Ultimate Frisbee Is the Ultimate Inclusive Sport

Monday Magazine | July 6, 2004
Sometimes, the best thing about ultimate is watching a teammate make an unbelievable diving catch. Sometimes it’s a hard-won point in a championship game. Sometimes it’s heckling your roommate from the sidelines. And sometimes, it’s just going hard at a tournament party, drunk and screaming in a too-tight Value Village suit. But whatever ultimate may become for you, know this: Here in Victoria, a light shirt, a dark shirt, and a pair of cleats are all you need to get started, and there’s a whole community waiting to welcome you to the world of flying plastic.

Wendi Brown sits on the sidelines at Lansdowne field, watching her teammates gain ground against their opponents. Across the grass is Lansdowne middle school, where Brown, a University of Victoria student completing her post-undergrad degree in elementary education, has just finished a five-week practicum. While at Lansdowne, Brown taught her Grade 6 students how to play frisbee golf (that’s right, golf but with a frisbee). “I was very impressed with how well they were able to [learn] to throw the disc in such a short period of time,” she says. “We played some impromptu ultimate frisbee together one of the days as well . . . one of the students was just so overjoyed at being a great receiver, and scoring points in the endzone. Another was stoked to ‘lay it out’ [dive to catch the frisbee] and get the ‘d’ [defense] on a fellow student. I never even told the student about defense—the lay out was just instinctual.”

Brown says ultimate is a great game for kids, both because it’s just plain fun and because there are no referees. “It makes for a great practice opportunity for students to demonstrate fair play and respect for each other during competition,” she says. “Basically, I’m just really into getting kids into playing the sport of ultimate frisbee. It’s a good sport for kids to play, because everybody starts off at the same point. I want to run frisbee programs in schools throughout my teaching career.”

According to the Ultimate Players Association website, the game combines elements of a number of other team sports, and was first played in 1967, when students invented it at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. It’s a basketball-like transition game, where seven-player squads move quickly from offense to defense on turnovers. Players also require endurance, as in soccer, and “aerial passing skills,” as in football. “The objective . . . is to score by catching a pass in the opponent’s end zone,” the website reads. “A player must stop running while in possession of the disc, but may pivot and pass to any of the other receivers on the field.” Ultimate differs from most team sports in that it’s self-officiated, so there are no referees and players call their own fouls. Ultimate also centres around Spirit of the Game, a clause written into the official rules that stresses sportsmanship, respect and fair play. In part, the clause reads, “Such actions as taunting of opposing players, dangerous aggression, belligerent intimidation, intentional fouling or other ‘win-at-all-costs’ behaviour are contrary to the spirit of the game and must be avoided by all players.”

The community-building spirit of the game seems to attract new players who are looking for a different type of sport. Before she started the UVic education program, Brown played for Prime, an elite Vancouver-based women’s team. Now, as organizer of this year’s Victoria Ultimate Players Society summer league, she’s one of several high-level Victoria players helping others to build their skills and have fun while they’re at it. Summer league is about recruiting, too. Brown explains that many of the players signed up for the league have no previous ultimate experience, and that’s the point. “There are 120 players registered,” she says, “and about 20 percent are people I haven’t met before.” The league is run in a “hat” format, meaning players sign up individually and Brown creates the teams, mixing experience levels so beginners can get to know the game more easily. “Everyone gets to learn from each other,” Brown says. “That [process] can be quick, but it can also be incredibly, painfully slow . . . some people find it really intimidating. I felt exactly the same way . . . [but] anybody can get good at this. The important thing is time spent on the field.”

Maia Tsurumi, a former varsity rower and triathlete who has played sports all her life, says ultimate is an excellent game for women to try, especially if they’ve never played organized sports before. “Having tried to get women to come out to do sports . . . rowing, pick-up basketball, and even ultimate, I’ve always found women are reluctant.” That’s not necessarily because they don’t want to play, she says. “Women are far more likely to be intimidated and embarrassed. They don’t want to be seen as dragging the team down or holding people back. With ultimate, once they do try it, they see that your level of skill can go up quite quickly.” Ultimate is simple in its basics, she says, so it’s easy for women who haven’t tried organized sports to pick up the skills.

Now a seasoned veteran, VUPS founder and president Dave Pettenuzzo says the first time he tried ultimate, in Vancouver, he “certainly wasn’t very good.” The atmosphere was relaxed, though, and the advanced players he met supported and encouraged him. From the beginning, he says, “I just got a real fascination with how the game works. I certainly got confused, but every couple of points I learned something more.”

In 1993, he moved to Victoria, and began playing with the local men’s team Nomads. Pettenuzzo met his wife, Tassy, through a friend who played ultimate, and introduced her to the game. Now, their sons, five-year-old Justin and nine-month-old Max, are regulars at games and tournaments—thanks to a supportive community of friends and fellow players, Pettenuzzo says. “We’ve been to three tournaments with both kids . . . it’s been great,” he says. “Other people really help out.”

According to Pettenuzzo, more than 120,000 people play ultimate worldwide, and about 20,000 of them travel to tournaments regularly. In Victoria the game was first played in 1979, and by the time Pettenuzzo moved here, there were enough players, and enough people interested in playing, to warrant a local structure of sorts. In 1994, he founded VUPS, creating the non-profit society to give the local scene scope, and “a mandate of helping new players.” The society also helps support touring players, he says, “with the expectation that those players will give back to the society” through volunteering or helping newcomers.

“I think so many people want to play ultimate, but they may be intimidated,” Pettenuzzo says. “But there are plenty of people to help out . . . in summer league, a quarter of the teams are brand new.” New players are welcome throughout the year, too—every Sunday VUPS holds open pick-up at the Lansdowne field, beginning at 12:30 p.m. The society rents the fields, and players of all levels show up with the aforementioned cleats, light shirt and dark shirt. “It’s been going for 10 years,” says Pettenuzzo, “and no one has ever had to pay a nickel.” Asked whether, as an experienced player, he gets tired of helping beginners, Pettenuzzo says no. “The fun is in watching new people catch the bug.”

Ultimate has a way of drawing people in—sometimes against their will.

Burgle Mitenko first saw the sport played 11 years ago in Nanaimo, when a high school friend introduced her older brother, Dave, and her now-roommate, Kevin Bruleigh, to the game. “I had no interest in ultimate whatsoever,” says Mitenko, who is now the VUPS web mistress and president of the UVic Women’s Ultimate Club. “I thought it was the dumbest game ever and I heckled them mercilessly.” After watching Bruleigh and her brother play at Udder Bowl, an annual tournament hosted by Nanaimo Ultimate, she realized she’d been wrong about the sport. “I pictured this awkward game where people ran around and threw frisbees,” she says. “It took seeing it played well to understand it.” In fact, says Mitenko, the ultimate community can basically be divided into two groups—those who have been to tournaments and those who haven’t. “Tournaments are where you learn,” she says. “Even if you go to just one tournament, you realize how much you don’t know.”

Bruleigh agrees—he only became serious about the sport after playing at Pumpkin Pull, VUPS’ yearly Halloween tournament (where teams play in costume and the fields sport jack o’lanterns as line markers). After that he, the Mitenkos and several other Nanaimo players started commuting to play in the UVic intramural league. “It was better ultimate, more competitive, more fun, higher skill,” Bruleigh says. He now plays about 12 hours a week, and competes in up to 12 tournaments a year. “It’s an outlet,” he says. “There’s something inherently Zen about throwing a frisbee, once you start taking it too seriously. I find it peaceful . . . some people find their peaceful place gardening, some people find it on a mountain bike, some people find it rock climbing. Throwing a frisbee [on its own] is different from ultimate.” During his first game 11 years ago, Bruleigh says, “I remember being amazed at all the different ways you could throw a frisbee, and as a result I was immediately challenged. The game is fairly intellectual. It’s not just go out and run.”

Asked why some people refer to ultimate as “cultimate,” Bruleigh says, “It’s because it’s an all-consuming passionate pastime. People will do incredibly damaging things to themselves, and their lives, for a frisbee. They’ll spend an awful lot of money and an awful lot of time [on it]. They put their non-frisbee lives through the wringer.”

Take Jill Calkin, for example. The Victoria physiotherapist plays with Prime and Team Canada, and is currently preparing for Worlds, a tournament to be held August 1-7 in Finland. That means she’s in Vancouver every Thursday through Sunday to practice with her team. “It’s a little unsettling,” says Calkin, who started playing in 1994. “It’s thrown my life into a fair amount of upheaval.” It’s worth it to Calkin though, and not just for the glory. In preparation for the tournament, she says, she and her teammates did a mental toughness drill. When players talked about the things that were important to them, “Most people talked about the friendships,” she says. She says those friendships have kept her motivated to play, even though when she was first introduced to ultimate, she got hooked for a different reason. “I got suckered into the competitive side . . . just going hard,” she says.

Until recently, Tassy Pettenuzzo was an elite-level competitor (like Brown and Calkin, she played with Prime). Looking back on the amount of traveling and competing she did, she says “normal behavior” in an ultimate sense could be seen as extreme to someone outside the ultimate touring scene. Pettenuzzo describes “Thirteen hours in a van, driving down the Oregon Coast to play in

Eugene . . . driving all night, playing for three days, coming back and going to work the next day. I did that for eight years, all because of that crazy love of ultimate,” she says. Now, those road trips and “repetitive tournaments” stand out when she stops to consider why she loves the game so much. “That’s where your friendships develop,” she says.

Given the bond between ultimate players, it’s not surprising that the sense of family within the sport is strong. Whether you play men’s, women’s or co-ed, recreational or elite, you always know you’re part of a community. “It’s the equivalent of hanging out and playing cards,” says Pettenuzzo. “It’s visiting with people while doing something you like.” Pettenuzzo plays ultimate about once a week now, down from about four or five times a week when she was playing with Prime. She doesn’t see herself quitting, though. “I’ll probably play as long as I can run,” she says.

Because Pettenuzzo’s husband, Dave, played before she did, she got to know his social circle before she got involved. It didn’t take long to get out on the field, she says. “You’re so interested in why other people are so interested. And then you get out and start loving the plastic yourself, and then you find yourself addicted 12 years later.” Pettenuzzo thinks the special camaraderie between ultimate players and teams is directly related to the structure of the sport. “It definitely has something to do with there not being a ref,” she says. “You’re making your own decisions. People want to play as hard as they can within a certain set of rules, and respect the other player rather than respect another person who’s watching. I know there are people who don’t get along at ultimate, but I know that they keep playing together, too.”

She says having two young children has reinforced how giving and genuine the local ultimate network is. “After I had Justin, the community here in Victoria [was] such a support,” she says. “They helped with taking care of Justin, and they are involved in his life . . . he likes going to ultimate. He feels like he’s very central to the whole thing.”

Maia Tsurumi says knowing people through ultimate made it easy to settle in when she moved from Victoria to Vancouver last fall. “I miss the people I don’t see in Victoria, but now I see the people I would have seen every other weekend,” says Tsurumi, a law student at UBC. “It’s been an easy transition. It’s a free-for-all social environment . . . I have the same safety [as I did in Victoria] of seeing people who I like every day. It is a bit of a cult. It’s two degrees of separation, instead of six.”

The friends Bruleigh has made through ultimate are the main reason he continues to find time for the game, he says—and as long as he is able to play, making time for ultimate will remain a priority. “It’s my workout, it’s my release, it’s my hobby, it’s my social circle, all in one fell swoop,” he says. “If I had to do my workout and then find separate times for all that, I’d have a lot less time.” While organizing the rest of life is occasionally a struggle, Bruleigh says he’s generally able to find a good balance. “A big part of being successful in that time management is perspective,” he says. “Perspective is key. Frisbees are inherently stupid . . . if you let the frisbee rule your life, it will.” M

For more information about the Victoria Ultimate Players Society, visit www.vups.bc.ca (updated regularly) or contact Dave Pettenuzo at davep@islandnet.com. Newcomers are always welcome.

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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