25 years of mediocre but extremely enthusiastic ultimate: a memoir

An instant away from a catch at one of my favourite fields, Jericho, with some of Vancouver’s mountains in the background.

I have played my last game of ultimate.

I am finally retired from the only activity I have ever intensely cared about. I somehow lasted until the age of 51 in a sport that most people burn out of by their mid-thirties, if they don’t blow out a knee or an ankle much sooner. Dumb luck. Somehow I have escaped after a quarter century without a major injury.

(But maybe it depends on how you define “injury.” The health price tag may have been very high for me even without a trauma.)

Ultimate has defined the most active and enthusiastic version of me, an otherwise bookish introvert, so shy and work-focussed that getting me to go out is like trying to take a cat for a walk. Ulti was the exception that proved that rule: I never hesitated to go play ultimate. It always seemed like a good idea, for all those years.

But for many years now I have known that any game could be my last… and that I might not know it at the time. A final great night of summer night of ulti had to happen eventually, and it has now. Fortunately, I strongly suspected it while I was there, so I was able to milk it for every last drop of fun.

This will be one of the most bittersweet transitions of my life. So long, ultimate!

My favourite ultimate jersey (and the competition is stiff), for the team “Afternoon Delight.” Long live the humpin' unicorns!

Introducing ultimate (for those that need it)

Presumably everyone knows what ultimate is by now, but for a few left who don’t: Ultimate is a Frisbee team sport, co-ed and self-refereed, vaguely like soccer but even more sprinting. Players tend to be jock-nerd hybrids (lots of STEM pros, teachers, docs, etc). Hippies invented the sport, but have mostly been displaced. We have a pro league these days, and cities all over the world have active leagues. To get a feel for the sport, watch some top 10 plays from the pro league.

How ultimate is played

Each team tries to score by catching the disc in an end zone. The team on offense advances by passing the disc while the other team tries to stop those passes. When a player catches a disc, they must stop running and throw to a teammate within ten seconds. Players spend most of their time sprinting, trying to get open. Possession switches if a pass hits the ground or sails out of the field. It’s hard to complete a bunch of fast passes when other humans are trying hard to stop you, so possession often changes many times per point.

Passes may be any length, and “hucking” — a long pass — is a popular way to score. Diving leaps to make difficult catches or blocks are called “layouts.” Hucks and layouts are where the glory is, but good teams also make a lot of short, clever passes, including some weird types of throws like the distinctive and oddly awkward-looking “flick” or “forehand” throw.

When a point is scored, the teams regroup at opposite ends of the field, have a little breather, and then start all over again. Most games take about an hour.

The disc has just left my hand here, and might be the best photo I have of myself throwing in a game. And it highlights a very typical player size mismatch: I was often playing against giants. Back in the day, a defender like this one would definitely have been struggling to keep up with me.
Almost the same thing as the last shot, but this photo shows off the odd posture and intensity of a big flick huck and a pretty funny “white man’s overbite.”

My ulti origin story

I started playing in Vernon, British Columbia, in 1997, already pushing thirty. I was invited to the local perpetual pick-up game by some friendly folks at a hostel I was staying at. We played three nights per week all summer long.

Gawd, I was terrible! I was both athletically and socially incompetent. I made no lasting friendships there, but that was my fault, and no one was ever impatient or shitty to me either (let alone bullying, which I had encountered in mainstream sports). I’m sure it’s partly just that they were grown-ass adults who had left the casual cruelty of the schoolyard behind — but the culture of ultimate was also genuinely inclusive, light-hearted, even silly.

I was physically awkward and also very short, in a sport that favours height as much as basketball. So ultimate was a strange thing for me to fall in love with, but I did. Why?

  1. The aesthetics of Frisbees in flight, and the fascinating challenge of interesting throws like the flick, scoober, and hammer.
  2. It is (or still is) a sport for misfits and freaks. Back then, any of us would never have been caught dead playing any other sport. In the 1990s and early 2000s it was still very much a hippie sport... and I was a bit of a hippie back then, or at least hippie-adjacent.
  3. And women and men play together. Basically all ultimate below the elite level was proudly and pointedly co-ed, and I mostly hated most groups of men and always had. And I was single back then. (Although, weirdly, I never had an ulti girlfriend. One of my life regrets! It would have been great to share my love of the sport with someone for at least one chapter of my life.)
"Fresh Meat" was my first long-term relationship with an ulti team: five fresh, meaty years.
Note the heels. 😉

Fresh Meat: The Early VUL Years (2000-2005)

After three years of flailing around with Frisbees in Vernon, I had accepted that I was some kind of late-blooming athlete, and ulti was My Chosen Sport. When I arrived in Vancouver, I instantly joined the Vancouver Ultimate League.

That was a big transition, to the (relatively) big leagues. Vernon ulti was a couple dozen regulars, barely enough for pick-up. Vancouver ulti had dozens of teams and thousands of players and was growing explosively.

The VUL was still dominated by the hippie vibe at that time, although it was already getting a bit tired and quaint. But every match still ended with teams singing to each other — raunchy, trash-talking lyrics made up on the spot, sung to classic melodies.

My first regular team was “Fresh Meat,” and we were all quite mediocre but having a blast. My Vernon ulti days quickly seemed like a weird rehearsal for the real thing. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t really start to learn the game until I got to Vancouver and was regularly playing a variety of teams.

I started to get not quite so terrible. It became more than a hobby: it was motivating, defining, inspiring.

Silly team names

Here are all the teams I played on for at least a season, half of which were single-season gigs I’d forgotten, but I’m sharing them all because ultimate team names are traditionally ridiculous and punny.

I have a decent vertical. A short ulti player must have a decent vertical.

Immaturity! Athletic and personal

Youth is another country, and mine was a weird one. I had been an odd young fella, and I was still socially immature well into adulthood (and maybe still now, I’m not sure). I wasn’t used to cooperation, or failure, or confronting the reality that other human beings were just better at something I cared about — much better, way better, disturbingly better. That rattled my ego hard at times. When I screwed up, I would torment myself viciously, re-playing the moment in my head, so harsh that it’s hard to believe I loved the sport. I was prone to snits — nothing dramatic, but there must have been times when I was clearly sulky. Cringe.

It was all good for me, and almost entirely grew up and out of that embarrassing early bullshit.

But I never really learned to be “be a goldfish” as an athlete, instantly forgetting my mistakes — or really ever forgetting them. It’s kooky how many mistakes I made over the years that I can still clearly remember! Even in my final summer of ultimate I had a couple nights where I woke up at 4am thinking, “Now why did I throw that stupid throw? Why why why? Idiot!”

Sun’s out, gun’s out. I was sleeveless for 90% of my game time over the years — even when the sun wasn’t out. If you got it, flaunt it.

My one big bad injury

By the summer of 2006, I was still not especially good at the sport, but I could have won a “most improved” award, and I was starting to feel ambitious. Although already properly old for the sport, there still seemed to be a shred of reasonable hope that I could aspire to getting truly good at it. Surely not elite (I had clearly started too late for that). But maybe respectably skilled.

I spent one glorious summer pushing the envelope.

I regularly played pick-up goaltie with some actually elite players, the real thing. Goaltie was a small “court”-sized variant of ultimate, popular with skilled players. Lots of clever and sassy disc handling: hammers, scoobers, no-looks, push passes, off-hand throws.

Although I never gave up on advancing my skills, the goaltie summer was to be the last time I dreamed big. That season ended with an injury, a bad one.

I pushed my luck with a defensive bid, tumbled right over the player I had failed to stop from scoring, and came down from a surprising height onto the tip of my right shoulder. I truly wish I had broken my collar bone. Instead, my acromioclavicular joint ligaments shredded — and ligaments just don’t heal like bone.

That goddamned injury was hell. It interfered with sleep for months, and it seemed to age me prematurely. I missed the winter seasons. By the time my shoulder was “ready” for action again, I felt five years older, and the window of opportunity to be competitive, to be both young and decent, was slamming shut: I could still play, and I would still play for another fifteen frickin' years… but never again would I feel “ambitious.”

Afternoon Delight was not my longest tenure on a team, but it was my favourite! (Sorry, HBR!)
A closer look at the glorious humping unicorns of AD. Get a room!

Afternoon Delight: My Middlin' Middle Years (2011-2016)

My second team, “Afternoon Delight,” was my next regular gig for several years. That was a relentlessly hilarious and pleasant group of folks that I consistently had a great time playing mediocre ultimate with throughout the middle age of my ulti career.

Thank you, AD! *sniff* “I’m in a glass cage of emotion.” (The team's spirit gimmick was quotes from Anchorman. Stay classy!)

Although we are all casually friendly to this day, one of my greatest regrets is that I didn’t make more of an effort to get closer (and stay closer) to that group. 😞

But I was a workaholic introvert and I was going through the most FFS OMFG SMH phase of my life, with my wife’s near fatal car accident at the top of a long list of challenging misfortunes in those years. It’s really kind of a marvel that I was able to be such a regular player and got to know the AD clan at all.

Despite everything, I never faltered in my game attendance… because ulti was my lifeline, my sanctuary, my One Good Thing.

Eventually complaints about age got to be routine on the AD sideline. When too many had retired to sustain the team, I almost threw in the towel too. I was obviously starting to struggle. By that time, more than one night of play per week had become unthinkable, and I had long since lost the ability to play tournaments: 6-8 games in a weekend! Yeesh! Having started ulti in my late 20s, I had never been a young enough player for that.

In retrospect, I probably should have retired with AD. A career-ending injury would have almost been a blessing.

That amazing hat league team! A highlight

In 2017, I played in a winter hat league with an unusually good group. By literal luck of the draw, I was playing with the most elite group I’d been a part of (since the summer of goaltie a decade earlier anyway). In many ways, that short, dark, damp season of ulti might have been the highlight of my career… because it’s so clear that I somehow rose to the occasion, that playing with really good players enabled me to play my best game. Which was so much fun.

I was always a little disappointed and frustrated after that. The pain of knowing what was possible, but not being able to recapture it. Sometimes I’d get a taste of it on a really good night with HBR.

Hammer Beats Rabbit was my last and longest team tenure, a full decade, minus only the final summer for trivial logistical reasons.
Cap'n John made by far the most impressive ulti jerseys I have ever personally worn or probably even seen. Every regular player got a custom back-design with their nick'. Me? The ironic "Angryman" (I was mostly very silly and cheerful playing ulti, especially in the last decade).

Hammer Beats Rabbit: The Painful Years (2011-2021)

For a little while, as AD declined, I actually moonlighted, juggling two teams for a little while before my health took a dive.

And then the meat-grinder of a dilemma began: my addiction to ulti versus my failing health. Which was not just aging. Something had gone badly wrong in my physiology in 2015. For the next seven years, I would pay an unusually high price for my ulti habit, well out of proportion to the typical aches and pains and aging: suffocating malaise and soreness for days after every game, and a dizzying diversity of body problems that made my attendance erratic for the first time.

But I was simply not able to resist the siren call of ulti. It seemed unthinkable to stop, and the health problems had only just begun. At the time, I figured it was just a phase to be pushed through, and so I pushed.

It was not just a phase.

And so Hammer Beats Rabbit was my last multi-season team. HBR was a little less silly and a little more competitive than AD — not very competitive, it’s not like we ever practiced or anything, but a few players on the team were really quite good. My skills had matured to the point where, on a good night, I seemed like I actually belonged on a decent team.

I was erratic, though. Consistent performance under pressure was my biggest problem — a problem that was never to be solved, alas. But on average, I did not suck. I had real skills, and I was still surprisingly quick and energetic for my age. Even this last summer I managed to run a reasonably fit-seeming younger player into the ground, inspiring the music-to-my-ears complaint: “Goddamn, you’re hard to keep up with!”

Sharing this photo just because I am so amused by whatever is going on with that finger. Also, weirdly, I have basically no memory of the team “Unnatural Selection.” That was 2002, so … 🤷🏻‍♂️

The health paradox

I was not just a vigorous player for my age, I was also quite intense for my weird health status. That was a paradox that would get freakishly pronounced by the end.

I will never forget the end of the 2019 season in particular: it took weeks to recover. That was the first time I thought that carrying on with ulti might actually be part of the problem. It would take 3 more full years of (pandemic) ulti for me to finally decide that, yes, ulti was corrosive to my health, part of my problem, maybe even the problem.

And too corrosive to be fun anymore.

For about the last four years, ulti was an agonizing trade-off between a couple hours of fun followed by days of limping and feeling ill with fatigue. I loved ultimate so much that I was okay with it as long as I actually got the two hours of fun, but not all evenings of ulti are created equal… and more and more I was in too much pain during ulti to enjoy it.

The scales finally just tipped too far in that direction: the cost too high, the payoff too low. Ironically, it was a happy exception that finally proved the grim rule to me: Aug 4 went really nicely and cost me surprisingly little, and that was such a surprising novelty that it finally got through my thick skull how bad things had gotten on average.

I finally knew. I didn't like it, but I knew it was time to quit at last.

The Bittersweet End

Even though I avoided any traumatic career-ending injury, I certainly did not “quit while I was ahead.” I pushed my luck in a big way. I kept playing even when it was blatantly obvious that it was hurting me — only because it was the lesser of evils, because quitting seemed even more painful.

Remember, this was literally the only social or athletic activity that I’ve ever been been enthusiastic about. Quitting horrified me. I truly loved the game. What would I be without it? What could possibly replace the joy it gave me? Why would one go outside or hang out with people if not to chase plastic?

That is why I kept going well past my “best before” date.

But I’ll say this for my final 3 years of ultimate: as painful as they were, I was wise enough to savour every minute of it, to have fun, to milk it for everything it was worth.

I just look so excited to be playing ultimate here. Undiluted enthusiasm. Reminds me a bit of Chris Pratt’s famous “amazed” face from Parks & Rec.