After being booted off the farm, I stayed briefly in Vernon’s quaint little hostel. My first night there, I was enthusiastically invited by total strangers to go play Ultimate — a friendly, quirky team sport played with Frisbees. It was invented by hippies in the sixties and is now played by tens of thousands in most big cities around the world. There’s even Major League Ultimate these days (two pro leagues, in fact, the MLU and the AUDL).
But Vernon ultimate in 1997? Early, small-town ultimate! Casual, all pick-up, no league of any kind. It was super old school, close to the roots of the sport: a lot of players were high in the most hippie-possible way, and we quaintly bellowed “ultimaaaaate” on the first big throw of every point, and always sang silly song-cheers to each other at the end of each night, usually bawdy and effusive in both praise and heckles.1
I had never played a team sport. I had been a bookish dork for most of my life, and had only recently discovered — on farms! — that I could be fit and energetic.
But a sport with a Frisbee? And ladies? I had to try!
It was intense — the sprinting in ultimate is just insane — but I fell in love. And I have never been so bad at anything I loved. I’m sure the people I played with remember me as being nightmarishly bad, hilariously bad, the kind of player you really don’t want on your team — but there were always beginners around, and there’s a strong culture of tolerance and inclusiveness in Ultimate that you just can’t find in any other team sport.
So they put up with me, and I kept at it, three nights a week for three years, and about weekly ever since, and it turned me into quite a dedicated amateur athlete and a runner — and that was to become a foundation for writing books about injuries years later. Write what you know, as they say.
Today, after almost 15 years playing ultimate, I am actually pretty good at it. I’ll never be elite — too old and short, and inconsistent2 — but I understand the game and can do some amazing things with a disc very casually, like I was born doing it, rather than just getting it really wrong tens of thousands of times first.
In many ways, ultimate was the best thing that ever happened to me, in Vernon or anywhere. It was at least as big a deal as getting a massage therapy diploma, that’s for sure. It did more than anything ever else had to take the weird edge off me, to normalize me, which I desperately needed. Not only was I still a pretty odd young man going back back to school, but massage school: three surreal years socio-academic intensity, with a great deal of actual lubricant.
Next: That’s not my thigh: the chapter with some sex in it
RIP, post-game musical cheer! I witnessed its death in Vancouver ultimate between about 2001-2005. I’m not sure exactly when I last heard a proper example of it, but it’s been years now. It was one of the clearest cultural transitions I’ve ever personally witnessed in any well-defined community. I think it died because it got tedious and repetitive; we’d heard it all before. Certain songs got used again and again, because there are only so many that almost everyone could sing and that had a structure friendly to silly ad hoc lyrics. I heard about a zillion absurd revisions of “Yellow Submarine.” There were players who fought hard to keep the musical cheer alive, but as the years ticked by there were more and more people who just weren’t into it, and team captains started agreeing to “just do 3 cheers today” … and then, almost suddenly, it was extinct. ↩
At my best, I’m a fine player, an asset to most any team. But I’m often not at my best. Competition does strange things to my mind, and I often screw up under pressure, failing to make throws I know I have in me, because I’ve done them countless times when the pressure was less intense. The nature of discs is that even subtle throwing errors magnify into large aerodynamic disasters as the disc flies. An slight quirk in your angle of release can make the difference between a throw that works out and one that falls from the sky a second too soon…or almost immediately. ↩