x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Ultimate Frisbee: More than just a flick of the wrist

The game, which started in New Jersey in 1968, is taking the capital by storm.

Participants of an ultimate frisbee league play a final game at the American Community School in Abu Dhabi.
Participants of an ultimate frisbee league play a final game at the American Community School in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // The appeal of Ultimate Frisbee is not immediately apparent to all.

The fast-paced and high-flying game, known commonly as Ultimate, takes some getting used to.

Sustained running with short but intense periods of sprinting, strange insider lingo and complex strategies combine to make this staple of North American university campuses an oddity to the beginner.

"In general, people who play this game are tuned differently," says Brady Smith, a Seattle native who began playing Ultimate in the capital last summer.

"Yes, it's a really great workout first of all, but really it's about a great group of people you play with."

The words "community" and "camaraderie" are used often by die-hard Ultimate players who gather at least once a week, even during the hot and humid summer months.

The game, which started in New Jersey in 1968 and was long regarded as the activity of preference for hippies, is governed by a goodwill concept called Spirit of the Game.

There are no referees and any fouls or contested calls on the field usually result in a repeat of play.

"Sometimes when you play a sport, things can get really heated," says Ryan Schaben, a teacher and 13-year veteran of the sport, who began playing in Abu Dhabi last year.

"The great thing about Ultimate is you go out and play hard, but you're not a jerk about it. And when you're done you circle up and you say, 'you did a good job. Great game'."

Part football, part gridiron, Ultimate attracts the uber-athletic and non-competitive alike.

The Abu Dhabi Ultimate Association boasts its fair share of marathon runners, triathletes and extreme-sports enthusiasts, but just as many of its members do not have a background in team sports.

What sets the game apart, players say, is that it welcomes those of all skill levels.

"The community is constantly evolving and growing," says Frances McNally, a teacher who had never played Ultimate before she joined the Abu Dhabi team two years ago.

"It changes, so consequently so does our game. It keeps the game interesting. When I started I had zero skills, but as I continued to play people helped me and now I'm that person who helps other people."

The team holds league matches every week over two four-week "seasons" a year, clinics for women, tournaments inside and outside the country, and weekly games where new players can take part.

Until next month, players meet at the newly refurbished synthetic grass pitch at the American Community School, but the game moves indoors for the hottest months.

Steve Hector is an avid runner who has played touch rugby, tennis and squash since moving to the UAE more than three years ago, but he says Ultimate is by far the best workout.

"In the summer you tend to get lazy and unfit," says Mr Hector, a South African human resources manager who travels from Dubai to play.

"Out of all the sports I've done this is the most difficult in terms of fitness. At the end, you're flat-out exhausted and finished. It destroys you, in a good way."

Ultimate pits two seven-player teams - of four men and three women in the most recent round of Abu Dhabi games - against each other.

Players move down the field throwing the disc to each other, but once they have possession they cannot run and have 10 seconds to throw.

If the disc is dropped or intercepted, the opposing side gains possession and the attackers becomes the defenders. Points are scored by catching the disc over the line defended by the opposition.

Pitch-long passes, diving catches and leaps over other players to block a pass are not uncommon, and the direction of play can change at any moment, sending players sprinting from one end of the field to the other.

"Ultimate definitely makes you realise how much you are not in shape," says Cass O'Rear, a property agent from Texas.

Athletic prowess aside, the Abu Dhabi league's appeal is as much tied up in its members as the game.

"I rarely meet a player I don't like right away," says June Ng, a five-year veteran of the Ultimate who moved back to New York in the spring.

"You can play the game almost anywhere now, but you do miss the team and the community you leave behind."


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