By Matt Hickman
Of all the sports I’ve tried, probably none has been as surprisingly challenging and humbling as Ultimate Frisbee, or as its known simply to its adherents — Ultimate.
On its face, the game looks like a non-contact version of football with the motion of basketball in tight quarters and the abandon of a baseball outfielder chasing a dying fly ball in open space. But even if you have experience throwing and catching a frisbee on the beach or to a dog at a family reunion, you’ve never done it under the pressure of having a defender on you physically, or the intangible pressure of knowing that one drop, one errant throw means a turnover.
And it’s not just the throwing and catching. Knowing where and how to be on offense and defense can be just as maddening.
“The strategy is not intuitive,” said Luc Mehl, who’s been playing Ultimate in Anchorage since he was a student at Steller High School in 1992. “It’s really hard to understand what you’re supposed to do. It looks so freeform until you’ve played a while. There’s that, and of course the catches and throws. There’s a lot of people who can run really well but if you’re going to drop it each time, you’re not going to get it thrown to you often.”
The challenges involved in mastering the basics in Ultimately Frisbee ultimately make it one of the most inclusive and least discriminating sports on the planet. Teams are 7 a side, and in a coed league like the Anchorage Ultimate, which kicked off its 25th season Monday night, the aim is to have 4 women and 3 men. Though matchups are determined according to gender, women seem to be at little-to-no disadvantage.
“Most people come to it now in college, but when I went to college, most had never played at all,” said Anchorage Ultimate Team Yellow member Hannah Griego, who captained Stanford University to back-to-back national championships in 2005-06 after running track for the Cardinal as an undergrad. “Now you have some who’ve played in high school and middle school, so they come to college with experience. Most of us learned the game as we went, but at Stanford they had a really incredible program and I was just fortunate to learn a lot from a lot of amazing women.”
Rob Bochenek ran track in his college days at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s and when his days of Division I glory were done, he discovered Ultimate Frisbee to keep his competitive fires burning. A top player for the last 24 years, and the last 15 in the Anchorage league, Bochenek was back in action for the first time in a year after tearing his Achilles’ at the Sombrero Tournament in Fairbanks last summer.
“If you were to wear a FitBit, you’d be covering about a 5k during a game, but you’re doing that 5k in sprints — moving, changing direction,” Bochenek said of the sport’s cardiovascular demands. “The coolest thing about it is that even at the highest level it’s still self-officiating; even at the world championships you’re calling it yourself, so you have to be a certain type of athlete to control that.”
That ethos is reflected in the sport’s motto “Spirit of the Game”, which is there to ensure it never becomes too competitive in a confrontational or ugly way.
“Even at the highest competitive level it’s about being fair and having fun is the most important thing,” Bochenek said. “There are opportunities to cheat, but it’s your responsibility not to cheat and that’s the ‘Spirit of the Game’.”
The object of Ultimate Frisbee is to pass the disc from teammate to teammate on a field 70 yards goal line to goal line. Should a pass be intercepted or the disc fall to the ground, it is a turnover and the opposing team takes over. A ‘handler’, one of the opposing team’s top throwers, then picks up the disc, as the defender harassing his angle counts out loud to 10. If the handler feels the defender is counting to fast, he or she may declare a ‘fast count’, which rolls the count back two seconds.
A la traveling rules in basketball, a thrower is considered to be traveling if he or she moves their pivot foot.
“All you have to do is remember you have 10 seconds to throw,” said Anchorage Ultimate player Kirk Rose. “Right when you get it you have this first impulse to get the hell rid of it, but the first thing you need to do is take a deep breath, find the handler, lock eyes with him, then when he throws it to you and you get it, you’d better take it down the field.”
The leveling power of the sport doesn’t just make it an ideal coed game; it creates an equality between players of differing athletic abilities. Unlike other sports, taking a look at an Ultimate Frisbee player’s size or musculature doesn’t give away much about their advantage.
“It’s pretty wild. I love it when there’s players looking all raggedy and they get on the field and it’s like, ‘damn, that guy can move and jump,’” Mehl said. “I think it’s kind of the perfect game for misfits. Even if you’re not naturally athletic you can play. In high school, I could go to the fields behind Steller and just throw. Even though I wasn’t fast, I could contribute as a handler. It fits well for people who don’t fit into traditional sports.”
Though a number of the top players in the Anchorage league seem to be heading into the season with a myriad of injuries, sometimes debilitating ones, it’s tenable for players of all ages. “The league probably started to take off — around 1998-99 it started and it’s gotten more and more formal,” Mehl said. “There were some older players, a bunch of working at REI at the time who started pickup games (back in the early 1990s). A few of them are still out here. Herbie, who’s on the Yellow team, was teaching me how to throw a forehand when I was 12, so there’s a group of experienced players out here.”
The Anchorage Ultimate Summer League plays every Monday night on the Parkstrip through Aug. 12. With more than 150 players, the league boasts nine teams this season, down one from a year ago. Players hook up for pickup games in the Parkstrip midweek, too.
For more information, log on to http://www.anchorageultimate.org/summer-league