This East-Asian sport, where soccer meets volleyball, finds footing in St. Paul
When Lee Pao Xiong’s family fled their native Laos because of the civil war, one thing they took with them was a sport: Sepak Takraw [prounounced: sep-ack ta-krawe]. “It was very popular in the refugee camps,” Xiong says. “There were nets set up everywhere to play.” Xiong arrived in America in 1976, and the sport immediately brought a piece of home to the McDonough Homes project in St. Paul, where his family lived.
“There were no soccer fields, so we just set up the net in a grassy area and started playing.” Before long, there were teams and competitions, including an annual 4th of July tournament, which now attracts players from across the country. Sepak Takraw most likely has roots in China, and its history in Malaysia spans at least 500 years.
It combines the foot skills of soccer with the net play of volleyball. Players can use their feet, knees, head, shoulders, and elbows to get the woven or synthetic balls—about 17 inches in circumference—over the net, resulting in some spectacular spiking. “People love watching because of the acrobatics and the competitiveness,” Xiong says. “A lot of the time, people watch and say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that!’ But there are players who also can’t fly like that but are on the team. There are different roles for everyone.”
Today, Xiong is chair of Sepak Takraw USA, which aims to grow the sport here and get it into the Olympics. Soon, much of that development will take place in St. Paul, where the first permanent Sepak Takraw courts in the U.S. will be built this year in Marydale Park by Loeb Lake thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Super Bowl Host Committee Legacy Fund. When those are built, Xiong expects to see the sport—not just the players—take off.