Boomerangers Prepare To Crown World Champions

Catching a whirling boomerang with your feet may sound crazy to most people, but not to Chet Snouffer. He's the Michael Jordan of the boomerang world.

Mr. Snouffer may be the best boomeranger in the sport's official history. He can throw a "rang," then sit down and catch it with his feet.

That's not all. Snouffer holds the American record for "juggling" two boomerangs, with 502 catches in a row. (One boomerang must be kept in the air at all times.) He's the world champion in other events, including the Trick Catch (the one where he uses his feet).

Snouffer has won 11 United States "boom" championships and three overall world championships since 1979. He got the boomerang-throwing bug when he was 10 years old. In college, his passion for boomerangs returned, and he began to make and sell them. Today, Snouffer is a Delaware, Ohio, gymnastics coach who travels the world with the US Boomerang Team.

As you read this, Snouffer and the US team are competing at the 1998 World Boomerang Championships. They are being held just outside St. Louis on a huge soccer-field complex at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.

About 50 boomerangers are competing in individual events through this Sunday (Aug. 2). More than 100 throwers on 20 teams from a dozen countries will compete in such events as the Team Terror Round. Germany is the defending champion, but the US team is strong, as are France and Japan.

The Team Terror Round, a relay, begins with a thrower running to the center of a 40-meter circle marked with concentric rings, like an archery target. The thrower lets fly with a boomerang. It must soar at least 20 meters and drop at his feet for a score of 10 points.

When that thrower has scored at least 30 points, he runs and tags the next player. That player races to the middle of the circle and performs five trick catches (behind-the-back, for example, or under-the-leg).

Boomerangs were first used by Australian aborigines more than 15,000 years ago. The throwing stick was carved from the root of the mulga tree and used to hunt birds and other small game. Modern boomerangs might be plastic, plywood, or a high-tech fiber composite. But the aerodynamic principle is the same: A whirling airfoil generates lift through rotation. Think of it as a helicopter rotor invented well before there was written history.

Boomerang fans see this year's championship as a way to launch the boomerang into the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. What could be more natural? they ask.

"I would like to light the Olympic torch with a flaming boomerang," Snouffer says. (This is very unlikely, as Snouffer is American, not Australian.) "We're working with [Sydney Olympics organizers] to find out what might be done."

Boomerang throwing is more likely to be an exhibition (no medal) sport at the Sydney Games, says Ted Bailey of Ann Arbor, Mich. He heads the loosely organized World Boomerang Association (WBA). Only about 25 countries have organized boomerang competitions, Mr. Bailey says, though people throw boomerangs in most countries. It's largely a solo sport, so organizations are slow to form. The US Boomerang Association in Delaware, Ohio, is headed by Snouffer. It has about 400 members. Bailey's WBA claims about 2,500.

"This sport is more like surfing than anything else," Bailey says. "It's never going to replace football or baseball."

BOOMERANGS appear to be more popular in the US than anywhere else in the world. Australians sell tens of thousands of boomerangs to tourists each year, but have not produced an individual world champion for about a decade.

One key to America's current boomerang dominance is technology, Bailey says. He's a mechanical engineer who designs bearings for the automotive industry by day and exotic-looking boomerangs by night.

"You wouldn't recognize a lot of these devices," he says of a serious thrower's collection of boomerangs. "Most are designed to do exactly what the event is - nothing more."

Small three-bladed rangs are used in the Fast Catch event. A thrower stands inside a two-meter circle. He must toss the boomerang at least 20 meters, catch it, and quickly throw again. The world record for five throws is under 15 seconds.

Perhaps the premier boomerang event, though, is the unlimited Maximum Time Aloft. The boomerangs in this event have the familiar squashed-V shape. A good thrower with calm, cool, dry air can loft the rang up to 150 feet high. It will stay aloft for 30 to 40 seconds. The official record (with self-catch) is 2 minutes, 59.94 seconds, by Dennis Joyce of the US in 1987.

But the unofficial record (which was witnessed and timed) is more than 17 minutes. It was set by John Gorski of Lorraine, Ohio, in 1993. The boomerang hovered over a river, caught an updraft, then flew over a highway. It traveled more than a mile. Then it flew back to Mr. Gorski - who caught it!

Many Happy Returns For a Sydney Merchant

Ever since he first learned to throw a boomerang in the late 1950s, Duncan MacLennan has taught others how to throw them. He holds a free class Sunday mornings at a Sydney park for anyone (mostly tourists) who wants to learn. Mr. MacLennan's shop specializes in hand-carved aboriginal boomerangs.

MacLennan's rules for throwing include his most important one: Keep your eye on the boomerang! Also, don't try to catch a 'rang' at head height. Wait for it to descend to chest level before catching it between your two palms, as if you're making a boomerang sandwich. Other experts strongly recommend that throwers wear safety glasses.

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