat them. As true champions and competitors, they held to that and took first and second at that event. This is as much as Wulffy told me, but it certainly was something I remembered.

My next stop after seeing the SF gang was to visit my old friend Ryan himself. By then Mulroney had graduated from Berkeley and was living in the first story area of Steve Goldberg’s house in Redwood City, just south of San Francisco. I stopped in and like old friends we caught up. The topic of Klouda finally came up, and Ryan offered his opinion as usual. It was one of respect; he conveyed that the Czech kids were very serious and trained very hard (speaking of Jan Weber, Ales Zelinka, and Jan Struz to name a few). His particular thoughts on Klouda went as follows; it was like looking into a mirror watching Vasek play according to Mulroney. Ryan acknowledged that Vasek was a great player, but also thought much of Klouda’s style was derived from his own game. If you watch any early Vasek videos, there are great similarities, but then again, why wouldn’t you study the champion to improve your own game? I have no doubts Vasek was heavily influenced by Ryan’s sharp style and form. The thing about Klouda however was that even in those early videos; he is displaying both sides solidly in his runs. This is what Ryan did not anticipate; someone just as physically talented (if not more so) utilizing elements in freestyle that Ryan did not. That player had arrived however; now it was a matter of time before these two giants of freestyle would meet at the ultimate footbag tournament. The buildup and hype had already begun.

The 2002 World Footbag Championships were held in San Francisco that year. Coming off a very successful 2001 Worlds had motivated the Bay Area Footbag League (BAFL to host the event for the second time in as many years. I certainly was excited to make it out and see all of my old friends again as well as watch the freestyle fireworks that would unveil. Everyone knew that Czech kids were attending the event that year; it felt like an exciting new time in freestyle was just lingering around the corner. Vasek by then was the top player in Europe of course, and Ryan was still the World Champion. From the start, Vasek, Honza (Jan Weber) and Ales stamped out their claim as the new guys in freestyle; they shredded impressively and often. Honza brought consistency with his long both sided combos, Ales brought precision and perfect form. Then there was Vasek himself. The combos he dropped off that week smashed many of the current footbag records of the time. Jaws were dropped as the old guard watched tripless, fearless, and even beastly combos (all six add moves) get rolled out. Many of Vasek’s combos from that event are still considered challenging and impressive all these years later (ten Vortexes/vortices to a Mobius into a sick combo?) Unlike previous years, it already looked like things were going to be different; there was not going to be a gradual change from the old guard to the new this time around. But the final nail in this had not been hammered in yet; Vasek still had to meet Ryan in the actual tournament.

For the whole week of Worlds, Ryan barely played in circles. This was not uncommon; for some time before this Ryan had gone from shredding a lot to a little with people at events. He simply would come in, win, and go do something else. By 2002, Ryan’s interest had turned elsewhere; he had mentioned to me on occasion that he didn’t feel challenged anymore. This certainly wouldn’t be the case in 2002 however. Ryan admitted to me that he had coasted through 2001 Worlds to win the title; but being the good competitor that he was, he had trained in routines for this new event. Ryan was no fool however; he knew at that point Klouda was far more technically advanced in circle shred. His acknowledgment of this was evident during the Big 3 competition towards the end of the event. Vasek had already performed an amazing Shred 30 which had bumped out Ryan from the number one spot. With this next event, Ryan was again put on the defensive. His Big 3 was a mix of status quo Mulroney combos and some humor. Ryan’s strongest combination was a ‘default combo’ that he had used to win Big 3 events at other tournaments; Whirlygig- PS Whirl-Whirlwind. He proceeded to hit Fog-Pixie Whirl-Superfly. The final combo from Mulonrey was the crowd pleaser however; Twirly Bird-Neck Catch-Pincher. The audience loved it, but deeper than that Ryan was acknowledging that he might not be the combo king anymore. Of course Ryan’s competition in this event was again the young Czech sensation, who as expected threw down a fury of massive three move combinations including; Malstrom-Whirlwind-Spender, Blurry Whirl-Blurry Whirl-Superfly, Double Spinning Osis, and Mobius-Mobius-PS Whirl. Klouda even hit a very similar combo to Ryan’s; Blurry Whirl-PS Whirl-Whirlwind. The message was respectful but clear; the level of technicality was matched, and then upped with the combos that followed. With ease, Vasek won the Big 3 competition.

 

Now looking back, there are many things I am glad to have witnessed. There were also a few things I was happy to be on the inside track of. Being a routine judge at the 2002 World Footbag Championships was not one of them. I have judged routines a great deal over the years, but every once in a while my mind drifts back to that night at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. This is where I become a brief part of the story. Eric Wulff (the tournament director) was looking for judges who had a strong grasp of freestyle. Though there were a good many people like this, the real difficulty for a tournament director is to get these comprehending individuals to actually commit to being judges. Of course very few people step up to this position; it can be a thankless and agonizing task for sure. As I have always been up for lending my help to a tournament, I of course accepted to sign on as a judge. For three days we watched routine after routine. I remember a few great gems for sure, including Toby Robinson’s first round routine (marching in with camo apparel and shooting the footbag out of what I can describe as a footbag launcher gun), and of course Alex Zerbe’s finals routine, which stands as a comedic classic for the ages. In regards to Vasek and Ryan, their paths to finals couldn’t have been more different. Ryan faired only ok in his first and second day routines; he even came up to me as a friend and light heartedly apologized for his performance after one routine. Ryan wasn’t worried; even on his bad days his routines were solid and usually better than most other players’. Basically, he knew he was going to finals. Vasek on the other hand showed his ‘eye of the tiger’ straight through. He rocked his first day routine; but this was only a precursor to semifinals. In day two Vasek showed his true resolve with a routine that basically destroyed the status quo for routines at the time; it was a technical and jaw dropping shred for two minutes with some fine performance points. This also seemed to set the standard that he has held to almost every since; Vasek is known for shredding with abandon in his semifinals routines. This routine was quite impressive, but finals still needed to occur, and a champion needed to be crowned.

World Footbag Championships 2002 Shred 30 Finals

 

Finals night was a tense one at the Palace of Fine Arts; the organizers were working hard to make it a good show, the players were working to perform their best, the judges were working to stay extremely focused, and the audience was simply racked with anticipation. Ryan was of course the defending champion, he would perform last. Vasek preceded him as everyone expected. As judges, we knew before anything had occurred that it would be close. Ryan was ready to defend; Vasek was ready to take it. After some other great routines, Vasek took the stage to perform his. Kicking to a trademark up tempo classic song, Vasek showed exactly what he was there to do; step up the level of what a performance routine should be. Technically, it was off the scale for the time (though less of a shred than semifinals). Many hard tricks unheard of in routines were thrown. A combination of three fives in a row was executed, also a first in a Worlds footbag routine. Both sides were displayed evenly and dare I say very intentionally as an opposition to the champ. The choreography was also very strong; Klouda hit most of his beats with finesse and ease. It was an amazingly balanced routine (between high technical, and strong choreography); but it was also something more. This was the new school routine, the standard that would shape many routines after it. This template would be used by many freestylers influenced by Vasek. It was simply the new way; enhanced technicality with strong choreography. Vasek took risks however in this push; this could have contributed to what is now considered the infamous drop. Midway through his routine, Klouda performed his first and only serious error with a pincher pick up attempt to drop. He recovered quickly, and worked to make up for the action. To a few of the judges he did just this; making up for the error with his enhanced technicality and higher risk taking. As the music built up, so did Vasek; this is when some of the most impressive stuff was executed. The performance ended with a tremendous applause from the audience; Vasek had just presented the new way in routines, and had a close to flawless performance. But was it enough?

After the judges deliberated, there was only one competitor left before the evening was over. Anticipation was high; the reigning World Champion Ryan Mulroney took the stage. From the start, Ryan looked confident and aggressive. He knew what he was up against, and though he hadn’t watched Klouda’s routine, he knew it was strong. Ryan musical selection was well suited for him; it was fast and momentum building. He moved quickly through his combinations, hitting almost every music cue exactly. As the music built up to the grand finale, so did Ryan’s pace. It was obvious he was in shape for this routine as it seemed he refused to get tired or winded in the two minute run. The performance was well thought out; Ryan knew his critics were aware of his left side; he very overtly worked to show them it was being utilized. Ryan executed moves faster than the patient Vasek as well; this was one area the two player were not alike. Ryan pushed and appeared to exert more effort and fire, while Vasek presented a calmer zen routine. This was a fundamental difference between the two champions; Ryan played competitively (stick it to your opponents), Vasek played professionally (be flat line, nothing shakes you). It really was the case of the immovable object (Vasek) facing the unstoppable force (Ryan). In the end, Ryan finished his routine with a fire unheard of since; as the climatic music built to its end, Ryan increasingly attacked the footbag as if to say “this sport is still mine”. Then, just like that, it was over. Ryan had executed a passionate dropless routine. The audience again went wild.

How were these two routines to be judged against one another? Both were masterpieces, there was no question about this. Both also had flaws, some less evident than others. On Klouda’s side, it really came down to his drop. He had executed up to that point an amazingly technical routine with many risky moves, but dropped mid-routine. After this however, he proceeded to hit an even more difficult ground breaking second half of the performance. On Ryan’s end, there was nothing as evident as a drop, but he had more closely “hugged the rail”, and was a bit less risky technically than Klouda. He had also repeated many moves to drop his uniqueness down, and had relied on his default Leg Over to reset quite a bit. This being said, Mulroney made up for his repeats with assertiveness in each move that he hit. You might have seen the same Ripwalk more than a few times in his routine, but what passion he conveyed executing it! Both freestylers also stumbled in their routines, but recovered quickly. Vasek had broken new ground in performance routines but dropped once; Ryan had brought a passionate but less risky routine and had not dropped at all. How would it be decided?

Looking back, both routines are still great, and both routines have aged a bit. Ryan’s routine now looks like what some shredders are conscious to avoid; almost a flat out two minutes shred. It can be said however that Ryan’s routine was anything but mechanical. It is also evident (even more so now) the repeating of his moves in that two minutes. On the other hand, what’s missing from many routines these days is something that Ryan presented in spades; fire and passion. Today we see glimpses of this, but it has in fact gone more the way of the trend Vasek laid out that night; flat line cool headed precision and form. Vasek’s performance looks more familiar now; we have seen it emulated and of course improved on over the years. Vasek’s routines from 2002 Worlds are simply like watching the film Citizen Kane. The film itself broke a great amount of ground at the time it was released, and pushed cinema forward. Now however, when one watches the movie all these years later, a different perception is generated than before. It is still very good, but does not feel as weighty as it was made out to be in its time. This is because from it new standards were adopted and utilized, and now that is simply standard in film these days. This is the same for Klouda’s Worlds routines; you see elements of them everywhere, it is standard practice. But back then, it was in fact ‘the new way’ that set the standard.

Back to the time at hand however; the judges were faced with quite a tough decision. Being on that judging panel, this burden fell upon me and four other people. Two judges from the start were confident it was Vasek; they had just seen something new and exciting, and wanted to reward that. One judge liked Ryan’s fire and drop count, and went that direction. One judge was in the same train of thought as me; the two routines were balanced against each other. Ryan had performed quite possibly the routine of his life to defend, and went dropless. He had won the artistic card. Vasek on the other hand had performed the new school routine, and done things that had not been accomplished before at Worlds. Most of this enhanced risk taking paid off, but there had been a price for not playing it as safe; a single drop. That one drop may have been enough to flip to Ryan, but everything after Vasek’s drop certainly made up for it, including the unprecedented three fives in a row in the climax of the routine. To me and the other middle judge, the risk and accomplishments and of Vasek’s routine balanced his lone drop. Vasek would win our technical card to balance the two players evenly with the two judges. In other words, it was a tie vote from two of the five judges. Thus it came down to the other three judges; as it went it was two for Vasek, one for Ryan. Like that, Vasek had won the event and World title. It was the changing of the guard, but not a peaceful one.

World Footbag Championships 2002 Routine Finals

 

 

 

With the announcement of Vasek’s victory, the controversy began almost immediately. Disagreements over what a routine should be fired up; I can say right after the decision and announcement many were voiced their opinion that Ryan should have won. As time went on, the debate (especially online) evened out a bit more. Still though, as Ryan had not taken the top prize, his supporters kept their opinion known. At the event itself I heard wildly varying views over the next couple of days. One shredder assessed the situation in interesting way; “who was the best player in the world?” Of course there was no doubt that it was Vasek Klouda from his amazing week of shredding. The opinion offered forth was that with two Worlds routines this painfully close, it was only appropriate that it be the world’s best freestyler who wins the top prize. I find it ironic that six years later a very similar situation would occur again at the 2008 World Footbag Championships; again the results would favor the contender (Gielnicki with one drop, over the defender Klouda with no drops). The controversial events of 2002 and 2008 Worlds would be the bookends of Vasek’s six year run as consecutive World Champion.

That night after the official event concluded, there was the expected post tournament shred at the hotel. Klouda was out in full force, but Ryan was nowhere to be found. I journeyed up to Ryan’s room to see what he how we was doing, and found Mulroney and his family relaxing after the event. Ryan certainly wasn’t happy with the call, but he really didn’t want to get wrapped up in the controversy any further. From what he did convey, it did come down to the drop in his mind. Though he hadn’t watched Klouda’s routine right before him, he was told only of Vasek’s single drop before taking the stage. This was the bar he set for himself; go dropless and win. He had executed just that, but did not take the title however. This again was disappointing to Mulroney. Much later he would admit to me that after watching both routines, he saw a few mistakes on both sides. That being said, the drop still held weight to him. Vasek on the other hand was interviewed later in 2002, and paid great respect to Mulroney. Klouda speculated that his accumulated three day routines performance might have helped advance his chances of winning with the judges. He had in fact performed more consistently throughout those days of routines; again it was his feeling this overall performance might have tipped the scales his direction with the close call. One thing was certain after the 2002 Worlds had concluded; everyone had an opinion on the subject. Eventually the dust settled though, and Vasek assumed the role of World Champion that he would inhabit for the next six years straight.

To this day I firmly believe Ryan could have come back and at some point become the World Champion again. As he had admitted to me before Worlds 2002, the fire to play and win was going out in him. After 2002 I wondered what he would do next, come back in 2003 or call it quits. He did in fact return for 2003 Worlds in Prague (the first Worlds outside North America). That year he again unleashed a great routine (with one drop), but by then Vasek was far beyond any other freestyler in routines and shred. For a second straight year Klouda took the title and Ryan took second. This was Mulroney’s last Worlds; even before the second showdown he had slowly turned his attention away from freestyle. As much as I would have liked to see Mulroney return and possibly take back the title, it would have required a great deal of personal schooling in both his shred game and in routines. Ryan would have to adapt and evolve his game, even open up those avenues he had once refused to school. It would take a great amount of work to accomplish outplaying Klouda; Ryan simply did not have enough interest and motivation to do this task. But could he have done it if he wished? I believe so. Ryan was a great competitor; he truly presented some of the finest routines in his time and to date. Vasek was an amazingly advanced player, but Ryan had one of the strongest wills in freestyle I have ever seen. I believe he could have taken at least one more Worlds at some point, if he had been personally compelled to do so. At the least it would have made for some great and historic battles between the two freestyle titans. Alas, Mulroney’s interests where elsewhere, and the rest is in fact history.

Most changes in the freestyle guard have happened gradually over years. This is what makes the Mulroney/Klouda exchange in 2002 so unique. This epic switchover happened in one week. Even before Vasek was crowned World Champion, it was known from his overall performance at Worlds 2002 that it was his time and the beginning of a new chapter in freestyle footbag. And what an era it has been; we saw footbag attendance rise as players all over the world were inspired by Klouda online and in person. The game was pushed forward greatly, thanks to advances made by Klouda and those he inspired. Vasek himself would go on and win six straight Worlds in a row, as well as advance the game of freestyle far ahead of its time. Would much of this have been accomplished if there were no Ryan Mulroney to influence the young Vasek? Again, I have no doubt Vasek was heavily inspired by Mulroney. And though Ryan’s reign was shorter lived than his successor, he truly left his mark as one of the greatest players of all time. It has been a trend in our sport that each champion inspires the next. At some point however, there is always an eminently a showdown between the new and the status quo. Never before or since have I seen this showdown so exhilarating and exhausting as it was during that fateful week in 2002. It was epic, debate worthy, and the mark of a new era in footbag. What more could you ask for in a Worlds?

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