Disc drive: The Ultimate dream sport
It's just "Ultimate." Forget the Frisbee part; that's a trademark. Call them discs.
Under purplish-gray skies that threaten a massive leak at any moment, the University of Illinois Ultimate team practices a fast, graceful game on a green field punctuated by dandelions.
It's sort of like football and sort of like soccer, says team co-captain Neal Phelps, a UI graduate student who distinguished himself in three sports at Monticello High School.
It starts with the equivalent of a kickoff. Then it's snap and grab, pivot and snap, and no one can run with the disc. Drop the disc, and now it's the other team's.
That makes for a fast, fluid game that has become a major event at select schools like Carleton University, Harvard and the University of Texas, Phelps said.
Now officially called Ultimate to avoid those trademark issues, the sport has been around since the 1950s, when Wham-O popularized plastic flying discs.
Originally, a tin pie plate from the Frisbie Pie Co. in New Haven, Conn., was the flying saucer of choice.
The sport's collegiate roots can be traced to the first game played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1972, according to the Encyclopedia of North American Sports History.
By the early '70s, flying discs were omnipresent on college campuses, when students put a bandanna on Fido and made him fetch.
But this is not your hippie daddy's Frisbee. And snuff out that joint.
The UI Ultimate team is fighting for the national championship this week in Madison, Wis.
The sport is part of The World Games, first held in 1981, an international multisport event, meant for sports not contested in the Olympic Games.
UI co-captain Colin Reid got involved with Ultimate when he was a junior in high school.
"One of my teachers was the team's coach, and he convinced me and another friend of mine to play with the team," he said in an email.
"From there I played with the summer league in Pittsburgh for two years before heading off to school here in Illinois. I joined the Ultimate team here at the UI my freshman year, and I spent my freshman year on the B team. I moved up to the A team during my sophomore year and am now fortunate enough to finish my career as a captain of the team."
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.
Reid said "one of the best ways to get better is to play a lot.
"Obviously you need to be playing correctly and actively working at getting better while you play, but repetition is a huge help. There are also lots of club teams all over the country where you can continue to play over the summer and fall, while the college season is during the winter and spring. Getting involved with these teams will allow you to meet some incredible players and play alongside them."
But you don't have to join a formal team to hone your skills, Reid said.
He said prospective players can check out some of the major ultimate websites, "such as ultiworld.com and skydmagazine.com. Those are two of the big ones, but from there they will lead you to a wealth of knowledge online about ultimate."
And if you can't watch top players up close, check out the videos, he said.
He urged wannabes to "watch footage online."
"There is a huge push by several different organizations to film Ultimate and make it available online. If you don't have the opportunity to play with some of the best players in the country, watching them can also help you," Reid said.
Another co-captain, Ryan Smith, also learned the basics in high school.
"I am from Pittsburgh, Pa., and the high school league there is pretty large. My high school had a team, and my friend convinced me to come play. I really enjoyed it, so I stuck with it," he said.
Then came larger aspirations.
"When it came time to pick college, I knew I wanted to go somewhere with a good team. When I visited Illinois, I was able to meet the team and knew the UI was the place I wanted to be.
"Best decision of my life."
He has several suggestions for learning to play Ultimate as well.
"I believe the biggest thing that sets people apart is throwing ability," he said. "Those who can throw can do a lot more. ... (G)et taught how to throw by someone, and throw as much as you can. If you are just looking to get into the sport, don't hesitate from signing up to a rec league or going to pickup game, even if you have never played before.
"The Ultimate community is really good at including everyone and teaching you what you need to know."
Superfan (and mom) Alane Phelps says Ultimate is unlike any other sport:
"I love that for most of the season, there are no refs or officials. The sport is played on an 'honor' basis," she said. "But the teams get to rank their opponents on 'spirit' — that is, sportsmanship. The Illini team has great spirit!"