Ultimate Frisbee flies at Curve

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There is a flying saucer whizzing through the grey March sky above Victoria Park.

But there are no little green men under it. Just 14 pairs of football boots pounding the damp grass underfoot in its pursuit.

They have gathered for a game of ultimate Frisbee, a competitive version of the perennial hippy favourite.

The game attracts an eclectic group, but not too many jocks.

“There’s an ongoing joke that it’s the rejects of other sports that get into it,” says Sarah White, who played in the European club finals of ultimate in Poland last year. “There are a lot of people with science backgrounds, a lot of physicists. We think it’s because of the use of space and angles. It’s very geometrical”.

And a lot of Star Wars fans as well, it seems.

“If you’ve got the disc, I need to ‘force’ you to throw it in one direction so my teammates know what to defend against. So you often hear ‘may the force be with you’.”

The rules of ultimate Frisbee

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Football boots kept players on their feet until the snow arrived; Credit: Thomas Macaulay

Standing on the sidelines when I arrive is Duncan Tarrant, one of the old hands at the Clissold-based club Curve Ultimate. He talks me through the rules of the sport.

Two teams of seven players compete for points by catching the disc in a zone at the end of the rectangular field. Those in possession of the disc can only pivot with one foot rooted to the ground or pass to a teammate.

The defending team tries to intercept the disc, or force their opponents to drop it to the ground. The player with the disc has ten seconds to throw it, with their marking defender counting them out loud.

After every goal, the teams swap ends.

“I often describe it as a mix between American football and netball,” says Duncan.

Like netball, players can’t run while in possession and scoring points by throwing the frisbee to a teammate in the end-zone resembles a touchdown in American football.

The principle throwers are called “handlers” while those who try to catch the ball in the end zone are known as “cutters”.

“Really roughly, handlers are like quarterbacks and cutters like wide receivers,” Duncan says.

The modern form of ultimate Frisbee took off in 1968 when Joel Silver, a student at Columbia High School in New Jersey, developed the rules from a game he had played at a summer camp the previous year.

Silver would go on to produce action films including Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and The Matrix. But in these parts, his greatest legacy is that of ultimate Frisbee.

Under the guidelines of the sport’s governing body, the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF), games are typically  won by first team to score 17 goals and last around 100 minutes. After one team reaches nine points, the match breaks for halftime.

“If neither team gets there”, warns Duncan, “there is no half.”

The exertion of the sport quickly dispels the stoner stereotypes. As does the complexity of the rules. But one of the most unique things about ultimate is that no one is officially appointed to enforce them.

“The very first rule in the book is the spirit of the game, which is about the attitude you have to have as a player,” says Duncan. “The self-umpiring increases your respect for the other players and your own personal skills.”

Common injuries

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Football boots kept players on their feet until the snow arrived; Credit: Thomas Macaulay

Duncan studies African language and culture at the School of Oriental and African Studies. During his year abroad, he coached in Kenya, and was later offered a spot on the country’s national team they sent to the World Championships of Beach Ultimate in Dubai last year.

But today, Duncan is dressed in jeans and boots. He hyperextended his knee during a match, and is waiting for an MRI scan to confirm his suspicions of a torn meniscus.

Sarah is another player recovering from a knee injury. She currently coaches the mixed team.

“I don’t know why I signed up,” she sighs. “It’s torture watching people play and not being able to join in”.

The mixed-gender nature of the sport was a key factor in the WFDF being officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee last August, making it eligible for inclusion in a future summer Olympics.

Duncan takes me through the basic skills. Catches are best made with two hands, ideally by clapping the disc between them. We move onto the backhand, that casual Frisbee favourite.

The forehand throw is more challenging. With my arm extended away from my body, I grasp the disc with my index and middle finger beneath it and my thumb on top, and flick my wrist inwards.

I apologise to Duncan when my cack-handed attempts send the disc any which way but his.

Before I can even break a sweat, the session is interrupted by an unexpected flurry of snowfall. While we trudge on bravely, it’s soon decided that the pub would be a safer bet.

“When you start, it feels really dodgy,” says Sarah. “But when you learn to play, it feels so good. You want to do it again and again.”

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