Web Exclusive Series Part 1: Frisbee Grows Up With the Game of Ultimate

By Leah Fisher Nyfeler – June 4, 2012
Photo by Jason Mechler

Frisbee: the word conjures up images of brightly colored discs casually flying back and forth between a few laughing friends in an open space on a college campus or at a picnic. But Frisbee has moved beyond those casual beginnings. As of April 2012, what began as a humble child’s game utilizing a tossed pie tin has moved into the competitive sports arena in the form of a game called Ultimate Frisbee.

The plastic, saucer-shaped discs have been around since the 1950s, when they were first introduced as “Pluto Platters” (an attempt to capitalize on the public’s fascination with unidentified flying objects). A new company, Wham-O, began marketing the toys as Frisbees and promoting the game as a sport, even introducing a “professional model” disc in 1964. Then, in the late 1970s, a group of high school students in Maplewood, New Jersey, invented a game called Ultimate Frisbee, which combined football, soccer, basketball, and disc tossing into an energetic and demanding new sport. Ten years later, Frisbee golf came into being. The Frisbee had firmly secured its niche in the wide, wide world of sports.

How is Ultimate Frisbee played? Two teams of seven players take turns advancing a Frisbee down a football-like field, or pitch, into an end zone. The Frisbee can only be advanced via a throw, and. players cannot move while holding the Frisbee. Possession changes when the disc is dropped, hit to the ground, or intercepted by the opposing team, and player contact is not allowed. Points are scored when a player in the end zone catches the Frisbee; games typically go to 15 points, though teams must win by two points. One aspect of the game that makes it an easy pick-up game is that games are self-refereed. Players abide by “the Spirit of the Game,” a code of conduct that has had great success.

Ultimate’s popularity has soared, as the game is very inexpensive and can be played wherever there is an open field. The rules are concise and simple. All players really need are a Frisbee and some cones to mark off end zones and boundary lines. Informal groups abound, and many serious players got their start with a just such a game. Janel Venzant, player/captain of Melee, one of the University of Texas (UT) Women’s Ultimate club teams, clearly remembers her first experience with the sport. “I started playing Ultimate in high school with my church youth group, “ she recalled. “Of course it was a style of Ultimate that had very few rules and thus was extremely disorganized. I’m talking no out-of-bounds, or foul calls, or travels and many more than seven players on the field for each team at a time.” Playing with that church group sparked Venzant’s interest in the game and led her to club play at college.

College club teams are one of the many ways that older teens and young adults can play organized Ultimate. Teams such as UT’s Melee differ from NCAA-sanctioned college sports in that there are no athletic scholarships and teams are often run and managed by the players, who sometimes even act as coaches. Financing from institutions can be very limited, and players may pay fees for uniforms and tournament expenses as well as provide their own transportation to and from events. Universities of all divisions across the country have men and women’s club teams, and there are currently over 700 collegiate teams competing annually in the United States.

Margaret Weihs, who grew up in Austin and is now a Developmental Studies major at the University of California at Berkeley, plays on the Pie Queens, the women’s club team. Weihs got into the sport four years ago when, as a freshman, she arrived at school looking to play field hockey. But there was no field hockey team, and so Weihs decided to try Ultimate Frisbee. “I threw the Frisbee around a couple of times during high school,” Weihs said, “but I started learning actual throwing techniques my freshman year of college.” Weihs has since mastered the art of throwing the disc as well as the various skills and tactics of the sport, and she plays as a cutter (cutters catch the Frisbee, which is thrown by handlers). Although anyone on the field can throw and catch the disc, having defined roles helps with team chemistry, and Weihs’ Pie Queens took first place this year at the USA Ultimate Southwest College Regional Tournament.

Robin Osborne, a former player for UT’s men’s Ultimate club team, TUFF, came to the sport much like Weihs. “I got into Ultimate Frisbee my freshmen year in college,” Osborne said. “My friend from the dorms was on the team and when we were getting to know each other, we started talking about sports. He said he'd never been as physically challenged as when he played competitive Ultimate. It sounded like a fun, new sport to try, so I tried out and made the team.” Like Weihs, he had a learning curve; Osborne worked hard during practices with the club team and threw the Frisbee with his friends whenever he had the chance. “My favorite part of Ultimate was trying to balance the gritty physical demand required to get the disc and the graceful touch it takes to then throw the disc,” Osborne recalled. “It’s tough to master both.”



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