The spirit of the game
Columnist Kerry Mitchell explores what Ultimate Frisbee means to her
Hydra, the Virginia women’s club Ultimate Frisbee team, faced off against Carolina Sunday afternoon in its last game of the season for what was, for all intents and purposes, senior day. However, there were no flowers and there were no framed jerseys. Instead of escorting their children onto the field, the parents in attendance camped out along the sidelines in soccer chairs, listening to their daughters shout cheers with varying degrees of profanity at halftime, doing their best to make sense of the game being played in front of them.
I was there, a part of that game and the spirit of Ultimate Frisbee.
I joined Hydra way back in 2010, as a wee first-year, devoting myself to that most hallowed of all club sports. You could say I drank the proverbial Kool-Aid, and lots of it. Ultimate Frisbee — or just Ultimate, if you’re cool — consists of players chasing a flying piece of plastic back and forth on 70 yards of grass, mud or turf. Of course, four years spent in the weird and wonderful world of Ultimate have taught me the sport is much more than that.
We don’t have referees in Ultimate. Instead, games are dictated by the remarkable principle that is “Spirit of the Game.” Basically, fouls, in or out calls, and picks — legal in basketball but not okay in Ultimate — are left up to the players on the field, with the assumption that everyone will behave as a level-headed, responsible adult. In practice, what this means is that if some awful girl kicks you in the shin or pokes your contact out of your very eye (no really, that’s happened) no one’s going to take her out of the game, but you still shouldn’t retaliate.
The spirit of the game extends beyond the simple bounds of following the rules — it’s the entire Ultimate culture.
With all due respect to the people frolicking on the Lawn, actual Ultimate Frisbee is far more intense than most assume. It’s non-stop running, colliding with other people and throwing yourself on the ground. It wreaks havoc on ankles and ACLs. But just because Ultimate is a legitimate and challenging sport doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. The best cheers are the most inappropriate and the favorite team names are the silliest. Sometimes the most talented team at a tournament will show up dressed entirely in Goodwill’s finest, and sometimes the tournament prize will be a mini-keg of beer. Almost always, the teams will banter on the sidelines, befriending the competition. On the whole, teams are made of tough, athletic individuals with a good sense of humor and a healthy appreciation for cheap beer.
Before I even set foot on Grounds, my fate was decided. While some girls have family legacies in sororities, mine was in Ultimate Frisbee. With a new pair of cleats and a minimal grasp on the concept of throwing a flick, I joined the team and haven’t looked back since. I have won and lost games, injured various joints, spent too much money on uniforms and too much time driving to tournaments, all while meeting incredible and inspiring teammates. At risk of sounding overly sentimental, playing Ultimate has made me who I am today — and has made me get into better shape. Chasing plastic is hard work, OK?
My experience is hardly unique. Across the world, there are people winning championship games and there are people learning to throw a flick for the first time. They may be thoroughly immersed in it or they may be just entering the world of Ultimate, but they — and I — know one important thing. It’s a game that can shape a life. It’s a game that has spirit.