The world juggling championships: how I became a competitive athlete at age 44

I already know what you’re thinking, so let’s address the question right out of the gate: is juggling a sport? There are wide ranging opinions on the subject, from snot-shooting, helpless laughs to those who argue that juggling is in fact an art form.

I fall on the sport side of this debate. Look beyond your circus clown variety of juggling and it becomes difficult to deny that technical juggling is one of the most demanding mental and physical disciplines humans can do. More taxing than most jobs. More difficult than most sports with million dollar sponsorship deals.

Also, and I’m not trying to boast here, it’s simply the reality, but look at me.

Sometimes Steve requires gentle encouragement to put down his iPhone and resume juggling

Sometimes Steve requires gentle encouragement to put down his iPhone and resume juggling

I lift weights for about 30 minutes twice a week, otherwise those muscles are built from juggling.

I would press my sports argument for a thousand words here, but that’s one mammoth digression. Instead, if you want to read 6,700 convincing words about how un-fucking-believably difficult world-class juggling is, you should click and absorb Jason Fagone’s “Dropped,” the story of the greatest juggler alive, Anthony Gatto, and his retirement at the age of 40.

Tl:dr? Ponder this quote from Boston College economics professor Arthur Lewbel in Fagone’s story: “You’re making four throws a second. In a minute, you might have more throws and catches than an entire baseball game. So doing something for even a minute without a mistake is enormously hard — like a whole baseball game without an error.”

And that’s just basic three object juggling. Add in the compounding difficulty of tricks, or worse, more objects, think about the robotic throwing accuracy, factor in the thousands of miniscule, ongoing corrections and improvisations to compensate for the throws that aren’t robotically accurate, consider the sometimes near zero margin for error, and juggling suddenly starts to resemble a genuine superpower. Not quite Spider-Man, but way more impressive than that Hawkeye guy from The Avengers.

And for the record, four throws and catches per second for 60 seconds is 240 throws and catches, far more throws and catches than any baseball game I’ve ever watched. But, whoops!, I digressed…

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I have 32 sporadic years of juggling under my belt, with the intuitive and natural advantage of having learned as a kid. I’ve taken several years off here and there, namely when I realized that high school sports was probably better for my social standing than juggling. Then again for a few years during and after university while I was embroiled in theater. I barely juggled at all during the 4.5 years in my 30s while I was doing my nomadic wandering of the planet that led to my career in travel writing. But I was far beyond any serious jugging aspirations by that point. Or so I thought at the time.

At some stage in my mid-20s, I realized that I would never be a great juggler. Pretty good, yes, but not great. Not great enough to compete in the world championships. I had enviable aptitude, but I was not god-like and only god-like jugglers have a shot at a gold medal. Hell, some years the field of competitors is so wondrously dense, one needs to be god-like just to get into the competition and finish last.

My main failing was consistency. I could do amazing things, but my consistency was always weak. I practiced hard, but probably not hard enough. And I wasn’t focused. Rather than become exceptional at certain disciplines within juggling, I wanted to sample all of juggling – balls, rings, clubs, diabolo, devil sticks, cigar boxes, spinning balls, unicycle – including frittering away half the 90s practicing numbers juggling (i.e. juggling more than five objects). At my peak I was able to run nine balls.

Serious world-class juggling requires Olympic caliber dedication and training hours and I had other things going on that I simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) sacrifice, like school, earning a sustainable income and kissing girls.

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Flash to New Year’s Eve, 2012. While getting blitzed on cider with my long-time juggling club passing partner Steve (aka “juggling pins,” but whatever you do don’t call them “bowling pins” in front of a juggler), the idea was floated  that we should make a run for the championships. More accurately, we were “Kramered” into it by Steve’s girlfriend. Both of us being in our 40s, nearly double the age of most other competitors, we surmised that if we were ever going to do something with the wacky and unique collection of tricks we’d amassed during 25 years of messing around in the gym, it had to be soon or never. As with my many previous drunken, highly susceptible to suggestion major life decisions, we resolved to go for it. For the fans.

Yes, we had fans. Probably only tens of fans, but fans nonetheless, mainly composed of club passing enthusiasts. Club passing, incidentally, is the act of two or more people throwing clubs back and forth in rhythm, using predetermined timing, enlivened by creative patterns and tricks. Steve and I had quietly developed into something of a novelty duo, creating six club passing tricks no one had seen before, pushing the boundaries of what was realistic and sane. We dreamed up and practiced tricks that only lunatics, masochists and the highly delusional would consider. Tricks where frequent injuries were inevitable. We were a danger to ourselves – and others.

Seriously. At the Monday night juggling club meetings in South Minneapolis, with our reputation for unpredictability and (purely accidental) violence, Steve and I had about 1/4 of the room to ourselves. This extended to our frequent, calamitous drops.

With Steve and I, drops weren’t drops so much as they were opportunities to improvise another trick. Any club that hit the ground, but was still bouncing or rolling within reach was fair game to be batted, kicked or generally flailed at to get it back in the air and into the other person’s orbit – at which point it became their problem. This, unfortunately, often resulted in a club flying high and way outside our catching radius with something like a quintuple helicopter spin on it. Anyone that strayed too close to us while we were practicing was quickly reminded of their mortality.

Now we were planning to take this unorthodox style and general indifference to incessant drops and hone it into a championship routine. From the outset it seemed unlikely that we would win, but we knew we’d blow the backs off a lot of people’s heads and that was good enough for us.

But first we had considerable work to do on our consistency if they were going to let us anywhere near the world championship stage. Some of our tricks were so sensitive and precise that the moon’s orbit was probably affecting our ability to pull them off on a given day. With the staggering amount of practice we would need to rein in that unpredictability and not embarrass ourselves in a hail of drops and possible injuries, we decided to aim for competing in summer 2014.

The huge training lead time was also out of respect for ages and physical limits. Competitive juggling, like many physical sports, doesn’t see many old timers. It’s mainly an arena for people in their late teens and early 20s. By their late 20s, competitive jugglers start slowing down, either due to the punishing physical demands or, more often, Real Life asserts itself and they just don’t have the time to train for competition with the distraction of jobs and families and so forth.

Once in a while someone in their 30s will compete and on rare occasions over the years one or two individuals in their 40s have clambered onto the stage, usually playing a minor role on teams of four or more people. I would be competing for the world championships on a two-person team, in one of the most all around demanding activities known to man, at the age of 44.

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We started training in earnest in April of 2013. It became immediately clear that our age was going to be an even bigger factor than we thought. Though we were both relatively spry for our ages – I was 42 and Steve was 40 at the time – even after decades of juggling muscle memory and conditioning, our bodies weren’t quite prepared for the transition from lazy goofing off once a week to intense training 4-5 days a week.

Within days our arms, shoulders and backs were alive with unremitting pain. I was even limping at one stage for some reason. We scaled back our training hours to allow our bodies to adjust for the quiet physical decline that had begun unbeknownst to us.

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Though the tides are changing, for decades juggling routines, especially in competition, have followed a fairly predictable model. If someone were to make a bingo card for an evening of juggling competition, it would include squares with:

•    Vests
•    Some wacky, offbeat object juggled or manipulated
•    Juggling props set up randomly around the stage
•    Three or more pirouettes in a routine
•    Juggling at least five objects for individuals, or passing at least nine objects for teams
•    Very briefly juggling (aka “flashing”) at least seven objects for individuals, or passing 10 objects for teams
•    Rings juggling routine finished by pulling them down around one’s neck
•    Same tricks that won last year
•    Get the audience to clap rhythmically for some stunt
•    A Top 10 hit from the previous year used as background music (everyone takes a shot if two acts use the same music)

Steve and I were doing none of this. We were only juggling clubs, there would be no gimmicks, no other props, no numbers passing (i.e. passing seven, eight, nine or 10 objects) and, somewhat daringly, no music.

We had decided early on that we would talk throughout our performance. Almost no one did this, but we felt it paired well with our whole stripped down, raw approach to the act. The Nirvana of club passing, if you will.

Also, initially we assumed there would a lots of drops, and picking up repeated drops to music looks awkward. We needed to have prepared “drop lines” ready to go – jokes acknowledging the drop that fill time and entertain as we reset the trick.

Intentionally eschewing a few unspoken, yet effectively fundamental team juggling competition elements like juggling nine or 10 objects was risky, but we felt the overall technical difficulty, creativity and envelop-pushing nature of our six club passing tricks would deep fry their brainpans so thoroughly that they’d forget about us flouting any perceived standards.

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As any athlete knows, training has its ups and downs. Encouragingly, we made remarkable progress in the first few months. We took every trick and broke it down to the tiniest fractions of movement to see how we might make it more consistent. A subtle change in spin, height, speed, timing, grip, even the positioning of a single finger on a club during a throw was making a noticeable difference. We’d never done this degree of analysis before, because why bother? Wildly flinging clubs around at juggling club and gleefully coping with the anarchy once a week was all the fun we needed. With countless small adjustments we were soon hitting tricks 50-70 percent of the time that we’d formerly only get 10-20 percent of the time. This initial rapid improvement was highly motivating.

Then the plateau began. We made little to no progress for months. The following winter, eight months into training, weeks would go by when, unbelievably, it seemed like we were actually getting worse. I was frustrated. It was my feeling that after eight months of enormous spent time and energy, there should not be extended periods where the clubs just helplessly fall from our hands for no reason, something we call “dork drops.”

To make matters worse, we had a significant milestone rushing up: performing in the public show at the Madfest Juggling Festival in Madison, Wisconsin, the first time Steve and I would perform on stage together in about 16 years. In short, the show was a disaster.

We were plagued with drops. This was partly out of our control. We were only allowed a brief warm up on the stage and then we had to wait more than an hour before our act, sitting in the theater’s cramped, unheated basement. In Madison, Wisconsin. In January. Though we bundled up and juggled as much as we could in the tiny space, we hit the stage with our hands, arms and shoulders only one step away from being stone cold.

After a respectable period of drinking to forget, we studied the show video obsessively, made some adjustments and managed a strong rebound. We were in top form a month later when we hit the stage for the MONDO Jugglefest public show in St Paul, Minnesota. We were so confident that we were planning to submit the video from the show as our prelim audition for the championships that summer.

We made it two-thirds of the way through the act with only a few forgivable drops. Then Steve threw what was simultaneously the most accurate and disastrous throw in all our years together: a lightly thrown club that I’m supposed to catch in a standing balance on another club had just a hair too much forward momentum and it fell right into my open eye, removing a contact lens. In 20 years of wearing contact lenses while juggling it was the first time I had knocked one out. It just happened to be while I was on stage in front of 700 people.

Amazingly, the contact lens was stuck to my cheek, not lost forever on the floor. Steve picked it off my face and handed it to me. With the frequency that juggling props are dropped, jugglers’ hands are effectively covered in floor, meaning my lens now had the grime of two filthy jugglers on it. I performed the contact lens equivalent of a basketball game time-expiring, full-court fling and swish by managing to get that dry, poop-covered lens back into my eye, on stage, with no mirror and my hands shaking with adrenalin. Normally, that would have been impossible with even one of those impediments.

Unfortunately, even after the stage manager ran up and handed me eye drops (it went so smoothly, people thought we’d planned the whole thing), my eyes were still on fire and watery. We somehow got through the final part of the act, but due to the time wasted on my stupid lens we had to skip several tricks and any chance of submitting the video as our championships audition was crushed.

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We ended up submitting a video made in the gym, with only four drops, with the camera unmanned on a tripod and an echo so disastrous that many of our hilarious lines were drowned out. Despite this, we were accepted into the competition. Though we soon learned this wasn’t necessarily because we had dazzled the prelim judges with our tricks.

In a bizarre twist, only three teams auditioned in 2014. In the interest of not having the shortest, least suspenseful team championships in decades, the championships judges probably didn’t have any other choice but to accept all three teams.

Suddenly, our original goal to earn a medal, any medal, was rendered moot. We would get a medal just by showing up and successfully controlling our urethras on stage for eight minutes. Also, while the other teams were good, filled with worthy and experienced competitors, they were not outstanding. It dawned on us that if we didn’t completely meltdown on stage, we could actually win this bastard.

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The International Jugglers’ Association holds its annual festival and championships in a different location each year. In 2014, it was held on the Purdue University campus. As a venue, Purdue is decidedly overrated and overpriced, though generally nice enough.

Unfortunately, Purdue is located in West Lafayette, Indiana, a down and out, fourth tier town seemingly abandoned by ATM technicians (I’ve had easier experiences withdrawing cash in the mountains of Laos) with tap water that tastes like botulism. It’s not someplace you’d voluntarily spend a week if you didn’t absolutely have to.

After three anxious days, the night of the championships arrived. The tech rehearsal went very well. The lights weren’t a problem at all (rare for juggling on a theater stage) and the floor was nice and solid, making our club bouncing tricks much easier and more responsive than on the softer gym floors we usually used.

Steve was clearly nervous and I should have been too, but for some reason I wasn’t. After months of laying awake and fretting over this moment, I became remarkably relaxed. Right up until we hit the stage, I was perfectly calm. Perhaps too calm.

The majority of competition juggling routines generally follow the slow build-up model. The juggler(s) start with the low-key, easy tricks, which get more and more difficult, and build to the crazy highlights at the end. We decided to take the “mix tape” approach. Start out with a zinger, then while the crowd is on their heels follow with a few tricks they’ve never seen before, then bring it up a notch, maintain high level of amazingness, another zinger, and so forth with the ups and downs, ending with a killer trick. Like a mix tape of music – if you know what you’re doing.

The first trick in our routine is one of our hardest: a wildly inventive, three-part combination trick called “Not Done Yet.” I’ll do my best to describe it:

Without interrupting the six club passing pattern or rhythm, I collect two clubs in both my right and left hands, throw the two clubs in my left up and simultaneously bat them toward Steve using the two clubs in my right. Then I quickly throw the two clubs in my right hand simultaneously with a one and a half rotation over-hand spin (called a “hatchet throw” by jugglers). Finally, while all that commotion is in the air and being dealt with by Steve, I quickly collect two more clubs in my right hand, drop them and kick them simultaneously at Steve with my right foot.

If all this sounds like barely controlled chaos, you’d be absolutely right. Three very difficult, unpredictable multi-club passes and six mostly improvised catches, all happening in about two seconds. It’s the kind of borderline suicidal lunacy that has no business on the championships stage. We hoped it would leave the audience and judges gasping.

Amazingly, with hours of agonizing analysis and training, this is a trick we get 50 percent of the time on bad days and 80 percent of the time on good days. Alas, on stage that night, in four tries we had four “drop events” (official judging term) and never landed the trick cleanly. Our mix tape strategy was undone.

Two tricks later, another demoralizing drop event on a trick with a 95 percent success rate. We rallied, nailed three tricks in a row, then came the club bouncing tricks.

Almost no one does club bouncing because, well, it’s not easy, but it’s also incredibly rough on the clubs. People who do club bouncing tricks have to be prepared to break (and buy) a lot of clubs, at about $25 a pop.

While bouncing on the solid stage floor was much more responsive, we were unfortunately accustomed to softer gym floors. In other words, the better floor was actually a liability, as our bounces were not only more wild but more powerful than usual. We dropped on three consecutive tricks, including a high percentage trick where I bounce a club over to Steve’s foot and he kicks it back up into the pattern, which took us four heartbreaking attempts to land.

While we weren’t totally melting down, after 11 drop events in the first half, all we needed was for one of us to take a knee-buckling shot to the groin to make our failure complete.

But in the second half, in what was probably a surprise to everyone involved, we got our shit together. In a flurry of some of our most difficult tricks we only suffered four drop events, two of them of the aforementioned regrettably avoidable “dork drop” variety. Ultimately, with 15 total drop events, about triple what we suffer in an average run-through, it was pretty clear we weren’t going to win gold. Though, I feel compelled to add, the underdog effect compounded by our original and insane tricks earned us a partial standing ovation.

We won the silver medal.

Leif Pettersen (right) wearing his silver medal from the International Jugglers' Association 2014 championships

Leif Pettersen (right) wearing his silver medal from the International Jugglers’ Association 2014 championships

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Even with fewer drops, I’m not sure we’d have won gold. The gold medalists, who had competed three times before and learned hard lessons from previous experience, had put together such a well-rounded routine, handily satisfying every category of judging criteria (stage presence, element of risk, presentation, creativity, difficulty, execution and entertainment), not to mention fewer drops, that we would have had to do a near perfect routine to threaten their win.

Furthermore, when the scoring breakdown was posted the next day, it was clear that a couple judges had not warmed to our style like the audience had. Our disregard for a few of the unspoken team juggling criteria (namely juggling eight, nine and 10 objects), our “unprofessional” costumes and our casual presentation had clearly counted against us. In some cases, we were bafflingly shorted in categories where we should have been a homerun, like difficulty, creativity and element of risk. While some scoring dings were expected, particularly with all the drops, it was still a bit of a shock.

The dork drops, which I’ll just attribute to nerves, were certainly disappointing, but the thing that haunts me most was never cleanly landing Not Done Yet. In what a more spiritual person might have interpreted as cruel knife-twisting by the universe, the day after the competition, standing in the middle of the main festival gym surrounded by gawkers, we were able to run Not Done Yet six or seven times in a row without a drop, repeatedly.

Will I compete again? Doubtful. A younger and better funded version of me would probably shake it off, buy a bucket of ibuprofen and start preparing for 2015 or 2016 immediately. But age, time and money are against me. We made our mark and it’s the color of silver.

More importantly, we seem to have already inspired the next generation of wildly inventive club passers. I’m told the day after the competitions, during the Creative Club Passing workshop, a lot of the tricks people were developing and practicing were very clearly inspired by the tricks we’d done the night before.

As in most disciplines, juggling innovation never stands still for long. Younger, faster and more creative people (blessed with far more free time and no mortgage payments) will almost definitely take our tricks, build on them and make them better. I’m comfortable with the idea of stepping back from the cutting edge, leaning back in a chair and watching what we started go to previously unimaginable new heights.

We’ll keep hatching crazy new tricks, of course. The second best juggling team in the world has a certain reputation to uphold.

Leif Pettersen is a freelance travel writer, humorist and all around Renaissance Man. He’s visited 52 countries (so far) and has not vomited since 1993, making him a consummate travel journalist and excellent party guest. @leifpettersen

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