When Ker Cha got the call about the World Cup, it had been more than two years since he had touched a takraw ball. Now he had less than two months to lose the 20 pounds he had put on during the coronavirus pandemic and get back into playing shape. Plus, he learned he would have only two days to train with his teammates before they took off for the 2022 International Sepak Takraw Federation World Cup in South Korea.
So he got kicking.
The exhilarating sport of sepak takraw is essentially volleyball, except that players can’tuse their hands and primarily kick the ball over the net. Cha is known for his unusual style of service, one that makes him one of the best American players in the sport. The game’s name comes from the Malay word for kick (sepak) and the Thai word for the woven ball, which is roughly the size of a large grapefruit. Takraw’s history traces to the 1940s in Penang, and it’s an enormously popular sport in Malaysia, Thailand and swaths of Southeast Asia.
Ker Cha is known for his unusual style of service, one that makes him one of the best American players in the sport. Credit…Caroline Yang for The New York Times
Cha, 32, is one of three players on the U.S. team who descended from the Hmong people, an Indigenous population of Southeast Asia. His parents fled Laos for Thailand just before he was born, and they relocated to America when he was just two months old. Other players are descendants of the Karen and Karenni people in Malaysia and Myanmar. Cha said that competing internationally is a way for them to honor their cultural heritage and promote a sport that they hope could gain a foothold in the United States.
“We hope that winning in these tournaments helps us to grow the sport,” Cha said. “We want to help it spread at every level, from being offered at public schools to being played at the Olympics.”
In the United States, sepak takraw is sometimes called “kick volleyball” — a rough translation but an apt description. Players line up on opposite sides of a 44-by-20-foot court with a 5-foot-high net between them. Traditionally, there are three players a side: a setter, a spiker and a server. It’s exactly like volleyball in that the goal is to win points by smashing the ball onto the ground of your opponent’s territory. It’s exactly the opposite of volleyball in that you can use every part of your body except your hands.
Cha employs what’s known as a “horse-kick” serve. A teammate tosses him the ball from the corner of the net, and in a balletic flourish, Cha turns his back to the net, lifts his foot above his head into an almost vertical split and kicks the ball backwards over his body. Typically, a team receiving a serve is at an advantage because they are able to set up their offense for a spike, but Cha’s serves are often unreturnable.
“There aren’t many people who serve the ball the way I do,” Cha said.
At the World Cup in 2022, Cha helped guide Team USA to gold-medal wins in 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 competition in the second division. It was the first time an American team had won double golds at the event. (It was also the first takraw World Cup since 2011.) They defended those gold medals at the King’s Cup in Thailand this summer, which is considered the annual marquee event for the sport.
Cha said that much of the credit for the American team’s recent resurgence goes to Jeremy Mirken, an unlikely advocate of the sport who is also the national team coach. Mirken first started playing takraw while living in Northern California in the early 2000s as a way to cross-train for a similar kicking sport called footbag net.
At the time, there was a recurring game in the parking lot of a condominium complex populated primarily by people of Southeast Asian descent. On Fridays, they would clear the cars off the blacktop and chalk a takraw court on it. Mirken marveled at the way the players would commit their bodies to spikes and blocks that looked like bicycle kicks, their backs smacking onto the pavement dozens of times a set. He was also struck by the way people from so many countries came together as a community under the umbrella of this single sport.
“They were very patient with me, a random white guy, who showed up and kind of sucked for a while,” said Mirken, who is now a school-based speech-language pathologist in Texas. “But the fire was lit. I didn’t just want to play, but I wanted to become great. I wanted to compete at the highest level.”
Mirken played for the U.S. team as a setter between 2010 and 2012, winning multiple medals. He then pivoted to a new position: coach.
“I choose who starts and who comes off the bench,” he said. Joking, he added: “Fortunately, we don’t really have to deal with that on Team USA since we barely have enough players to have a bench.”
As a board member of Sepak Takraw of USA, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to support the national team, Mirken scours the country looking for promising players and raises funds for team travel. The total cost to compete in Korea was around $11,000, and the cost for Thailand was around $24,000. And there’s no purse for teams that medal. Players pay their own way.
For July’s King’s Cup, Mirken managed to assemble the first U.S. women’s team in nearly three decades. Kristal Luna, an assistant soccer coach at Sonoma State, first learned about takraw less than a year ago. She adapted her skills from soccer and Teqball, another kicking sport that is a combination of soccer, takraw and table tennis. She would train in the morning before her players arrived for their first practice, and they would often talk to her about the upcoming tournament while trying to juggle the takraw ball.
The women’s team didn’t make it out of the group stage in Thailand, but Luna still loved the experience. “People were like, ‘We’re not ready,’” she said. “Of course we’re not ready! But you have to start somewhere.”
Meanwhile, the men found themselves in gold-medal rematches against Iran in both the 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 competitions. And once again, Cha’s serve proved to be decisive, with the American team bringing home gold medals in each category. Their recent success means that at next year’s King’s Cup, they are likely to be slotted in the top division, competing against countries with who receive government financing and select their rosters from thousands of potential players. Cha, who has been training or playing every day since he got that phone call for the World Cup almost a year ago, said he will be ready.
Mirken hopes that all this winning will make it easier for him to find more players and more money to support not only the growth of the team, but also the growth of the game.
“I’m always happy when we win medals, but that’s not the goal,” he said. “My goal is for more Americans to see this sport and to decide for themselves if it’s cool enough to catch on. I know it could be huge here.”