Meet George Essig, St. Louis' Competitive Boomerang Superstar
Competitors for the Gateway Classic start rolling into Konarcik Park in Waterloo, Illinois, early on the morning of Saturday, May 24. During its heyday in the 1980s the tourney was held in Forest Park, and it had a budget big enough to fly in Australian rock bands to entertain players and fans. Today the annual event is more on par with a family reunion, with the Memorial Day weekend allowing the nation's close-knit boomerang tribe -- people like Betsylew Miale-Gix, a lawyer from Seattle, and Mark Legg, a boomerang salesman up from Florida -- extra time to assemble.
Organizing this year's Gateway Classic, as he's done for 27 years, is Essig's mentor Bob Leifeld, who's known in boomerang circles as "Chicago Bob," despite not having lived in the Windy City for years.
"We're not really starting on time," Leifeld announces to no one's surprise when the scheduled opening time comes and goes. Back at Leifeld's home in Belleville, a group that's driven in from Ohio and pitched tents in his back yard is still finishing up breakfast.
Play finally begins midmorning with all the cutthroat competition of a frisbee-golf tourney. When not throwing, the players take turns serving as judges. Clipboards in hand, they call out tips about wind direction and help players locate boomerangs lost in the clouds. There are no spectators, only other competitors waiting their turn from the sidelines.
Later in the day, they'll tap a keg in the shade next to someone's car.
"That's a good throw!" Essig calls, almost as soon as a fellow contestant releases his boomerang.
When the thrower misses his catch, others call out with: "That's the throw you want to have, though. That was right where you needed it to be. Good job."
By the time the accuracy competition gets under way later in the day, Essig is neck and neck with 26-year-old Logan Broadbent, the son of boomerang historian and fanatic Gary Broadbent. The accuracy event challenges participants to land their boomerangs within a bull's-eye on the ground. Essig does well with his ten throws, but he can't best Logan, who plays for the U.S. team's A-squad. Still, Essig scores a personal best in the event, earning 79 points out of 100. He'll end the tournament with an overall fourth-place finish, and is sent home with one of Leifeld's handmade certificates placed in a dollar-store picture frame.
Considering that most of the seventeen players in the Gateway Classic are just as dedicated to the sport as Essig, the fourth-place prize isn't too shabby. Still, there's a sense that he may be nearing his peak just a decade after first picking up the sport.
"When you have a really intense hobby, it gets harder and harder and takes more and more energy to improve," says Essig, who knows that age and mobility will ultimately impact his game. But when that day comes, he has no plans of hanging up his boomerangs. He'll continue to throw for exercise, he says, because it's both fun and relaxing. And, really, that's all he ever wanted out of the sport in the first place.
"I know it's really obscure," he says of his boomerang obsession. "People think, 'OK, there's a bunch of strange people who get together and make stuff up.' But it's real. Boomerangs really work. And I've met a lot of people and traveled across the country and the world because of that."