Dr. Sunil Jani balanced with ease even though his feet popped into the air like he was playing a kindergarten game of hot potato. He’s a bit of a magician when it comes to keeping a small bag — slightly larger than a golf ball — dancing around his body, a tribute to the discipline and dedication it takes to become so good at an obscure sport.
Jani has moved on from the professional freestyle footbag (also referred to as Hacky Sack) circuit, but that devotion to being the best is still there — he’s just exchanged the bag for a set of medical tools.
Jani recently joined UCHealth’s newly organized Longmont team as an orthopedic surgeon. His specialties include sports medicine and cartilage preservation, knee disorders, shoulder and elbow issues, joint replacements, and orthopedic traumas.
“I strive to get my patients back to enjoying a healthy and active life as quickly as possible,” he said. “All patients deserve world-class care, and my goal is to make this available to everyone right here in our community.”
On a Friday afternoon, Jani agrees to demonstrate his footbag moves to me in the parking lot of his office at 1925 W. Mountain Ave. in Longmont. And when I say his moves, I’m emphasizing “his.” As a world footbag competitor in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Jani has created moves that are still considered technical in the footbag world today.
Freestyle footbag is similar to Hacky Sack, a game you might see played in a public park, though it would be like comparing Major League Baseball to your Wednesday night softball league.
The freestyle footbag looks like a palm-sized soccer ball. However, instead of air, it’s filled with small seed beads or metal shot. The object of the sport is to perform tricks with the bag, each trick flowing seamlessly into the next to create a routine that can be scored and judged competitively.
Jani first learned of the sport in the mid-90s while earning his bachelor’s in biochemistry and environmental studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
“At college I’d kick a [Hacky Sack] around during my study breaks, but I was terrible,” Jani said. “Then one day these four guys came up to me with these fancy bags and special shoes. Footbag then became my form of exercise and release, and later, helped get me through my medical training. The flow while playing definitely has a meditative quality.”
Footbag is an amazing workout. Footbaggers not only work to keep the bag off the ground, they do so by showing off their most difficult and complex moves. In one move, Jani tosses the sack up with his foot, then circles each foot around the bag twice before catching it on his other foot, ready for his next flawless trick. He explains that this move is called “Nemesis” and had long ago been deemed impossible by the best footbaggers on the planet.
“It’s all about the flow and linking big tricks to other big tricks,” he said. “And balance. My goal has always been to use both sides of my body evenly. So if I do a trick with my right side, I won’t be satisfied until I’ve mastered it on my left.”
This dedication serves him and his patients well.
“As an orthopedic surgeon, I get to work with passionate patients that include athletes of all ages, performers, artists, weekend-warriors, working professionals and seniors,” Jani said. “It is extremely rewarding to learn about each of my patient’s issues and goals and then to join them in formulating a plan to help them move past their pain and regain their function. Sometimes my patients need to get back to their world tour; sometimes they need to get back to their walks in the park. Whatever the goal, I recognize the importance, and it is a privilege to help the patient achieve it.”
Jani knows all too well what it takes to come back from an injury and what a good surgeon provides to that process. It was his personal experience with a knee injury — during his competitive footbag years — that led him toward an orthopedic-focused career, and his orthopedic surgeon at the time has since become his mentor.
Although his orthopedist may have inspired his career path, it is possible footbag opened some doors, Jani said with a grin.
As Jani walked into the room where he was to be interviewed for a top residency program at the University of Pennsylvania, he wasn’t greeted by the interview team, as he had expected to be. Instead, they were engrossed with something on their computer screens: a YouTube video of one of Jani’s footbag routines.
“They realized the time and dedication it must have taken me achieve that level and it made me stand out in my interview,” he said. “I think it helped demonstrate my focus and ability to excel at any endeavor — prized skills in a resident.”
Jani isn’t competing on the world footbag circuit any more — he’s now on UCHealth’s world-class stage — but he does continue to kick around the sack to help him stay on his game