From Oct. 19-22, the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch will swarm with agile athletes for the USA Ultimate Club National championships, the 49th annual celebration of “Ultimate Frisbee.” Ultimate attracts millions of participants around the world, in part because of its simplicity. “Cleats, cones and a disc are all you need to play,” says Sean Salamone of Tampa Bay Ultimate, which is cohosting the championships with the Sarasota County Sports Commission.
Pies in the Sky
Ultimate has its origins in the early 1900s at Yale, where students played catch with discarded tins from the nearby Frisbie Pie Company. The first mass-produced discs, “Pluto Platters,” came in 1951; the Frisbie Pie Company closed in 1959, and then toy company Wham-O registered the name “Frisbee.” Ultimate Frisbee emerged in New Jersey a decade later.
Sarasota hosted the National Championships from 2000 to 2012, before the event moved to Frisco, Texas, and then Rockford, Illinois. This year, organizers expect more than 1,300 adult amateurs competing in men’s, women’s and mixed divisions.
How It’s Played
Teams of seven players score points by catching the disc in their opponents’ end zone. A player in possession of the disc must stand in one spot while trying to throw it to teammates who can run all over the field. The pace is relentless, and players have to be ridiculously fit. If the disc hits the ground, possession goes to the other team.
Throwing specialists, known as “handlers,” get the most touches during the game. Since they can’t move and often have at least one defender in their face trying to block the throws, handlers master a variety of throwing techniques, including backhand, forehand (“flick”) and inverted (“hammer”). Need a demo? Google handler Brodie Smith, who won an Ultimate collegiate title with University of Florida and is famous for his disc trick-shot videos.
Catch the Catcher
The catches steal the show. While the handler looks for the next play, “cutters”—the fastest, most agile athletes—sprint down the field trying to get open for long throws. Ultimate highlight reels are filled with players making leaping grabs, either out-jumping an opponent for a “sky” or making amazing horizontal dives.
In 2015, the International Olympic Committee formally recognized the World Flying Disc Federation, meaning that Ultimate could be an Olympic sport as soon as 2024.
No referees here; Ultimate teams self-officiate. “The Spirit of the Game” is both a proud tradition and an official policy that, as spelled out in the rule book, asks players to compete at the highest possible level, “but never at the expense of mutual respect, adherence to the agreed-upon rules or the basic joy of the game.”
Watch the Movie
Chasing Sarasota, a feature-length documentary, follows the Portland Rhino through its 2011 preparations for a return to Southwest Florida, where it lost the 2010 championships by just two points. (The full movie is available on YouTube; you can watch it in its entirety below.)