Meet George Essig, St. Louis' Competitive Boomerang Superstar

Categories: Longform

It began in the spring of 2005, following a harsh winter much like the one that gripped the nation this year. Essig, a lifelong resident of Fenton, was undergoing a difficult period in his job as a Web developer and was in desperate need of an outlet.

"I got stressed out at work, and I found out the thing that made me feel better was exercise," Essig recalls. "But exercise has to be fun. I don't like 'chore' exercise, like lifting weights."

Essig thought he'd found the workout that suited him perfectly when he and his family spent an afternoon tossing a Frisbee back and forth. But while Essig wanted more, his wife and daughters quickly tired of the game. Later Essig found himself in a Target, standing in front of a plastic boomerang and having an aha moment.

"I was like, 'I could throw that by myself.'"

The boomerang, however, does not yield its secrets easily.

"You can learn the basics in, like, fifteen minutes if you know someone who's knowledgeable and willing to teach you," says Essig, who had to rely on the Internet to figure out the basics. After a couple of months on his own, he heard of St. Louis' annual boomerang tournament -- the Gateway Classic. It's there that he would discover other boomerang addicts, including the man who would become his mentor in the sport, Bob Leifeld.

"The first thing I remember about George," says Leifeld, "is that he had to leave the tournament after only a couple of events because he'd promised his wife he would be home before noon. Our tournaments are all-day affairs."

Soon, though, Leifeld's protégé was the most dedicated thrower around.

"George is an analyst of the boomerang," says Leifeld. "When the other guys are talking about going to get beer or something, he'll be picking somebody's brain, like, 'Why did you throw it like that? What if the airfoil were blunter? What if the holes were bigger?'"

And with Leifeld as his boomerang Yoda, Essig's game took flight. He began entering more and more competitions and expanding the collection of boomerangs in his toolbox.
The better he got at the sport, the more physically fit he became as well. Essig eventually shed nearly twenty pounds solely by throwing and catching his boomerangs, an activity that's not unlike hurling a baseball for hours at a time.

"It works every part of your body except for your non-throwing arm," claims Essig, whose compact frame resembles that of a middle reliever. "It really works your legs and abdominals. I've had soreness all over my body before, my legs, my lower back, my shoulder, my elbow."

Within a couple of years of competing and practicing, Essig made the U.S. Boomerang Team. He has now flown overseas on three occasions (Italy in 2010, Brazil in 2012 and Australia in 2014) to represent the United States in the biennial World Boomerang Cup, a contest that features the best international competition from around the globe. The tournament grades teams of players in a multitude of ways, including how quickly they can get the boomerang to return to them, how long they can keep it in the air and how accurately they can get the boomerang to return to them.

This year, Essig's fifth-place finish in the U.S. championship qualifying tournament earned him a spot on the United States' second team. Competing in the World Cup in Australia, Essig and the five other teammates on the B-squad, nicknamed the "Legion of Boom," played above their expectations, clinching a fifth-place finish against teams comprising of players from thirteen nations. The A-squad for the United States, meanwhile, placed third overall.

Those unfamiliar with the international boomerang competition might think that the Americans would be overjoyed with such an outcome. In truth, the result was rather disappointing. Since the World Boomerang Cup's inception in 1987, the Americans have brought home "Uncle Toby" (the WBC trophy named after an Australian cereal company that first sponsored the tournament) a record ten times.

Keeping track of all the tournaments from home -- and broadcasting the results on Facebook -- is Essig's wife of nineteen years, Robyn. Yes, her husband's obsession means he's often away from home competing or practicing (and the cost of all the travel and those boomerangs isn't cheap), but Robyn sees the boomerang as an "active, healthy hobby." A hobby, by the way, that she takes credit for introducing to her husband.

"I wouldn't play Frisbee with him when the girls were young," says Robyn. "So he got a boomerang and said, 'I don't need you anymore.'"

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