Seven players, one soccer field, a Frisbee-like disc, and no refs: This is Ultimate

There were two lightning delays and the fields were sopping wet, but the high school Ultimate Frisbee players who gathered at River Oaks Park in Galesburg on Saturday, June 9, for the state championships weren’t fazed. 

As players approached the field after the first delay to resume play, the horn fired almost immediately, announcing another. The teens groaned and yelled, “It was an airplane! It's not thunder! Let's play!” (It was thunder, and the teams were ushered away yet again.) Nine teams were competing in the annual High School Ultimate State Championship, hosted by Kalamazoo United Youth Ultimate (KUYU). And by the end of the eight-hour day, Washtenaw Middle College's Air Raid took the championship title. KUYU Chill came in as the No. 2 team in the state. 

Not bad for a team that was only formed a couple of years ago. Last year KUYU didn't make it into the finals at the state championship; this year they were 4-0 in the championship games, defeated only in the final match by Air Raid. Not only have they climbed the ranks as one of the best high school teams in the state, but they also won a bid to compete in August in the U.S. Open Club Championships in Minneapolis. 

The KUYU team boasts a roster that includes area high school athletes that excel in other sports, like soccer, track, and cross country, and while they'll lose some key seniors this year, some of their best players are dedicated sophomores, which means the team will only continue to strengthen in the coming years. They are one part of the local scene for the game that takes being a good sport to a whole new level.

Ultimate Frisbee has been around since the 1960's and, in recent decades, has exploded in popularity. In fact, people active in the sport expect to see it debut in the 2028 L.A. Olympic Games. Ultimate, as it's known, is usually played on a soccer field with seven players per team. The goal is to move the disc from one end zone to the other to score. Players have 10 seconds to pass the disc to another player, cannot travel when they have the disc, and uniquely, are responsible for officiating their own plays. There are no refs in Ultimate – not even at the pro level (and yes, there are professional Ultimate teams – you can even catch some games on ESPN). Self-officiation, known as Spirit of the Game, is the pillar of Ultimate.

In a given game, you'll find players helping their opponents up after a fall, calling for a game to pause when their opponent is injured or needs to tie a shoe, acknowledging an opponent's good play, and yes, calling their own fouls. How does that work out without the objective eye of a referee? It does because, in Ultimate, adherence to Spirit of the Game isn't just about the rhetoric of being a good sport; it's about being a good Ultimate Player.

When a foul is called, Spirit of the Game calls for the person on the field with the “best perspective” to make the decision if there is a conflict over what happened. Often, though, calling for “best perspective” is unnecessary. Fouls aren't liberally called in Ultimate, and when they are, players often agree on what happened. (When I was learning to play, for instance, an opponent who knocked me down, whispered, “you should call a foul” as she extended a hand to help me up. Only the player who is fouled can call the foul.)

If you attend an Ultimate game, you'll want to stick around for the post-game spirit circle. Rounding out each game, the teams meet on the field in a circle, staggering teammates so that each player stands next to an opponent. They link arms and talk about the cool things they each saw their opposing team do. They'll name an MVP from the opposing team and also nominate the opponent they thought exhibited the Spirit of the Game best. Watching a highly competitive game end with opponents linking arms and smiling at each other, sharing in their love of the sport, together, is unheard of. At the championships on Saturday, someone overheard soccer players on an adjacent field wondering aloud at the activity. “What are they doing, singing Kumbaya?” Yeah. Kind of.

Alexis Weeden, 16, stands out in these circles. She stands about a foot shorter than some of the players, but that doesn't stop her on the field. Weeden began playing last year, when her teammate and friend, Jack Warmelink (who happens to be my kid), urged her to come to a practice and check it out. 
Wyatt Harris attempts to block a catch. Photo by Lindsay WinsborrowUltimate has teams in three categories – open (men's, but open to all genders), women's, and mixed (equal gender representation). Because there aren't enough women for KUYU to be officially considered a mixed team, they are technically an open team. But their ultimate goal (no pun intended) is to recruit enough women to be a mixed team. 

It is expected that when Ultimate joins the Olympic ranks, it will be as a mixed team sport, which would be groundbreaking as it would be the only mixed gender team sport in the Olympics. When KUYU travels to Minneapolis for Nationals it will be as a mixed team. If they can't recruit enough women players to the team from Kalamazoo, they'll draft some eager players from around the state to join them. Tryouts for Nationals are scheduled for June 30 at Davis Fields.

Weeden is used to playing alongside a bunch of guys. In addition to playing Ultimate, she plays hockey on both a women’s and a men’s team. “Playing with and against all genders can be really frustrating. A lot of the boys are significantly taller and faster. I, on the other hand, am very short and I don't really have the speed that the boys have. I rely more on strength and my teammates,” she says. 

At Saturday's tournament, some of the teams that KUYU played against didn't have any women players at all, which made some of the teammates Weeden was paired with to mark (defend) significantly unfair. In addition to Ultimate's ideological position on gender equity, prioritizing multiple gender representations on every team is also logistically important.

Matt Frayer is the driving force behind Kalamazoo's team. Not only is Frayer KUYU's head coach, he's also the president of KUYU and a founding member of KUYU and Kalamazoo Ultimate Disc League (KUDL - Kalamazoo's adult league). Frayer discovered Ultimate in the early 2000's at a pick-up game at Lincoln Elementary. “We opened this to community members but it was really just some teacher friends, exchange students, and international folks from around K'zoo that came.” Frayer, an avid runner, fell in love with the game and found that the Spirit of the Game really set the sport apart from others.

KUYU eventually grew out of the KUDL youth programs Frayer and his partner, Hether Frayer, had been putting on. KUYU grew intentionally and rapidly. They were incorporated as a 501c3 in February of 2017, and the high school team grew from an all-boys team that had about 10 players to a mixed gender 17-player team. Last year, KUYU introduced a middle school ultimate program, and this spring 22 Kalamazoo area kids played in the middle school league.

One of KUYU's board members, Bruce (Frisbee) Johnson, has been active in Ultimate practically since Ultimate's inception. Johnson says that he learned the sport back in 1972 from Joel Silver, one of the original three founders of the sport. Johnson was taken out of the sport after only five years because of a knee injury, but his love of the sport never waned. In fact, his passion was passed on to all of his kids, who went on to excel at the sport. His youngest, Cian, who just graduated from Kalamazoo Central and plays for KUYU, plans to continue playing at U of M next year. His oldest, Grady, played at Macalister, and his middle son, Finn, who passed away in 2016, was the youngest person to ever play KUYU, competing with adults from the time he was 10 years old until his soccer commitments pulled him away at 16.

Last year, at the KUDL tournament, the team trophy was named in honor of Johnson's son, Finn, which was special to Johnson and the Kalamazoo Ultimate community. Johnson recalls something a KUDL player said to him after Finn passed: “He said, 'You know, he was a kid who didn't have to be babysat, he knew what was going on, would be able to play at a high level and no one had to worry about what he was doing at ten years old.' Which, you know, there are very few 10-year-olds that you can put in like that … I think people had an appreciation for it,” says Johnson.

Ultimate’s welcoming attitude is another thing that sets the sport apart. Long-time competitors love to share their knowledge and their love of the game with beginners. Kids play and then lure their parents to the adult league; adults pass on their skills to their kids; players invite their significant others to learn the sport and join. It really can be a family affair. 

KUDL's adult league is closed to summer registrations, but will open again for the fall league. They play every Monday night at River Oaks Park and will round out the summer season with a day-long tournament on Aug. 11. KUYU will offer free clinics this summer for kids ages 7-14 at River Oaks Park in Galesburg on Mondays from 4:30-6 p.m., beginning on June 18. You can learn more about KUDL and KUYU at their websites.

Kathi Valeii is a freelance writer, living in Kalamazoo. You can find her at her website, kathivaleii.com.
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