Hidden Champions

"I made fun of it at first"

Munich is a city of football. But it is also more than that: Munich is full of successful top athletes – it is just that most of them are not famous. What is it like being a master of a sport that most people know very little about? Three champions share their thoughts.

The conversation involves: Junior doctor Verena Plehn, 30 years old, current European champion in ultimate frisbee (Mixed Masters division); student Michael Baader, 18, 2017 taekwondo world champion; and schoolgirl Theresa Sommerkamp, 18, 2017 European boogie woogie champion.


You are all champions in sports that not many people know much about. What do you like about your own sport?

Theresa: The thing that sets boogie woogie apart is that we don't have any fixed choreography. We stand on the dance floor, the music plays and we improvise.

Verena: Respect! When it comes to ultimate frisbee, the concept of fair play is what makes it different – the “Spirit of the Game”. It means that we don’t have any referees. If I think my opponent has committed a foul, we sort it out amongst ourselves. 

Theresa: How does that work? Do you apologise or do most people try to dispute the foul?

Verena: I wouldn’t use the word dispute; it is always a matter of interpretation. It helps that at the end of the game, each team scores the other using five Spirit of the Game criteria. In an ideal world you win the tournament and get the higher Spirit Score.

Michael: Spirit makes our sport special too. Taekwondo is based on Asian philosophy, so respect and integrity are really important. It is one reason why we clean the floor together after training. We count on honourable behaviour. Sometimes it goes so far that if two athletes from the same team are due to compete against each other, they decide not to compete. They simply toss a coin to decide who will go through.

Verena: That is a really honourable sport. 

What is your day-to-day life like? Big tournaments are, of course, only a small part of sport.

Verena: I train three times a week and the tournaments take place on weekends. I am a doctor and work shifts, so I don't have much free time. Friends don’t even bother asking me if I will be in Munich at the weekend any more. 

“When it comes to ultimate frisbee, the concept of fair play is what makes it different – the ‘Spirit of the Game‘.“
Verena Plehn

Theresa: I train for two hours, four times a week. I also run and do 1,000 skips each evening. Weekends are generally reserved for tournaments and workshops. When we took a year off – my dance partner wanted to be able to prepare for his A-levels – one of my best friends said: “Great, now you will have time for me.”

Michael: I train more or less every day. But I manage to balance private life and sport fairly well. My school work might have occasionally suffered as a result.

Verena, how do people react when you tell them that you are the European champion in ultimate frisbee?

Verena: The two classic responses: “You mean the game that you play with dogs in the park?” And: “The thing you throw on the beach?” But it is getting better; more and more people are finding out about ultimate frisbee. I found it funny at first too; my background is actually in tennis.

Theresa, how do you explain what boogie woogie is?

Theresa: The older generation tend to know it from their youth. When I tell younger people, I describe it as the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s.

If you had been footballers, you would be stars. Munich is mainly a city of football. What is it like being part of a sport that is very much in the shadows? 

Verena: I can understand it; I like watching football, too. My dad used to play – I kind of grew up on the football field. But diving annoys me – that’s why I like women’s football better; it is more honest. The main thing is playing sport at all.

Theresa: We often play football during lunch break at training sessions. I don’t see it as an either or situation.

Verena: The fact that not everyone is familiar with our sports also adds a certain appeal.

“But boogie is really big in Norway, Sweden and Finland. The tournaments are shown on television there.“
Theresa Sommerkamp

Michael: It is not about pitching one type of sport against another. You just do your thing and stick with it. I don’t care if other athletes are more famous than me. I am happy with the way things are.

How are your sports represented in Munich?

Verena: The frisbee scene is relatively big; our club has 140 members.

Theresa: My club is really good at recruiting new members. But boogie is really big in Norway, Sweden and Finland. The tournaments are shown on television there.

Michael: There are lots of taekwondo schools in Munich, but there is often not enough focus on performance. The focus is increasingly on numbers rather than on promoting individuals.

Verena: That is something that we are constantly debating in our club, too: do you want to fill the training session with lots of people, or just with a few who are more dedicated?

Theresa: For us, the tournaments are the best way to train.

That leads us nicely onto the next question: we know about your triumphs in tournaments, what were your greatest defeats?

Verena: In 2018 we played twice against our arch rivals Mainz in the German championship. We escaped with a narrow victory in the first match. But in the second match – the final – injuries meant that we had fewer people to play and so we lost by quite a margin. That was pretty grim. But this is a new year, with new hope!

Theresa: In the 2017 junior class we really wanted to win the world title for the second time, but we wanted it too much. It still annoys us.

Verena: Defending a title is the hardest.

“From this year I will be entering the over 18s category, which means that I will be fighting against people who used to be my idols. I want to beat them. I have already got a few in my sights.“
Michael Baader

Michael: For me, my greatest success and greatest defeat came on the same day. I started in three categories at my first world championships. In the weapon form – a type of choreography with weapons – I was really nervous and my mind went blank. The competition was really strong for karate and I was narrowly beaten to first place. I was naturally disappointed again because I didn’t get the gold. Then came taekwondo. I won it by 0.1 points.

You could spend your days laying by the Isar (river). Have you considered practising less sport to make more time for your private life?

Michael: Ten years ago I reached a point where I didn’t want to do it any more. Thankfully my mother forced me to go to training.

Theresa: Our parents said that as soon as they had to force us to go, they were going to stop paying for it.

Verena: I think you can only be successful in sport if you love it. Once you lose the love for it, it doesn’t work any more.

What are your goals? Which medals are missing from your collections?

Theresa: We have now switched from the junior class to the main class. So we are back at the start and want to win everything again.

Michael: For me it is not really about the tournaments; more about the people. From this year I will be entering the over 18s category, which means that I will be fighting against people who used to be my idols. I want to beat them. I have already got a few in my sights. 

“When you do a sport, you need to do it properly.“
Theresa Sommerkamp

Verena: For me it is more about the opponent than the title. I am really looking forward to the US Open in August, and to the 2020 world championships, which I will hopefully be able to play at. I am 30 now and the sport is limited based on physical fitness.

You have now heard a lot about different sports: have you been inspired to switch disciplines?

Theresa: I used to do taekwondo and I am really intrigued by frisbee. But I don’t have the time. When you do a sport, you need to do it properly. 

Verena: I don’t have the rhythm for boogie woogie. If I had time, I would probably play tennis again. I know how to play it already.


Boogie woogie
Boogie woogie is an American ballroom dance and belongs to the swing dances. It dates back to the 1920s and has its roots in lindy hop. Good dancers can do over 200 steps per minute. It is danced to rock ‘n’ roll music.

Where can you try out the sports?
The Vintage Club at 12b Sonnenstrasse is the place for all fans of swing to meet in Munich. Boogie dance nights and beginner’s courses are regularly held here, for example at 5.30 pm on Monday nights.

Ultimate Frisbee
Ultimate frisbee is a team sport from the USA. You throw the frisbee to your team-mate and you are not allowed to run with the frisbee in your hand. Points are scored when a team catches the frisbee in their opponent’s end zone.

Where can you try out the sports?
If you want to improve your frisbee skills, head to Luitpoldpark at 2 pm on Sundays. When the weather is good, the Munich frisbee club ESV München-Laim invites the public to join in an open training session for all skill levels. It is coordinated online in the Tiefseetaucher forum: www.tiefseetaucher.com

Taekwondo is a Korean self-defence discipline that has become renowned for the high kicks and jumps. It is distinguished by the fact that you only defend yourself with your hands and feet.

Where can you try out the sports?
Beginners are always welcome at the world champion’s club. Simply come along to a taster training session: either on Tuesdays at 7.30pm, on Thursdays at 6.30pm or on Saturdays at 10.30pm in the Sportpark Taufkirchen (Köglweg 99, 82024 Taufkirchen). www.svdjktaufkirchen.de



Interview: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Frank Stolle


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