BY KATIE HOOS
This isn’t your hippie father’s game of Frisbee.
Constant on-field sprinting, tight defense and diving catches make up the game of Ultimate Frisbee, a rigorous sport played by two teams with a flying disc that blends the constant movement of soccer with the aerial passing abilities needed for football.
Ultimate has gained worldwide attention in recent years and is increasingly becoming more popular in the Westchester area with the number of players in the county’s only ultimate league—run by Westchester Ultimate Disc, Inc., or WUDI, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting ultimate in the New York metro area—increasing to nearly 500 participants this year.
For its group of devoted followers, Westchester’s ultimate league reigns supreme, with its competitive grit and inviting social atmosphere drawing in a diverse crowd of athletes ranging from novice high schoolers to more experienced middle-age professionals.
Founded in 1968 in Maplewood, N.J., by Joel Silver, Bernard Hellring and Jonathan Hines after experimenting while throwing around a Frisbee, ultimate is a transitional sport like soccer or basketball and is typically played seven-on-seven on a large field.
The Frisbee must be thrown from player to player and, if it lands out of bounds or touches the ground, whether from a dropped pass, defender intervention, or poor throw, the defense takes possession and becomes the offense. Points are scored by passing the Frisbee until it is caught in the opposing team’s end zone. Each score, or goal, is worth one point. The game is usually played until a team reaches either 13 or 15 points, depending on the type of ultimate league, and if neither team reaches the point limit by 90 minutes, an additional overtime period is played.
Ultimate is governed by a tradition known as spirit of the game, which places the responsibility for determining fair play on the players, rather than referees, leaving the players to handle disputes themselves. Only in U.S. professional leagues are the games refereed.
Traditionally viewed as a laid-back game for the college co-ed counterculture, ultimate has recently garnered attention in the sports world and is no longer an amateur affair.
The sport has grown to include high school, college, recreational and club divisions across the world, and the creation of the American Ultimate Disc League and Major League Ultimate—North America’s semi-professional leagues—in 2012 brought the sport into the professional sphere.
According to USA Ultimate, the game’s national governing body, an estimated 7 million people play the sport in more than 80 countries worldwide. As of 2013, the American Ultimate Disc League estimated 5.1 million people play ultimate in the U.S., a 27 percent increase since 2008.
“The sense of community and spirit of the game, almost above the athleticism, is a big part of why ultimate is a great sport and is growing at an incredibly rapid pace,” Ashley Snyder, secretary for the Westchester Ultimate Disc executive board, said. “Ultimate is a great activity, a good workout and a great way to get outside.”
Indulging the area’s interest in the sport, WUDI, was founded in 1983 with four teams by local college captains from SUNY Purchase and today attracts players from Westchester and Rockland counties, Fairfield County in Connecticut, New York City, Long Island and northern New Jersey.
According to Seth Canetti, WUDI’s Executive Director, the league has a carried a good reputation since its creation.
“The league’s reputation grew due to the high level of competition and spirit, as well as the high quality fields, and began to draw more players,” he said. “Many of the players from NYC’s elite club team that won five straight national championships from 1989 to 1993 participated in the league.”
WUDI organizes three leagues for summer play; the open league is an all-male league, the co-ed league allows men and women to play together, and the recreational league is predominately a teaching league for beginners.
“It’s really the best, highest-level league in the area,” Snyder said. “I think it’s the players we draw. Having players in the area from high-level college teams and the caliber of the players make it a competitive league. Then there’s the social aspect. Everyone hangs out and grills after games, so that draws a crowd.”
According to Snyder, the majority of WUDI athletes are between 20 and 35 years old, but range from 14 to 55 years old, with the population of high school students growing every year.
“We send emails to local colleges and high school coaches and have a Twitter and Facebook to build up the population,” she said. “But the [open league] spots fill up pretty quickly because so many returning men want to play.”
John Walsh, 24, began playing ultimate during his freshman year of college at the University of Delaware and has played with WUDI for the past six years. The Ardsley resident, who is also the coordinator of the Westchester organization’s open league and a team captain, said the league’s community atmosphere is one of its most attractive features.
“It is sort of interesting to play for a summer league as compared to college club teams, because the focus in my college team was on competition and winning,” he said. “But you come to WUDI and you take the time to get to know people in the ultimate community. The people in the league and the quality of play is such that it makes for a good league atmosphere.”
Mount Vernon resident Conor McKoy, 20, said he decided to play with WUDI last year to keep up on his skills over summer break from college.
“The best part of WUDI is that it’s a weekly thing,” McKoy, a summer intern with the Review, said. “I get to go out and play ultimate two times a week, so it gives me the chance to be active instead of sitting around. And I love that I get to meet other people in the community that also like playing ultimate.”
The junior at Elon University in North Carolina said it was the simplicity of the sport that attracted him to begin playing in college.
“All you need is a Frisbee and cleats,” he said, adding the game is fairly easy to learn. “I picked it up my freshman year of college and people are picking it up after college. You’re never too old or too young to get started.”
WUDI teams play Monday, Wednesday and Thursday nights on the SUNY Purchase campus in Harrison beginning at the end of May and lasting until the first week in August.