Paloma Pujol Mayo, better known as Paloma Freestyle, is top of her game in Madrid’s freestyle juggling scene. Freestyle juggling — a cross between soccer and hacky sack that requires the juggler to creatively control, or “juggle” a ball without using their hands — is as much about artistry as it is tricks and acrobatics, and Paloma has spent years perfecting the skill. She has travelled all over the world to participate in both hacky sack and freestyle juggling competitions and she is a five-time Footbag World Champion for Best Freestyle Routine with a hacky sack. Paloma also stars in a new short film called, “All I Need is a Ball,” that tells the stories of six top female freestylers in Spain. She can regularly be found with a hacky sack or a soccer ball doing trick after trick in Plaza Dos de Mayo in Malasaña, a trendy neighborhood in the center of Madrid.
Paloma first entered the world of freestyle juggling not just because of her interest in soccer; she also wanted to make new friends in a new country. She wasn’t expecting to find that she was among the most talented hacky sackers and freestyler jugglers in the world. I sat down with Paloma to discuss her process of finding freestyle juggling, the sexism and homophobia that comes with the territory, and the community she’s built for herself along the way.
GO Magazine: How did you first get into soccer?
Paloma Pujol Mayo: I was born in Mexico and when I was nine years old I decided that I wanted to play soccer. I told my mom and dad that I wanted to play on a team. My parents said, “Yes, fantastic” and brought me to a training. There weren’t teams for girls nor mixed teams, so I trained with the boys. It wasn’t until I went to my first game that the ref told me that I couldn’t play because I was a girl. The coach and I were both frustrated, so we decided to make a fake player’s card for me. I went by the name “Javi” and with that card I was able to play. Ultimately I didn’t see it as something bad because we had found a way to play and for me that’s all I wanted.
GO: How did you move from playing to doing freestyle?
PPM: When I was 11 years old living in Mexico, there was a woman who sold handicrafts and hacky sacks on the street. My mom stopped to look and said, “Paloma, you’ll like this, this is to juggle. It’s like what you do with the ball, but it’s smaller.” Then my mom bought me three, she gave me one and saved two, and told me that when I broke the first one she’d give me the next one. The first juggling I did was with my mom.
When I came to Spain I joined a local girl’s soccer team, but I was never that good of a player. I liked to juggle and I always carried a hacky sack in my pocket. Always. It was really fun to be in Retiro Park and suddenly you’re in a circle with people, including strangers, and for that it was a way to make new friends. I was from a different country, so I didn’t really know that many people. With the hacky sack I met a lot of people.
I eventually met someone in the Retiro who was wearing these really ugly shoes and playing with a different type of soccer ball. I learned that it’s a smoother soccer ball used for freestyle juggling. The tricks have names and there are competitions. That’s what I play now. When I told my mom this she told me, “No problem, get yourself the shoes.” My mom always supported me in doing sports. She assumed it was better than drinking every weekend, and thus, she bought me my first pair of freestyle shoes.
GO: And from there you were competing?
PPM: Yes, after six months of training I went to my first Footbag World Championship and I arrived there without even knowing the rules.
GO: What’s the freestyle community like?
PPM: The truth is that the community is really close. You could be training with a world champion and later if you do something well in your level, they’ll give you a high five.
In Spain we’re a little behind. For example, you’ll go to a tournament where there are often 100 men and then me, but I don’t have a problem with that. In whatever category, I’m probably going to be somewhere in the middle.
In order to create a network of women freestylers globally we made an Instagram called “We Are Female Freestylers.” We have a lot of followers, but we only follow the freestyler girls. At this point we are about 750 women freestylers globally.
GO: What are some of the benefits to being connected with each other?
PPM: There are still a number of problems with the freestyle competitions. For example, the schedule that they make for us will put women in the morning and men in the afternoon. Of course if you make me perform at 10 a.m. online on the livestream, no one is going to watch. You have to make the schedule based on skill, for example, you should put the men who have less than a year of experience at 10 a.m., why? Because it’s less impressive. We are better than them. But no, first they put the girls, and then the boys, and that’s that. Or for example, the trophy for the men is bigger than for the women. Why?
We have tried to change things, and they said, “No,” but before we weren’t organized and now we are. We have numbers; we have a way to contact all the girls at once. And for that, I think everything will change. We know that every time we collectively complain we move one step forward.
GO: I imagine that it’s not only a male-dominated space, but a straight one as well?
PPM: I mean in a tournament at the global level when at times there are around 450 people there, of course statistically a gay person has to be there, but there often aren’t openly gay people to my knowledge. And these are spaces where we hear a lot of “Faggot” or “You play like a girl” or those sorts of things.
Something interesting happened during one of the World Championships, actually. I was training late with a male freestyler, laughing, cheering each other on. I became good friends with this guy. The next day we returned to train. Later he told me, “Hey, where are you eating tomorrow? Come with me to eat at a restaurant with other freestylers,” and everything was good. Then that Friday of the tournament my girlfriend arrived to see the finals. When I went to give her a kiss, my new friend couldn’t believe it. It was the first time that he’d see girls kiss in real life and the first time that he had a friendship with someone queer. That night I asked, “Are we going to train tonight?” and he was like, “No, I don’t want to.” I asked what had happened and he told me, “I don’t like how you are.” I asked, “Wow because now you know I’m lesbian? We were fine yesterday and the day before,” and he told me, “Well, that’s the truth.”
Yet, by the end of the weekend he approached me and said, “Hey Paloma, I’ve changed my perspective a lot about how to see someone like you. And the truth is you’re normal people.” I was like, “Yes what did you think? That I’m from a different planet or that we can’t talk or be friends?” Today he’s a really good friend of mine and I know that he’s defended me and others in the face of homophobic comments.
GO: That’s amazing that using footbag as the meeting point leads to actually addressing people’s homophobic ideas.
PPM: Yes, I think moments like this can help people change because it’s different when you talk about queer people and when you actually share a space and are directly confronted by someone’s queer identity. Opening minds is something that I find fantastic.