From left to right: Team member Oo Reh; team manager Gao Chang, team members Jim Thao, Ker Cha, John Thao, Yan Naing Soe, and Christ Blu Moo; and coach Jeremy Mirken. Credit: Jeremy Mirken

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It was the first day of the prestigious International Sepaktakraw Federation World Cup in Daejeon, South Korea, and the American national team had a problem: they didn’t have their jerseys. 

The American sepak takraw team, comprised of players from Minnesota and states across the country, had raised money in the preceding weeks so that it could wear custom jerseys for the competition. The team ordered the jerseys from a store in Thailand to be delivered to Minnesota, but they hadn’t arrived before the team departed. 

That’s when Chotayaporn Higashi, the mother of team member Christ Moo, stepped in. Higashi, who lives near Bangkok, Thailand, went to the shop, picked up a second batch of jerseys, and boarded a plane to Seoul. When she landed, she handed them off to a relative of team member Jim Thao, who drove them to Daejeon. By the time the Americans were suiting up for their semifinal, they looked the part of serious contenders.

They played the part, too. The U.S. team won two gold medals at the competition in late November, beating Germany, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Iran to triumph in both the traditional three-vs-three competition and a four-vs-four competition. 

It was an exceptional achievement for a group of players who had never played together as a team before in a sport that remains little-known in the United States.

“We have not competed international level for some time,” team member Ker Cha wrote in an email to Sahan Journal. “Just feels good to be back.”

Cha, who is from Minnesota, extended his stay abroad after the tournament and recounted the team’s victory via email.

Sepak takraw, which is also known as kick volleyball, is an acrobatic sport in which teams of between two and four players face off on opposing sides of a court and volley a ball back and forth using every part of their bodies except for their hands. 

It in many ways resembles soccer tennis—a soccer training exercise in which small groups of players stand on opposing sides of a short net and attempt to play the ball back and forth without letting it bounce twice on their side of the court. 

Sepak takraw is immensely popular in southeast Asia, particularly in countries like Malaysia and Thailand, and has been included in the Asian Games since the 1990 edition in Beijing, China. 

Cha started playing the sport as a child when he began following his dad and brother to local parks. Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University and chair of USA Sepak Takraw, said that his love of the game similarly developed at a young age. 

“When I was growing up in the projects in the early ‘80s, we couldn’t wait for school to be over to come and play—just to go out there and hang out and play this sport,” Xiong said. 

Before the international competition, Xiong and a handful of other high-ranking officials with the U.S. sepak takraw organization called players and contacts across the country to try to ascertain who might be interested in and available to represent the United States in South Korea.

They had some talented players to choose from. Some of the American players, like Thao of Minneapolis, had previous tournament experience abroad and enjoyed success with previous American teams.  

But the players had never all played together before, and getting to the tournament was going to require a significant amount of sacrifice. Despite a modest fundraising effort and sponsorship money from a handful of local businesses like Hmong Home Health Care and the St. Paul sports bar Cup & Cheers, players had to pay for their own airfare to get to Daejeon. 

Before flying to South Korea, though, the players were told to report to the Twin Cities so they could meet each other and get two days of practice in before traveling abroad. Xiong was not a member of the traveling party, but made sure he got his point across to the players during the tournament. 

“I kept on sending them Facebook Messenger messages. I kept on telling them, you know, ‘Failure is not an option. You’re representing the United States of America—bring back the gold!’” Xiong said.  

As it turned out, the two practice days were all the American team needed. The team, composed of six players, all of Southeast Asian descent, achieved everything they set out to in South Korea. The winning players included Cha and Thao of Minnesota, Moo of Iowa, Oo Reh of Nebraska, Yan Naing Soe of Indiana, and Jim Thao of California. 

The players were coached by Jeremy Mirken of Texas, while Gao Chang of Minnesota also traveled with them as team manager. 

“I’m surprised and I’m not surprised, either,” Xiong said of the team’s success. “I’m surprised that within a short period of time that they’re able to gel and work together and take advantage of each other’s strength and was able to perform.” 

Members of the team say they want the success in South Korea to serve as a launchpad to continue to grow the game’s popularity in the United States. The Twin Cities, with its sizable Hmong community, is an area where the game seems to have gained a significant foothold. 

Xiong said funds that were made available when Minneapolis hosted the Super Bowl in 2019 helped finance the construction of three dedicated sepak takraw courts in St. Paul. Those courts have helped top players like Cha and Thao stay in shape while introducing the game to an array of new people. 

Cha wrote that he hopes the United States will be able to support women’s teams in the future, and Xiong said he would like to see a professional league in the country. Thao wrote that soccer, another internationally popular game that has skyrocketed in popularity in the United States in recent years, could serve as a model for sepak takraw. 

“I think as we start to push more for involvement and interests throughout training programs, recreations, schools, and the states everywhere, within 10 years it’ll become a new and popular sport in America,” Thao, who was also traveling abroad, wrote in an email to Sahan Journal. 

A number of team members traveled to Thailand to take part in another sepak takraw competition, while other team members stayed on to travel in South Korea. Many of the players will reunite on January 8 in St. Paul, however, when the team holds a celebration at Cup & Cheers.

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Abe Asher

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.