Paul Mange Johansen
In between Ultimate games, we strolled through the cemetery. We could see it from the intramural fields, so we jaywalked across a busy four-lane avenue, nearly got hit by a minivan, and, even worse, almost stepped in gum. But the cemetery was worth it. There’s something so relaxing about a bunch of little marble monuments honoring dead people you never knew.
The cemetery was on a hill. We climbed up its cracked asphalt path, passed the mobile home which serves as the cemetery’s office, and crossed the brook that runs through the middle of all the graves. By the time we reached the hill’s crest, we were winded and sweating in the April sunlight. It made us empathize with the Ultimate players who’d been heaving frisbees and sprinting across the grass all afternoon. We were like them — athletic.
At the top of the cemetery stood a granite mausoleum. It was larger than the average Yale dorm room. It had fluted columns and a glass door with iron decorations. We peered into it through the glass. Inside, there was a stained-glass window depicting Jesus Christ in his descent from heaven in a cloud of light. Below it was a tomb with the name of a dead man from the 19th century; the dates of his birth and death; and the inscription, “Our Beloved Son.” If our calculations were correct, he wasn’t even 30 when he died. We turned back from the tomb and looked down the hill. His ghost had a great view of the Ultimate tournament below.
The Ultimate tournament on that epiphanic April day was officially titled the Hudson Valley Division I College Men’s Championship Tournament. Five men’s Ultimate teams from colleges in the Connecticut-slash-parts-of-New-York-which-aren’t-Manhattan area had assembled for a two-day tournament to duke it out. The winner would move on to the Metro East College Men’s Regional Tournament two weekends later, the winner of which would advance to the Division I College Championships in the Midwestern mecca of Cincinnati, Ohio. The stakes were as high as the tournament names were unnecessarily long.
When we returned to the soccer fields, the Yale men’s Ultimate team was playing the University of Connecticut. Our memories of the game are rather particular and have almost nothing to do with the actual activities on the field, since we didn’t really understand what was happening. While Yale’s coach was a graduate student, UConn’s was a middle-aged man. He held an intimidating clipboard which we imagine held either a treasure trove of brilliant Ultimate plays or a bag of cough drops. We wondered what his day job was. There were two dogs next to us that kept humping each other. They’d drank all the water in their bowl. We were concerned that, given the exertions of their libidinous activity, they might become dehydrated.
There was no scoreboard, so for the entirety of the game, we were blissfully ignorant of whether Yale was winning or losing. We couldn’t keep track of who scored because we were too busy trying to find Gatorade to hydrate our concupiscent canine friends. People on the Yale sideline kept clapping, so we took that as an encouraging sign. Then the players stopped sprinting and lined up by team to give high fives to each other. After the high fives, the Yale team huddled together and did a riotous cheer which would’ve made Vercingetorix proud. We took this revelry as irrefutable evidence that Yale had — suck it UConn! — emerged as victors.
Actually, Yale lost. The men’s team finished third in the tournament. This disappointment meant, though, that they wouldn’t have to travel to Cincinnati, paradoxically Ohio’s best and second-worst city (only after Cleveland), which is a kind of victory. Nonetheless, if a benevolent stranger hadn’t informed us of the final score, we would still, to this day, have believed that Yale won. The players themselves didn’t seem to realize that their season had just ended.
To clarify, Ultimate is Ultimate Frisbee. But the rat bastards at the Wham-O toy company have trademarked the term “frisbee,” so to avoid legal action everyone has to say just “Ultimate,” which sounds cooler but is a bit enigmatic.
According to legend, the precursor to the frisbee was conceived at Yale in the 1870s. A particularly rowdy crowd of Yale Men™ licked clean their pie tins from the William Russell Frisbie Bakery in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Then they sent their discs sailing across the Old Campus lawn. Something like Ultimate Frisbee was born.
In 1948, Walter Morrison, a California inventor, heard about this new pastime and plasticized the flimsy aluminum disks to increase their aerodynamic properties. Morrison sold Wham-O the rights to his new disc. To connect the new toy to its roots at Yale, Wham-O renamed the disc from Morrison’s “Pluto Platter” to “frisbee.” Another 20 years would pass, however, until the sport of Ultimate emerged as a national phenomenon. In 1968, Joel Silver marketed the idea for this new sport, which used the lovely curved disc of Wham-O’s frisbee, to the student council of Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.
The college pastime became a new American sport. And so our Yale Ultimate players stand not only for the Yale that is now, but the generations who have flung pie tins on this campus before them. Like jaywalking and University President Peter Salovey’s moustache, Ultimate is a Yale tradition.
Yale currently has two Ultimate teams, a women’s team and a men’s team, which compete at the club level. The captains of the women’s team are Becca Schapiro ’19, Julia Mankoff ’19 and Yara El-Khatib ’21, and the men’s team captains are Sam Feder ’19, Tom Chu ’19, and Tomaso Mukai ’19. They are all in very good shape, a lot of fun to talk to and, actually, we’d like to hang out with them more. Like maybe get lunch together sometime, or go to Soads. Whatever works for them.
The exact founding of Yale’s Ultimate team remains, like the future of American democracy, unclear. Yale hosted the first organized collegiate Ultimate tournament in 1975. In the ‘90s, the men’s team was christened Süperfly, and the name stuck. The team reached unparalleled success in this era, including a berth in the national championship tournament. Before then, in the ‘80s, the team went by such monikers as Fly Disc and, in reference to then-president George H.W. “The Relatively Best” Bush ’48, the Bush Men.
There was no women’s team in the ‘80s. Although we don’t know its exact starting date, its alumnae database does extend back to 1991. The origins of the women’s team name has acquired legendary status. In the team’s early years, a meeting was called to decide on a female namesake. Luminaries like Cleopatra, Eleanor Roosevelt and (we imagine) much-more-popular-at-the-time Alanis Morissette. Instead, the team settled on Ramona Quimby, the child protagonist of many Beverly Cleary novels. Julia described Ramona as “gritty, fun and … not afraid to get dirty.” Hence the women’s team is called Ramona, affectionately shortened to the diminutive Mona.
Sometimes, as happened earlier this month, the teams compete together in mixed, or co-ed, tournaments. Gender equity is one of Ultimate’s main goals. There aren’t many opportunities for women to play Ultimate at the professional level.“I do feel like there [are] substantial opportunities for women’s teams at the collegiate level,” Yara, the women’s team co-captain, said. But Ultimate will keep striving, as a community at Yale, to be more gender equitable.
For you plebeians who have never been to a tournament like we have, this is how Ultimate is played. Whichever team has the most points at the end of the game wins. If you want more details, we don’t have them, but USA Ultimate, the sport’s governing body in the United States, does. Its website explains, “The object of the game is to score by catching a pass in the opponent’s end zone. A player must stop running while in possession of the disc, but may pivot and pass to any of the other receivers on the field. Ultimate is a transition game in which players move quickly from offense to defense on turnovers.”
Given this structure, Ultimate is a fast-paced game that requires players not only to compete, but also to collaborate. “You always need a teammate to score,” Tomaso said. “You always need to be moving the disc around with your teammates.” A single player can’t dominate in Ultimate the way they might in, say, basketball, baseball or bowling. Colin McCloskey ’20, a junior on the team, echoed this sentiment: “In Ultimate, one player means nothing without the team. You’re playing for your teammates; it’s not about the individual.”
At the collegiate level, Ultimate is refereed by the players themselves. When someone believes that they’ve been fouled, they call it. If there’s disagreement, play is stopped and the call is discussed, ideally in a reasonable manner with minimum gesticulation and profanity. The system isn’t perfect: Sometimes things get heated and sometimes people are pretty defeated. But it does add an element to Ultimate that sports with referees lack, namely an emphasis on self-accountability and sportsmanship. Sam described it as “recognition of personhood, despite animosity.”
Part of what makes self-refereeing possible is the concept of “spirit of the game.” Growing up, The Spirit of the Game was what our parents called summoning the Holy Ghost to help them play Texas Hold ‘Em. In Ultimate, “spirit of the game” is a term that loosely represents Ultimate’s ethos. Julia summed it up as “being really intense, trying your hardest at all times, but respecting your opponent.” Colin said it makes you “play carefully and safe — the right way.”
But Ultimate doesn’t completely preclude individual glory. At a tournament last fall, Sam, the men’s team co-captain, tossed the frisbee across the field a little too wildly to his teammate, Theo Kuhn ’18. Kuhn hurtled himself forward and, while seemingly suspended in the air, caught the frisbee in the endzone. This kind of move is referred to as a layout, and this particular layout won the game. It also ended up on ESPN, featured in SportsCenter’s Top 10 countdown.
Aki Liao ’89 and Paul Mange Johansen ’88 played Ultimate at Yale in the late ‘80s. The game was still new enough then that its official rules had yet to be codified. At one tournament, while teammates argued over a foul call, Aki heard a player on the opposing team snarl, “I fucking wrote the rules!”
Visiting Yale on a drizzly November weekend for an alumni event, Aki and Paul met and chatted with some of the current Ultimate captains. They found that, while the team now has snazzier uniforms and (probably) cleaner, more comfortable jockstraps, not much has changed. “Actually,” Aki said, “it’s a little shocking to realize that 30 years later, it’s still kind of the same.” Life is short, but Ultimate is long.
One such constant is the frisbee personality. Given the game’s self-refereeing and emphasis on team collaboration, it takes a certain kind of person to play frisbee “There’s something about the sport picking you,” Aki said, perhaps inadvertently alluding to Harry Potter’s wand. The ideal Ultimate player, it seems, combines Michael Jordan with the best qualities of Cheech and Chong. In this way, the Ultimate player is like a mullet — business in the front, fiesta in the back. And speaking of fiesta, that just happens to be Colin’s nickname. A huge part of the team culture, Colin explained, is that these nicknames add carefree fun that speaks to the ever-present spark of silliness and love on this team.
Paul illustrated the idea of the frisbee personality with an anecdote. At the epic annual spring break tournament in Columbia, South Carolina, one of the opposing players dislocated his thumb. “It was at a 90-degree angle,” Paul reminisced. Despite them being on different teams, Paul drove the injured player to the hospital. The doctor informed the player that fixing the dislocation would require popping his thumb and pulling it back into place. This operation is generally regarded as painful. But the player sat there, silent and unfazed, as the doctor yanked on his thumb several times before he succeeded at relocation. Ultimate players are, as Paul put it, “chill.”
Another thing that’s stayed the same since the ‘80s is the teams’ lack of visibility on campus. “We would be away half the weekends of the year,” Aki said. “We’d travel somewhere between Washington, D.C., all the way up to Boston and play in a tournament. And the only reward you have for winning in the tournament is to come back Sunday. … We’d come back to campus, nobody would know we’d spent the entire weekend representing Yale, playing at a tournament that nobody knew about, and nobody cared.”
The current Ultimate players we spoke with shared Aki’s frustration. But they also agreed with Paul’s explanation of why people keep playing Ultimate despite what, to an outsider might seem, to borrow a term from gut Quantitative Reasoning credit “Introductory Microeconomics,” “diminishing marginal returns”: “It’s definitely for the love of the game.” This sentiment sounds trite, but given the hourslong trips to tournaments, the physical and mental exhaustion incurred at them, the absence of faculty support, the potential for injury and the accompanying lack of a trainer, plus midterms, hangovers and heartbreak, the “love of the game” must be pretty extraordinary to make up for these, ahem, steep fixed costs.
Hudson Walberg ’19, a veteran on the men’s team, said, “At tournaments, when we’re finished with the games that day, we just have fun, talk and goof off. It feels super relaxed, even in stressful times.” The women’s team captains refused to consider their season through the traditional athletic lens of wins and losses. They stiff-armed us when we asked if they wanted to make it to the regional tournament this season. “Our goals are process-oriented,” Julia, one of the captains, said. To some, the idea of “process-oriented” goals may seem to be a kind of apologetics. But when you actually understand the Tao of Ultimate, which we now undoubtedly do by virtue of interviewing over 10 Ultimate players, you begin to see how it all fits together.
When we asked the Ultimate captains about their favorite frisbee memories, several of them responded with recollections of games they had lost. Yara and Julia remembered a game last year against archrival SUNY Albany, the Sith Lords to the Yale Ramona’s Jedi Knights. It was a freezing, windy day. Initially losing by a considerable margin, the team underwent, according to Yara, a “revitalization” after halftime. Players began to communicate with each other, shouting out instructions every second. Their comeback wasn’t enough, though, and they lost by two points.
The turnover which ended the game resulted from an errant throw by a newer player. After the game, Ramona’s coach told the captains that, despite the loss, it was a good game, that they couldn’t forget their progress and they shouldn’t be too hard on the player who messed up the play. “Next year,” Julia said, “when that player has another year of experience under their belt, that’s going to be a good throw and that’s going to be a win.”
For Tomaso, the game that stands out in his mind was also against SUNY Albany. If Süperfly won, they’d advance to Regionals. But they lost. Tomaso lay down on the field in despair. Players from the other team had thrown the frisbee up in celebration. It arced across the entire field and hit Tomaso directly. It was “a very miraculous moment.” Then his teammates picked him up, and they all returned to Yale together.
Colin spoke to this deep camaraderie that the team offers. “These are among the best friends I have here. Sports foster a chance to get really close, and these are people who will be friends for life. I joined because of the people, and I was proven right.” Mac Schmidt ’20, his teammate, agreed: “Ultimate is a huge part of who I feel like on campus. It’s people I love being around.”
It’s no surprise, then, that many of the Ultimate players we interviewed expressed a desire to continue playing Ultimate after they graduate. Becca, Yara, and Julia all want to play on a club team in their post college years. Aki and Paul haven’t pursued Ultimate in the decades after their college years, but they have carried the sport with them in different ways. Paul enjoys throwing the frisbee around with his dog. Aki has two sons, both of whom play Ultimate for their high school. “It’s a gift for a father,” Aki said. Both alumni acknowledged that, if they wanted to, they could show up to an Ultimate game anytime, anywhere, and just start playing. No one would give them dirty looks. Strangers, they said, would smile and welcome their new friends.
Upon further reflection, this all seems strange. Strange that people play this sport in a nation where no one really likes each other anymore. Strange that people play this sport at an elite university where almost every student’s actions are motivated by borderline pathological insecurity stemming from fear of failure and the vulnerability that ensues. But admirable nonetheless.
Last April, after we returned to our dorm rooms from the Ultimate tournament, we looked in the mirror and noticed we got sunburned. It was worth it. We’d rather be speckled by amorphous moles than smell like sunblock. We could tell our skin would peel soon, which we always appreciate, because it purges our blackheads. The Ultimate players were probably sunburned, too. For a few days, people would know they’d spent the weekend outdoors, even if they didn’t know it was representing Yale at a tournament. All the pale people would know they’d enjoyed the sunshine, even if they’d stayed in it for a little too long.
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