Ancient sport enjoyed locally

Aug. 16, 2007

According to Wikipedia, the origins of fistball, a respectable cousin to both tennis and volleyball, date back close to 1,800 years. It remains a popular if under-reported sport in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia with some outlets here in the States.

There's even a hardy band from the Germantown/Jackson area, which represented the United States as the American representatives in the Fistball World Championships in Germany from Aug. 6 to 12. The group finished 11th in the 12-team field.

"It's similar to volleyball and has been played in Wisconsin informally since European immigrants settled this area," said Kathy Schweda, whose son Keith, a former baseball player at Germantown High School, was part of the group that went over to the Bremen area to compete in the Worlds. "It had a resurgence in the 1960s and is now formally played with annual tournaments in Wisconsin and other states."

Germantown graduate Jim Blank is the head of the Wisconsin Fistball Association and fellow 1979 alumnus Reinhard Kindler was the head coach of the International team. The crew prepped for the event by practicing at a park near the intersections of Highways 60 and 45 near Jackson.

And they had to be ready as this sport is not for the faint of heart. The intense all-German International Fistball Association website ( www.ifa-fistball.com) shows players flying through the air, hitting the dirt and competing in a life-or-death manner. Also, the support the 12-team World Championship field received at the primary site of Niedersachsen was amazing as photos showed packed stands.

According to the Wikipedia entry, the earliest known written mention of the game is by Roman Emperor Gordian III in the year 240 AD. Rules for an Italian version were written down in 1555 and in 1786, the great philosopher/writer/social commentator Johann Wolfgang Goethe mentioned fistball games between "four noblemen from Verona and four Venetians" in his diary "An Italian Journey".

Simply put, fistball belongs to the family of games wherein a ball gets hit across a net so as the opponent cannot reach it. It is like volleyball in that the ball can be hit three times (with the fists or the arms, never the open hand) but unlike either tennis or volleyball in that the ball can bounce each time after every contact. There are five players to a side.

It's also a game that can be played indoors as well as outdoors. The court for the men's outdoor game, which the Germantown group competed on, was 20 meters by 50 meters. The net hangs about six feet (two meters) across the center of the field with service lines set up at the back similar to both tennis and volleyball.

The players hit what looks like a cross between a volleyball and a soccer ball. Individual games are referred to as sets and are played to a score of 20 (win by two) with a best two-out-of-three format.

Schweda said that getting invited to the international tournament was a major achievement. The American team struggled to get its footing, losing matches to eventual champion Austria, Denmark, Taiwan and Chile, before pulling off a 20-10, 20-12 victory against Japan in its final match.

Brazil took second and host Germany was third.

Other members of the team included Kurtis Spott (West Bend), Joshua Kindler (Jackson), Manfred Kindler (Jackson), Steve Heinrichs (Jackson), Aaron Wenninger (St. Lawrence), Steve Kucera (Hartford), Eric Kindler (Germantown), Nate Erdman (Germantown), Matt Heinrichs (Jackson), Ken Knapp (Jackson), and Dave Gorzalski (Germantown).

For complete results of the championships including photos, go to http://wm.ntb-infoline.de/cms/index.php?id=1.

Steven L. Tietz can be reached at (262) 446-6619 or stietz@cninow.com.

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