James Cam launched his body into the air and executed a back flip as he spiked the ball over the net.
Other teammates popped the ball off their heads or lifted their feet high in the sunny sky to slam a serve in the corner of the court.
The guys were playing the southeast Asian sport of sepak takraw, or “kick volleyball,” in which players can use only their feet, chest, knee and head — no hands — to pass and hit the ball.
The takraw athletes offered gravity-defying demonstrations at St. Paul’s Duluth and Case Recreation Center, where the first designated outdoor sepak takraw courts in Minnesota were dedicated Saturday.
About 200 people attended the ceremony next to the new playing courts behind the recreation center.
“We’re developing leagues and players, and when takraw becomes an Olympic sport, we want a St. Paul team to bring home a medal,” said Lee Pao Xiong, chair of Sepak Takraw USA, which partnered with St. Paul Parks and Recreation, St. Paul Parks Conservancy and other organizations to fund and build the $500,000 five-court project.
A new generation of players now has a place to practice and compete, which “connects the community and promotes friendship and sportsmanship,” Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, said at the dedication.
Three of the courts are at the Duluth and Case center, and two are at Marydale Park.
Takraw is popular with Minnesotans of Southeast Asian descent who feel a cultural connection to the sport, which originated in Malaysia and Thailand more than 500 years ago.
Players once wove together strips of rattan to make a ball. Today they use a springy woven plastic ball.
Teams of three players pass and kick the ball over the net. “The ball comes so fast,” said Jeremy Mirken, board member of Sepak Takraw USA. “It’s one of the most difficult sports in the world.”
Mike Hahm, director of St. Paul Parks and Recreation, said it was clear there was a demand in the community and that the recently opened takraw courts have been extremely popular with young people.
“We’re incredibly proud to get this for sepak takraw players, and it adds vitality for the city,” he said.
Hard-core and beginner players are thrilled with the fresh artificial turf courts. In the past, they had to create their own makeshift play areas at neighborhood parks.
“We hope the new courts help the sport get bigger,” said True Cha, of Circle Pines. He said he loves the intensity of competition and that the sport requires skill, not size, to excel.
“The adrenaline is awesome when I’m juggling a ball in the air with my feet,” he said.