April 25, 2011

Athlete Diary: Ultimate Frisbee

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For most people at Cornell, frisbee is nothing more than an occasional activity reserved for killing time on the arts quad. For the over 80 ultimate players at this school the game is a sport, and one that can easily become a way of life.

Cornell supports four club ultimate teams, the Wild Roses and the Thorny Roses women’s teams, and the Buds and the Shake on the men’s side.

Two weekends ago marked the beginning of USA Ultimate’s college championships, a three-tournament series that culminates in nationals at the end of May. This year is the first time in the program’s history that all four teams have qualified for Regionals, the second of the three qualifying rounds.

The last time the Roses went to Nationals was in 2005. The Buds have had better success recently, placing third in the nation last year and first in their conference this year.  This weekend will determine whether or not any of Cornell’s teams have a chance of making it to the final round of the college championships in 2011.

The Wild Roses were first organized as an ultimate team in 1980. That year was also the first ever women’s game of intercollegiate ultimate, not just for the University, but for the country. Cornell players were a major factor in having women’s teams recognized by USA Ultimate (USAU) two years later. In 2004 the Thorny Roses were formed as a second women’s team, and the squad has continued to grow from having an occasional eight players to a solid 24 on the roster.

It has taken an incredible amount of work and energy to have the Wild and Thorny Roses place second and third in our conference this year, respectively, and it is simply the love of the game that keeps us going. Many of us agree that one of the toughest parts about being an ultimate player is dealing with the commonly held view of it not being a legitimate sport. We have to talk our parents into believing that it is a valuable activity for us to spend time doing, and we deal with frustrated friends and classmates that don’t understand why we must be gone for entire weekends. But if it were not for the athletic intensity that the sport offers, many of us would not have stuck with it.

Our team is comprised of all kinds of athletes, from track and cross-country runners to former soccer, basketball and lacrosse players. We have figure skaters, dancers, cheerleaders, gymnasts, snowboarders and hikers, too. Most of us began playing ultimate in college, wanting a sport that would keep us active and let us try something new. Little did we know how that it would quickly become so much more. Those of us who are new to the game were forced to learn quickly, imitating the veteran players and striving to keep up with their level of play.

The Roses practice four times a week in the spring, but we can only play outside after the week of Spring Break. For the first few months of the semester we train in Barton, but seeing as we can only be in there when no one else is, it means sometimes having practice from 12 a.m. to 2 a.m. After break we can finally get out doors to play through the snow, rain and wind that Ithaca keeps throwing our way even in April.

This year we are lucky to have a coach who is willing to work with us full time, and who has been a major factor in the team’s success.  Spending so much time with a total ultimate enthusiast is another reason the team’s love of the game has continued so much. He pushes us to work hard during practice, and provides the wolf pack analogies and motivating mnemonics that band us together and keep us striving to improve.

Once at practice we put in the work. Drop a disk in a drill? The team does push-ups. Turn the disk over too many times in a scrimmage? We’re running sprints. Those who have been on other sports teams have no doubt that they are still legitimate athletes. The game combines so many skills from all other sports, from endurance and speed to coordination and reaction time. You leave practice tired — and not only because it’s 2 a.m.

Tournament weekends begin on Friday afternoon, when we pile into cars and journey to places such as Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. We have about five tournaments in the fall, and five or six in the spring. By 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. on Saturday we’re at the fields, warming up for our first game. Games usually last over an hour, but are played by points rather than by a set amount of time. Saturdays are usually made up of four or five games, which means about eight hours of constant running. At the end of the day there is not much anyone wants to do except eat (a lot) and just go to sleep. Sunday is a new day, and no matter how tired or sore we are from Saturday we wake up knowing we still have about four more games to play.

When the last point of the weekend is over we all pack back into the cars to drive home — muddy and exhausted, yet satisfied. Bruises from layouts are badges of pride; barely being able to walk from too much sprinting all weekend just means you were putting in the effort.

Ultimate is different from other sports in that we play without referees. Players are to judge their own actions as objectively as they can — something that can be extremely difficult to manage in the heat of the moment. The game can be as much of a mental game as it is a physical one. Between remembering plays, knowing where you are supposed to be cutting, observing and monitoring what your opponent is doing and counting to a stall of 10 when the girl you are marking has the disk, it can sometimes seem like far too much thinking. Yet self-governance is one thing that makes the sport so unique. Players have to be competitive while still being able to cooperate and accept their own mistakes.

The effect that ultimate has on our lives goes beyond the time we spend at practice and tournaments. We bring disks to the library, knowing there will be at least one teammate that will want to take a study break to throw. With the never ending problem sets, daunting prelims and impossible papers, sometimes just chasing a silly piece of plastic around is the best break you can get from everything else you have going on. We work hard on the field, but have more fun together than any other sports team out there (or so we like to think).

Having spent so much time together we’ve inevitably become a family, a wolf pack and great friends. The ultimate circle is definitely a close-knit group. We accept each other’s every bit of silliness, embrace the wide variety of characters that make up the team and are there for each other in all aspects of life.

Every ultimate player’s hope is that eventually the sport will gain more recognition. Most people have played pick-up at some point, yet few ever take the game further than the arts quad. On May 8th the Roses are holding a tournament for Cornell students to compete in. It is an opportunity to experience the sport for all its worth and take a break before a tough week of finals to run around and just play. We are encouraging everyone to make a team and participate, even if you know nothing about the sport. More information can be found by going to Cornell’s Ultimate Spring Fling on Facebook.

So next time you see a group of people on the arts quad throwing around a disk — who maybe look like they know what they’re doing — realize it is probably us. This weekend we will be at Regionals representing the University in full force, with high expectations for all of the teams going and hopes of bringing ultimate at Cornell to an even higher level. Ultimately, we play for fun, we play for the love of the game and we play for each other.

Original Author: Rebecca Velez