By Pat Jenkins
What is fistball?
Paul Schaefer has heard the question a lot. And in his capacity as president and coach of the Eatonville Fistball Club, the west coast’s only fistball team, he has the answer.
Fistball, arguablly the least known sport in the U.S. despite being played in this country for 102 years, is described by Schaefer as a combination of basketball, tennis and volleyball, with a playing field roughly the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Worldwide, fistball has been around for nearly 2,000 years, starting as far back as 240 A.D. during the Roman Empire.
Given its ancient roots in other parts of the planet and its slight toehold in the United States, it’s no surprise that the sport is almost invisible here. But with more than 100,000 people internationally playing fistball competitively or as a leisure activity, the Eatonville Fistball Club isn’t alone.
The club, a member of the newly formed Northwest Fistball Association, is training for the 2014 U.S. Fistball Association (USFA) invitational tournament this summer at the Swim and Sport Club in Flanders, N.J. where Schaefer was introduced to the sport as a boy. The Eatonville resident is preparing his club team for its introduction to national and international-level competition, including teams from Wisconsin, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Germany, Austria and Brazil.
The Eatonville contingent, the first team from the west coast to compete in a USFA-sponsored tournament, is captained by Oscar Trinidad, a student at University of Washington-Tacoma. He and the other team members are current or former students of Eatonville High School.
In countries such as Austria, Germany, Brazil and Argentina, fistball is a big deal. Teams have corporate sponsors to help with the cost of traveling to tournaments.
“It’s not like us,” a collection of students with no corporate backing, Schaefer said. Instead, the team will try to make money washing cars and holding bake sales, among other fund-raisers to defray costs of competing in New Jersey.
Again: What is fistball? To start with, players hit a ball over a net from one half of the field of play to the other. As in tennis and volleyball, the aim is to place the ball where opponents can’t get to it and hit it back. Players punch the ball with their fists or arms, and the five players on each team can make contact with it up to three times. One bounce is allowed before each contact.
The teams compete on a field measuring 20 yards by 50 yards (20 by 40 indoors). The net is six feet high. The ball, similar to a volleyball, is served over the net from a service line nine feet from the center line.
The attacking, defense and passing produce “a highly competitive sport, a fun sport for the athletes as well as the spectators,” Schaefer said.
Fistball is most popular in Germany, where organized competitions have been held since 1893. The sport spread to Austria, Switzerland and Italy, and German emigrants introduced it in South Africa, Canada and South America and finally in 1911 in the United States, where it’s played by men and women.
The International Fistball Association, the sport’s main governing body, is based in Austria and spans North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe. The USFA, whose president lives in Wisconsin, actively promotes fistball’s growth. .
Q&A with fistball coach Paul Schaefer
Paul Schaefer, president and coach of the Eatonville Fistball Club, talked to The Dispatch about the little-known sport he’s promoting locally.
Dispatch: It sounds like fistball has quite a bit of running, quick movements and eye-hand coordination. What other kind of physical demands are there? Is there body contact?
Schaefer: It is very much like volleyball on steroids,.played primarily outdoors on an approximately 20 by 50-yard field.. Fast action, quick responses, anticipation and of course ball control. And lots of offensive and defensive strategy. As in volleyball, this is not a contact sport.
Dispatch: Were you exposed to fistball before helping form this team? Have you been a player and/or coach previously?
Schaefer: I played in the youth and mens’ divisions of the Swim and Sport Club of Flanders, N.J., a member of the Eastern Fistball Association, which had tournaments from Philadelphia to New York City. I played from the age of 12 until I served in the Army 12 years later.
Dispatch: Why has it taken so long for a team to come from the west coast? Is it mainly a general lack of knowledge or awareness of the sport?
Schaefer: I think awareness of the sport is the primary reason. Strides are being made in states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania to promote the sport. Also, the U.S. Fistball Association has introduced the sport to schools, YMCAs and other sports organizations in Wisconsin. Several tournaments have been planned for this summer in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with teams coming from Brazil, Germany and Austria.
Dispatch: How is your team getting competitive experience in preparation for the tournament this summer?
Schaefer: There is the rub. This is the Pacific Northwest, where sunshine is at a premium this time of year. So we’re limited to practicing outdoors in the late spring, summer and fall. I even went so far as to have an official-size fistball field constructed on my land. Unfortunately, this field won’t be ready for play until mid-summer.
Dispatch: Where and when does your team practice?
Schaefer: There are no practices scheduled until spring. Just a side note: Two of our team members have graduated from Eatonville High and are attending universities in Washington and Idaho. The rest of the team are members of the Eatonville High wrestling team. They are all conditioned athletes.