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Disc Sports Are Catching On

Whether playing ultimate or disc golf, locals are catching on to disc sports

Consider the Frisbee: a bright plastic disc, a toy for kids, a symbol of the counterculture. Wait — a symbol of the counterculture?

The popularization of flying disc sports started as a rejection of mainstream sports and has continued to grow nationally and internationally. The two main disc sports — disc golf and ultimate disc— have been expanding in Southwest Michigan for a while, in large part because Kalamazoo is a town with three colleges.

In fact, Kalamazoo hosted the Disc Golf World Championship in 2008 and is set to host it again in 2015. Ultimate has had active local leagues for years, and participation is on the rise. If you didn’t know you were living in the middle of a flying-disc hot spot, look around. You’ll start seeing both games hiding in plain sight.

The flying disc, like many other sporting objects, has an origin that’s difficult to pin down. People have been playing with discs for a long time — at least as long as documented history — but the first time someone tried to make money selling flying discs as sports objects was in the 1920s. After many incarnations and failed attempts to mass-market these discs, the toy company Wham-O released the first professional-grade Frisbee in 1964. (Frisbee, the most commonly used name for flying discs, is one brand among others.)

Disc golf and ultimate started on opposite coasts — the former in the West, the latter in the East — around the same time that the Frisbee became popular. Because the sports arose during the ‘60s, when the youth counterculture was at its apex, both sports were deemed by oustiders as “hippie sports” or games for young college males. It’s an image that players in both sports are looking to shake.

Is that the one with the basket?

Before diving into what ultimate disc and disc golf have in common, let’s look at what they don’t. Despite a common misconception, ultimate disc does not involve baskets.

“When we say we play ultimate, people always say, ‘Oh! That sport where you throw the disc into the basket?’ ‘No, that’s disc golf,’ we have to say. In fact, ‘No, that’s disc golf’ is one of the most commonly uttered phrases in ultimate,” says Jeremy Welter, captain and “brain trust” member of the Kalamazoo Ultimate Disc League (KUDL).

Disc golf is almost exactly like golf as far as the rules are concerned, but instead of using a club and a ball, a player uses a set of discs made specifically for disc golf — a driver disc, a mid-range disc and a putter disc. And instead of aiming for a hole in the ground, a player aims to get a disc into a raised metal basket. Those baskets are everywhere, and once you know what they are, you’ll start noticing them. Or at least that was the case for Jennifer Sawyer, who is now administrator of Climax Club Ladies Disc Golf and an avid disc golfer.

“There are over 120 courses in our state alone,” she says. “I think that within 25 miles of Kalamazoo, there are about 20 — you’re never very far from it at all. Even if you can’t see it, it’s there. Once people know about it, you hear them say, ‘Oh, that’s what those little things are for — the baskets.”

Ultimate isn’t as easy to describe as disc golf, since it’s not a variation on another popular sport. Here’s how Welter explains it: “Ultimate is like football, soccer and basketball put together, but with a Frisbee. The field looks like a football field, with end zones, the play kind of looks more like soccer, the way people are running around, but the disc is advanced like basketball.” Players can’t travel while holding the disc — they have to throw it — and the idea is to get to the end zone.

The discs for the two games are different too. Ultimate favors the traditional Wham-O Frisbee-style disc, while golf discs are generally smaller and made of denser plastic to fly a longer distance.

Like regular golf, disc golf is an individual sport — you play against your own record and against the scores of other players. At the Climax Club, players are put into pairs, one beginner and one expert. The idea is to let the beginner learn from the expert.

At the Kalamazoo Ultimate Disc League, players are divided into teams and spend the season playing through a tournament-style knockout series. Pickup games are held as well.

While disc-golf and ultimate-disc players cross over and play the other sport from time to time, many find that they prefer to stick to one or the other.

“Lots of people play both, but I don’t play ultimate because it messes up my game,” says local disc golf pro Wade Sullivan. “One (type of disc) flies completely different than the other. I wouldn’t throw a Wham-O before I went to throw a tournament.”

The feeling is similar among ultimate players. “Many people cross over, but the form is so different. Playing one without affecting the other is hard,” says Welter.

A game for everybody

Even though players from both sports are adamant about drawing a line between the sports, since both are looking toward a serious professional future, the two sports share too much in common for the comparison to be denied, including a culture that echoes its counterculture roots.

Many sports, at least at the casual level, share an atmosphere of openness and community, but what makes ultimate disc and disc golf different is that you can walk up to a disc-golf course or an ultimate event with no money or experience and begin playing right away with people who are professional or play at an expert level. And they want to teach you how to play.

“We’ve always done a very good job teaching the game of ultimate to our new players, and that’s the area we’re always looking to improve even more,” says local writer and college instructor Chris Tower, who moonlights as another KUDL “brain trust” member. “I think people who feel a little intimidated usually watch us play the game, see how fun it is, see how much fun we’re having and how friendly we are, joking around with each other. It’s really like a family.”

The welcoming atmosphere of ultimate does counter the initial intimidation, say the players involved, and Sullivan says a welcoming atmosphere is shared by disc golf. Sullivan was drawn to the game because it’s challenging — it takes a lot of skill and practice to master. But just because it’s a challenging game does not mean it’s only for the highly skilled, he emphasizes. Local disc golf players pride themselves on inclusion as well.

“There’s a disc for everyone — so no matter who you are, there’s a disc that will fly for you,” Sullivan says. “Really, if you want to play, just go to a course. That’s what I always do. I just sit on hole one and wait for people to play with me.”

In fact, one counterculture component of disc golf is that it was created as a way to offer the challenge and complexity of the game of golf without the perceived elitism. The Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) takes special care to point out this distinction on their website: “Disc golf rarely requires a greens fee, you probably won’t need to rent a cart, and you never get stuck with a bad ‘tee time.’ It is designed to be enjoyed by people of all ages, male and female, regardless of economic status.”

The drive for inclusivity in both sports is manifested in multiple ways — a free summer ultimate youth camp in Kalamazoo run by KUDL members Hether and Matt Frayer; $5 ulti-mate pickup games throughout the year, open to anyone; free disc golf bags to new members of the Climax Club who play two weeks in a row (while supplies last); and specially abled and disabled access and play for both sports.

Women and disc sports

Disc sports usually conjure images of athletic college guys in backwards caps hanging out together, flipping a disc back and forth between classes or after work. But reality presents a different picture — there are players of all abilities and ages, and neither disc golf nor ultimate are boys’ clubs either.

USA Ultimate, the national governing body for ultimate disc, emphasizes gender equality by encouraging leagues to have coed or “open” teams that include at least four women. (There are seven players per team on the field at a time, and at least two players have to be women.)

KUDL supports this guideline by using an open league structure. As the league continues to grow, figuring out how to recruit women players and keep them is a constant consideration.

Abby Nappier, director of volunteer services for a local nonprofit and a KUDL “brain trust” member on the side, appreciates the effort both the local and national ultimate clubs are putting into evening up the gender ratio in open games and developing women’s ultimate on a competitive level. Nappier started out playing at Western Michigan University.

“I know I felt really alone when I started playing,” she says. “I wanted to get really good at the sport, and I had a few male players I really bonded with who went out of their way to help me and carve out a space for me. But it was hard being the only woman on the team at Western. Now we have women in the community who are doing that too, and it’s a huge development.”

While ultimate continues to grow at a professional and competitive level, Nappier looks forward to the day when she can play at a competitive level locally with other women. For three years, she has had to drive to Chicago to play in a competitive women’s league.

Sawyer, the disc golfer who administers the women-only Climax Club, says she experienced the same type of frustration at first, but she notices how much the PDGA works to build women’s disc golf opportunities at every level.

“I think sometimes, especially for women who play, they’ll pick up discs that their boyfriends throw or that someone tells them to throw or use a technique that someone shows them, and it’s just a little bit different coming from a guy,” she says. “We communicate differently and take in information differently, so to learn from a woman is instantly more beneficial for women players.”

Although women’s leagues, teams and clubs provide spaces for women to learn together or play together, there’s still a lot of mixed play. Most players participate in the sport together spontaneously too, at pickup games, in casual leagues and tournaments and by just meeting up at parks. And that’s where the culture of each sport carves out its niche.

Traditions and eccentricities

One of the traits these two sports share that’s perhaps most indicative of their counterculture origins is that they are played without referees. While in golf the lack of an official isn’t a new idea, in ultimate — which derives from basketball, soccer and football — someone usually has to call fouls. But ultimate prides itself on not using referees but instead relying on players to play without fouling, admit a foul when it’s pointed out or come to a peaceful resolution of differences. This is one of Tower’s favorite things about the sport.

“Ultimate has this rule called ‘The Spirit of the Game,’ which basically encourages everyone to self-referee fairly and use the honor system to play with good sportsmanship,” he says. “That has probably been the central reason I continue to play ultimate.”

Aside from ‘The Spirit of the Game,’ the culture of the KUDL takes on a playful and inviting demeanor, evidenced by everything from the winter league trophy — a Bell’s Winter Ale keg atop a stack of Frisbees that Welter fashioned himself — to the league’s bear mascot, which takes on a new incarnation on league shirts each year, from cowboy to ninja. Even the league’s acronym, KUDL, is meant to entice players with its cuddly sound.

And then there are the nicknames. Abby Nappier is known as “Crabby,” thanks to her no-nonsense demeanor when she was the only woman on WMU’s ultimate team; Chris Tower is known as “Tower” (pretty self-explanatory); and Jeremy Welter is known as “Peaches.”

“It came from when he was on the WMU ultimate team,” Tower says, “and they were coming up with nicknames for people, and one guy said, ‘The next person who shows up late will be forever known as ‘Peaches.’”

The disc golf culture has its own eccentricities — using baby strollers to carry discs in professional tournaments because, yes, some people have that many discs, dressing up for casual tournaments in costume, and taking pictures of other players in their tee pose, which looks much like a ballet dancer in a fully extended posture.

And then there’s the language.

“There’s a whole new lingo when it comes to disc golf, between ‘tree love’ and ‘tombstoning,’ ‘Kaiser bombs’ and ‘rowers,’” Sawyer says. “’Nicing’ is a big one. That’s when, after the person has thrown the disc, before it lands, if you say ‘nice shot,’ there’s a kind of a superstition that you’ve just ‘niced’ somebody and it’ll go hit a tree or go somewhere that you don’t want it to go.”

Looking forward

In the summer of 2015, Kalamazoo will host the national championship competition of the Professional Disc Golf Association. Sullivan, who is designated a professional in the PDGA, explains that “professional” in disc golf is more of an expertise designation than a reference to an athlete who makes money. It means that you’ve competed at a professional level so you’re not allowed to compete in serious amateur tournaments.

“There’s really not going to be much money in disc golf, unless you’re on a touring level,” he says.

USA Ultimate is working to start professional teams at a national level in hopes of encouraging more spectatorship and awareness of that sport.

Locally, KUDL recently expanded to an all-year league, playing indoors in the winter at Kingdom Sports, 8151 Merchant Place in Portage, and outdoors in the warmer months at VerSluis/Dickinson Park, 1924 Douglas Ave., Kalamazoo. But KUDL is also looking to promote growth, and there’s only one way to do it.

“We need more lady players,” Welter says. “That’s the number we need to get up to have more teams.”

As to how local disc golfers and ultimate players see the future of disc sports in their lives, two of them offer simple answers:

“I’ll keep playing until I’m physically unable to – when my ankles or knees won’t let me anymore,” Nappier says.

“I’ll play forever,” Sullivan says. “I’ll probably never stop.”

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