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.

Yorktown players Michael Lesmez (with disc) and Aidan Hessler. Photo by Kevin Wolf

As one might expect with a relatively new sport, many of the best players come to the game with experience in other athletic genres. “Tennis helped my coordination. I learned that you have to practice the tiny detailed movements so that a whole motion can improve,” says Rachel Hess, who captained both the Washington-Lee team and Y-Lee (a combined team of Yorktown and Washington-Lee players) and now plays at the University of Oregon. “Also, learning to anticipate the position of the tennis ball on the court helped me to figure out where and when I needed to cut [see glossary] in ultimate.”

At the same time, ultimate devotees are quick to tout the differences that set their passion apart from other competitive sports. Chief among them is the fact that the game is self-officiated—a convention that “teaches its players conflict resolution and decision-making skills,” notes Debbie DeFranco, Arlington Public Schools’ supervisor of health, physical and driver education and athletics.

“By having to make their own calls, kids learn to take responsibility not only for knowing the rules and judging when to make those calls but also to respect the calls of their opponents and come to peaceful resolutions,” says A.J. Goodman, coach of the Washington-Lee boys ultimate team. “The result is a level of sportsmanship unlike any other sport I have witnessed or participated in.”

And whereas other sports tend to reward specialization—consider baseball, where pitchers are not expected to contribute offensively, or football, in which offensive linemen need never develop pass-catching skills—ultimate players must be skilled in all aspects of the game. There is no running with the disc (advancement occurs only via passing and catching), so there is no hot-dogging. Great individual players don’t win games unless they play unselfishly and are surrounded by teammates who do the same.

Washington-Lee’s Beau De Konick (in white) and Yorktown’s Markus Wolf. Photo by Kevin Wolf

Arlington has quickly emerged as an ultimate powerhouse. Arlington schools dominated the Virginia state championships in May, with H-B Woodlawn, Washington-Lee and Yorktown finishing first, second, and third, respectively, in both the boys’ and girls’ competitions. The Y-Lee girls team brought home state titles in 2015 and 2016, as did the Yorktown boys in 2015 and the H-B Woodlawn boys in 2016.

In June, Arlington sent two girls teams (H-B Woodlawn and Y-Lee) and one boys team (Yorktown) to the inaugural High School National Invite tournament in Rockford, Illinois, with H-B Woodlawn’s girls squad bringing home a title after defeating a team from Seattle.

Former Arlington high school players have gone on to compete for college and pro teams as well as the U.S. national team. What’s the next frontier? Likely the world stage. The International Olympic Committee has approved ultimate as an Olympic sport, beginning in the 2024 games.

As in all sports, ultimate has its thrilling moments—“the adrenaline that comes from sprinting full speed and diving to catch a disc in the end zone for a goal,” says YULA commissioner Dan Juengst. But ask players, coaches and parents what they love most about the game, and the conversation inevitably turns back to its culture.

“[Ultimate] provides endless opportunities for exciting plays and doesn’t damage your brain,” says Yorktown graduate Jenny Fey, now a member of the U.S. national team. “The culture of the sport promotes integrity and fairness; the flight of the disc is simply beautiful to watch. And, maybe my favorite part—you have to use teamwork to score since you can’t move with the disc.”

Says school board chair Barbara Kanninen, the parent of two ultimate players: “[Ultimate] nurtures students beyond just providing physical activity. It builds up the whole child.”

YULA executive director Soles waxes a bit more poetic. “Humans yearn to fly,” he says. “Ultimate allows that, if only for that brief moment when you hurl yourself through the air after a disc—in ultimate vernacular, a layout.”


H-B Woodlawn’s Maya Nir (white jersey, center). Photo by Kevin Wolf

Rules of Engagement

  • Ultimate combines the skills of numerous sports—the aerial accuracy and pass catching skills of American football; the speed and stamina of soccer; and the leaping ability and defensive skills of basketball.
  • Ultimate is strictly a “no-contact” sport. Running into an opponent or grabbing the disc out of an offensive player’s hand are penalties.
  • Played on a 70-by-40-yard field with two 25-yard-long end zones and seven players on a side, the objective of ultimate is to move the disc down the field into the opponents’ end zone. The disc may be moved through the air only. Players cannot run with the disc and must keep one foot anchored when possessing it.
  • Upon possession, the offense has 10 seconds to pass; that count is kept by the defending team. Possession switches to the defending team in the event of an incomplete or intercepted pass, a pass that sails out of bounds or a player who holds the disc for more than 10 seconds.
  • Ultimate has no referees. Rulings are made on the field by the players themselves. (In extreme cases where a disagreement cannot be resolved, the disputed action is replayed.)
  • In a nod to the sport’s hippie origins, players commit to abide by “the spirit of the game,” a mutual agreement that honesty, civility and respect for one’s opponent will guide the action on the field. After a highly competitive game, both teams embrace in a “spirit circle” and talk about the game and the key moments and players.

An Ultimate Glossary

Like most sports, ultimate has a language all its own. Here are some core terms:

Bid – an impressive effort to block or catch the disc, usually when laying out

Bookend – when the same player successfully defends the disc and then scores on the ensuing possession

Brick – a pull that lands out of bounds without being touched by the receiving team

Cut – a sudden run or change in direction in an attempt to get open for a pass

Hack – a foul

Handler – the player in possession of the disc

Huck – a long throw covering half the length of the field or more

Layout – launching one’s body horizontally through the air in an attempt to catch or defend the disc

Mark – defending an offensive player by standing between that player and potential targets while waving one’s arms and legs. (Also: the person doing the defending.)

Pull – a long throw to the opposing team that initiates play (analogous to a kickoff in American football)

Sky – catching the disc by jumping significantly higher than any other player

Stall count – a 10 count, kept by the defending team, beginning when the handler gains possession of the disc. (If the handler is still in possession at the end of the count, the result is a turn.)

Turn – short for “turnover,” a play resulting in possession of the disc reverting to the defending team

Rick Schadelbauer is an Arlington-based writer who—despite years of trying—still can’t toss a Frisbee without it hooking hard to the left. He wrote about the connection between music and memory in the March/April issue.

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