In Arlington, Ultimate Frisbee is Flying High

An inside look at the county's fastest growing sport.

Yorktown High School’s Ben Preiss (white jersey) “skies” the opposing team. Photo by Kevin Wolf

It all started with a pie tin. In the early part of the 20th century, some clever souls discovered that inverting an empty pie tin (such as those manufactured by the Frisbie Pie Co.) and tossing it with a flick of the wrist caused it to fly gracefully through the air. Recognizing an opportunity to cash in on the fad, toy manufacturer Wham-O mass-produced a plastic version of the flying pie tin, dubbing its product “Frisbee”—the slight spelling variance a safeguard against any potential trademark problems.

The flying disc remained largely a child’s toy until the mid-1960s, when college students developed a Frisbee-centered game that combined elements of football, soccer and basketball. Eventually, students at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, refined the game, and in 1970 they competed in the first interscholastic match, defeating Millburn High School 43-10. A new sport was born: Ultimate Frisbee or, more simply, ultimate.

Fast-forward to today and ultimate has continued to gain ground. In 2015, the sport claimed more than a million “core players,” according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (core players defined as those who played the sport 13 or more times in the course of the year). It’s especially popular in the place we call home. In August 2016 the Arlington School Board voted to make ultimate an official school sport for middle and high school students. Play began last fall, with more than 200 high school players and 100 middle school players coming out for the inaugural season.

H-B Woodlawn player Caroline Tornquist. Photo by Kevin Wolf

Many Arlington teens also participate in league play sponsored by the Youth Ultimate League of Arlington (YULA), a club league founded in 2012 that maintains a weekend game schedule in the fall, provides conditioning in winter and sponsors more competitive play and tournaments come spring. The league’s rosters include some 400 13- to 18-year-olds, according to YULA executive director Dave Soles. “Our participation rate is 60 times the national average,” he says. YULA also occasionally runs clinics in Arlington elementary schools.

“Participating in YULA has meant everything to me,” says Jonny Malks, a Yorktown High School graduate who now plays for DC Breeze, the local pro team in the American Ultimate Disc League. “My last five years in the program prepared me to compete in college, club and pro games by offering me access to some of the greatest ultimate mentors around.”

Fairfax Ultimate coordinates similar league play and tournaments for youth and adults in Fairfax County, including players in Falls Church and McLean. Soles estimates that there are now more than 20 high school or youth club teams in the state of Virginia.

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