High Tide’s Mission Is To Grow Ultimate And Christianity Over Spring Break. Can It Do Both?

This week marks the fourth and final week of High Tide 2015. Is it more than just a party tournament?

High Tide 2015What scene would your average American college student describe if you asked for 100 words on what happens on Spring Break? There’s some sort of trip, often to somewhere warm with a beach, and the rest is shrouded a haze of used solo cups, an increase in the frequency of public nudity, and the frantic swiffering of floors at the end of the week in the hopes that some of the deposit on the house is coming back.

That doesn’t describe everyone, but for many ultimate players on the east coast and in the midwest, that about sums up a trip to High Tide. As of the end of this week, two decades worth of ultimate players will have toughed out epic road trips to reach destinations like Tybee, Jekyll, and St. Simon’s islands in Georgia, and most recently South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach. It’s the double happiness of college ultimate: a week’s worth of debauched beach living and four days of ultimate in climate likely more palatable than the one left behind.

High Tide is everything to teams that are looking to bond and get better –it’s an unmissable opportunity to play and experience the sheer joy and independence of collegiate spring break. Team leaderships are staked and solidified on successful execution of the trip, rookies finally get nicknames, and too many people have too many stories about the swag they bought at South of the Border during a feverish escape from a smelly car. Instant memories.

Danny Paoletti, a graduate of University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and a multi-year High Tide attendee, elaborated on the tournament’s allure: “I don’t think any of us expected to have a typical college spring break experience in our lives.” He was quick to mention as well the undeniable value of the trip, both low in cost and high in playing value. “…one of the first things I would tell a person if they were even a little serious about playing ultimate, is that it’s an entire week of ultimate, in a condition that [a lot of teams] don’t get. Even sectionals isn’t necessarily going to be on the most pristine fields and it is a great experience to go down…to play on nice fields, rough full-sized fields, in great weather –it’s a rare experience.”

“That’s  when I connected with everyone, the first year I started playing,” said Brett Youngerman, a Goucher College alum who went to High Tide each year of his college ultimate career. “It was the moment I said that I wanted to keep doing it.”

Of course, the formative experiences aren’t limited to the tournament itself. “A lot of the memories are from drunken escapades. Running around on the beach, running away from cops because we had started bonfires…” Youngerman said before he trailed off a little, his silence acknowledging the wild stories that High Tide attendees share across decades.

Though it is already unique for offering of such a large quantity of ultimate, a defining characteristic of High Tide is the very nature of occurring during spring break, a major time for young adults to relieve stress and push boundaries. That sheer joy and independence I mentioned? It’s something that many students seek and relish. As Paoletti put it, “Definitely the trite stuff, you know? Like independence. Being several states away and roaming the streets of St. Simons Island or wherever we were at the time was something I was craving at the time.”

Becoming a better player, bonfires on the beach, night-long parties — High Tide promises all of these opportunities to the young college player. But alongside that, the tournament offers something entirely unexpected for a different set of college students: a spring break mission trip.

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High Tide got its start in 1995 as the brainchild of Ed and Cathy Pulkinen, who played club ultimate at the time in Savannah, GA. Players who attended during the first decade will remember the tournament taking place in the jaw-dropping greens of Savannah’s Forsythe Park, itself a diamond among the other riches that make Savannah and its Spanish moss-lined streets a jewel of the American South.

The tournament’s proximity to Tybee Island, a popular Georgia getaway no more than half an hour from Savannah’s famous River Street and its legendary St. Patrick’s day celebration, quickly transformed High Tide into a destination tournament. Tybee offered quaint and affordable rentals both on and near the beach, most of which offered out of season rates during the month of March to teams cramming twice the stated occupancy rate into small bedrooms. The close proximity with friends, four days of competition, topped off with grilling and a walk on the beach every night? It was and is the average college ultimate player’s godfather offer for spring break. Combine all that with the community’s ability to promote via word of mouth and the growth of the tournament over its first decade explains itself.

And at first, High Tide lacked its mission-trip component. “I started High Tide as someone who was a non-believer,” said Ed Pulkinen at the close of Week 3 this year. “I had the intentions of having High Tide as a place that you could come and you could party, and play ultimate.”

By 2009, the Pulkinens had already been offering multiple weeks of High Tide to cater to varied break schedules for colleges anywhere within 20 hours of driving for over a decade. Demand for housing and field space had increased, while the ultimate players’ welcome on Tybee had begun to wear down. Ed Pulkinen found the tournament a new home another hour and a half further south, on Jekyll and St. Simon’s islands, with adequate field space just across the marshes on the mainland in Brunswick, GA.

Weathering Jekyll’s stricter code for acceptable behavior and playing to St. Simons larger size, High Tide persisted and grew in the Brunswick area, bringing in large cash influxes to the area’s supermarkets and liquor stores. From 2009-2014, High Tide acted as a boon to Brunswick, the isles, and Glynn County.

north myrtle beach
North Myrtle Beach.

Bursting at the seams in size (and with bid fees climbing to $500 per team), the Pulkinen’s moved High Tide to North Myrtle Beach for 2015, an area fully prepared for the antics of Spring Break and offering even more affordable housing for ultimate teams in search of a good time. “North Myrtle Beach is probably 75-80% focused on tourism. St. Simons is probably 25-30%. It’s a little bit different kind of community,” Ed explained. Week three played host to 96 teams in three divisions this year, none of whom will be featured at Division I Championships this year. High Tide became a destination for the every-team.

High Tide’s steady success was an encouraging sign to its organizers, who ,toward the end of the last decade, branded themselves as Disc-iple Sports, the organization that continues to deliver High Tide today. While revenue was increasing, so was the opportunity for Disc-iple to bring young christians to the fields who would “share the love of Jesus with [ultimate players] through service and outreach.”1 During the tournament’s stay in Brunswick, Ed, Cathy, and Doug Pierce (Director of Field Operations), began to grow High Tide as a mission opportunity. It started with adding a bye.

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For those who attended High Tide in earlier days, the Disc-iple mission likely operated entirely in the background. Teams arrived at the fields for the day, played their three games, and promptly left for food and fun in the sun. There were hints of a faith-based component, but nothing available to the masses of players.

“I didn’t have relationships with people and we weren’t able to dig a little bit deeper to say that we can have someone here for you if you’re going through some stress…whatever it may be. We couldn’t make ourselves available,” Pulkinen explained. The tournament format didn’t allow Disc-iple staff or volunteers to interact with players. If players were going to know about High Tide’s religious component, they would have only heard about it through Mr. Pulkinen’s welcome speech, traditionally occurring at the captains’ meeting over dinner after Monday’s raucous hat tournament.

Players who saw the tournament shift southward to Brunswick also saw the introduction of byes into team schedules, which appeared along with apparel sponsorship, food and shelter at the fields, and increased involvement from the Disc-iple staff. Where Week 3 (traditionally High Tide’s biggest week) players in 2008 had a Pita Pit and a Wal-Mart nearby the cow fields outside of Savannah, players in Brunswick benefitted from food at the fields, official tournament sponsorship (first from Spin Ultimate, and later Savage), and a growing staff of young volunteers who eagerly grabbed water bottles and filled them for thirsty teams without asking.

“There was a need that we had and not only were we blessed by having that need filled with people coming and serving, it actually benefitted us revenue-wise…but it wasn’t [us looking to pull in more revenue streams], it was just an added blessing to what we had,” Pulkinen said about adding vendors along with bye-rounds. He and his wife knew that needs for food, ice, and shelter would have to be provided if they planned to keep players at the fields longer to interact with staff; what players saw as a logical addition to High Tide for their comfort arrived first and foremost to allow Disc-iple volunteers to build better relationships with players.

Still, as the volunteer presence increased and the Disc-iple mission at High Tide grew both in size and structure, the message didn’t get much louder. “I can’t say that I took anything in particular away about their mission. They were not very into talking about it apart from the [hat tournament],” Paoletti told me while reflecting on his three-plus years of attendance. Youngerman added similar thoughts, saying that he “pretty much forgot” about High Tide’s ministry every year until he arrived again.

“We don’t hide anything, by any means. You can find it,” said Pulkinen. Though Disc-iple’s purpose is clear according to its website, the mission remains a side note for many players, pretty much by Pulkinen’s own design.

*

Disc-Iple
Disc-Iple.

The Disc-iple style of ministry stems from Ed Pulkinen’s own experience and challenges working as the Coastal Georgia Area Director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. As we discussed the difficult nature of bringing christian values to a tournament notorious for its debauchery and hedonism, Pulkinen was very open about the conflicting visions of High Tide: a spring break mission looking to share a love of Christ, with a rambunctious tournament full of experimenting college students.

“I went through a time where I was in professional ministry, where I was challenged with ‘you can’t do this because you’re representing our ministry’,” Pulkinen explained. The behavior of High Tide’s college athletes was not the kind of environment for FCA ministry, but Pulkinen’s vision remained clear. “If someone is going to look at me and say, well why are you doing this? I’m doing this because I believe that’s what I’m called to do…There are people who are going through what I’ve gone through,” he said.

At the time, Pulkinen told me, the ministry was asking him to benchmark success in a way that he couldn’t agree with. “What I didn’t like about occupational ministry was that they tried to measure something that it’s almost immeasurable: they would try to measure the transformation of someone’s heart. And that’s like…how do you do that?”

Pulkinen, his wife Cathy, and Pierce had a different vision for their own ministry, one that they hoped would invite players’ curiosity and openness by training volunteers to essentially pay it forward. “We certainly want to have a presence and we want people to know what we’re about. At the same time, that presence and what we’re about should be more in our actions than wearing a t-shirt or claiming a mantra,” said Pulkinen.

Work with the FCA ended for Pulkinen in 2012, and the Disc-iple ministry was free to measure success at High Tide without pressure from a larger organization. Mission teams attending High Tide in 2015 and beyond would benefit from a full week of faith-based activities, starting with a training and then playing in the week’s kickoff hat tournament.2 The tournament is specifically excited to welcome experienced players who will also willingly share their faith. Disc-iple hopes that those players would lead by example, and encourage organic conversations about faith with other players through both their athleticism on the field and their acts of service off it. According to Pulkinen, it would sound something like this:

“The thing that we hope for with our volunteers is not that they walk over to someone and say, ‘Hey I’m a Christian, let me tell you about my life.’ What we’re hoping for is someone who says to a player, ‘I’ve been watching you and I saw you play earlier, and now you’re standing over at the water station and you’re getting other people’s water and you’re bringing it back to the sidelines. Why are you doing that? No one ever does that for us at any tournament…do you work here?’ That’s what we hope for.”

The tournament appears more concerned with fostering a welcoming and respectful environment that would allow for those conversations to occur, a model that differentiates itself somewhat from Pulkinen’s description of the FCA, than it is about appearing to proselytize.

Success for High Tide, then, is measured in two ways: growth of the tournament in teams and growth of volunteers. According to Pulkinen, on a goal of 10% growth for the former in 2015, High Tide exceeded that, growing closer to 12 or 13%. On the volunteer front? The goal for 2015 was 100%. “We severely failed in our growth for volunteers. I think it was the nature of the move,” Pulkinen shared. After moving the tournament to North Myrtle Beach, Disc-iple is working to build relationships with new volunteer pools in new territory.

*

The Pulkinens come from an ultimate background, and when I asked Ed about the perceived conflict between his faith-based values and the partying at High Tide, particularly the excessive use of alcohol, he was both forgiving and undeterred.

Though he’s seen his fair share of young athletes suffering from too many drinks and too much time in the sun, he maintains that the tournament itself can allow for growth from those mistakes. He’s watched captains hold sloshed freshmen accountable, reminding them that their behavior is representative not just of themselves, but of their teams, their schools, and often their parents who’ve put up money to send their players on spring break.

The challenge of continuing to operate a faith-based ministry at High Tide for Disc-iple lays elsewhere.

“The hardest thing about leading an ultimate centered sports ministry is that I think the ultimate community, while very accepting of a lot of things, really looks at Christianity as something that is,” Pulkinen paused. “…[the community] is not open to acceptance or is unaccepting. I hope I can break that barrier down a little bit.”

Disc-iple aims to continue to shape the High Tide environment so that relationships can form between players and volunteers, and that some will start to do both. Pulkinen acknowledged that some players will choose to keep their faith to themselves, and believes that some of the barrier involves a fear of offending a teammate or damaging a relationship. “I think there’s a place for both and it doesn’t need to be heavy-handed. It can be one of those things where you just live it out,” he offered.

*

While faith certainly doesn’t top the list of discussions among many ultimate teams, the players I spoke to were less sure, if not skeptical, that it was something particular about the sport’s community that was unaccepting.

“Well, for one thing, practicing faith and playing ultimate is tricky,” said Jon Pressimone3, a youth minister for the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the Baltimore area. Pressimone, who returns in 2015 for a third season with the AUDL’s DC Breeze, has been a practicing Catholic all his life and an ultimate player since college at Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland. “I think that the way ultimate is set up, it’s hard to have both at the same time,” he suggested.

Pressimone’s faith and his chosen sport aren’t necessarily at odds with each other, but he detailed the challenges of finding a time and a place to fit in worship while away all weekend with the Breeze or a club team. “Games are always on the weekends, which is also when Church is. So either I’m getting up really early to go to Mass in the morning before Sunday play, or trying to go Saturday night after playing all day… usually without enough time to shower or eat first,” he told me. His many teammates, however, have yet to add to any sort of barrier.

“I think ultimate players are really accepting, and also really diverse,” Pressimone said. “There’s a slight stigma that says people who are strong in faith are usually closed-minded about other things. So some people are more hesitant to be accepting of faith in the fear that their lifestyle, whether it’s partying, or LGBT, or drugs or even just skipping Church on Sunday, is being judged by people of faith who play.”

To Paoletti, who is not religious, that stigma or resistance to sharing faith spoke much more about college students in general than it did about college ultimate players specifically. “In my direct experience at UMBC, there were several guys [on the ultimate team] who seemed a little bit nervous to tell us that they were Christians, but I could never tell particularly why except perhaps that the experience of being in the university as a whole may have soured them on telling people in general,” he recalled. To Paoletti’s knowledge, no teammate had been ostracized or made to feel guilty about missing games for worship at UMBC’s ultimate program during his tenure.

On the contrary, Paoletti offered his own thoughts on the challenges presented by High Tide’s faith-based activities. Even though Disc-iple volunteers are brought to the fields hoping for organic conversations to occur without any sort of prescribed activities, Paoletti didn’t like the framework for the missionary activities, which likens a field of ultimate players to one “ripe for harvest”.4

“It implies that [the volunteers] are beyond such a conversion,” he said. “That being around us [the ultimate players] doing our thing, that they have no particular desire to engage with us in a way where they might also change. Like, what if we thought what we were doing was godly? For me, that’s antithetical to the idea of engaging with actual humans. This brand of engagement feels very one-sided.”

Though the comparison may seem outlandish at first, it’s not entirely out the question to compare the fervent pursuit of more ultimate, practicing, and training to the rituals of organized religion. And giving a lot of one’s time to the two can become complicated. Though the line is mostly clear for Pressimone, he said that it blurs at times. “In my life at least, they’re both very important aspects that are simultaneously separate and commingled,” he said. “The way we practice and dedicate our time, energy, money, and flesh to the sport is definitely showing a kind of allegiance. There’s a thin line that I’m sure I’ve crossed a time or two, where I put too much into ultimate and not enough into faith.”

But Pressimone’s experience in the ultimate community is an emboldening one, and suggested less of a barrier than the one perceived by Pulkinen. “I’ve gotten as many ultimate people to go to church with me as I have gotten church people to play ultimate,” he said.

Both ministers in their sects, Pressimone and Pulkinen shared many consistencies in their approach to sharing faith with others. They each held actions and deeds in greater value than words, and connect that behavior deeply with ultimate’s Spirt of the Game. “I think a better way to share a person’s faith isn’t by telling them about it and hoping they listen, but rather to live in a certain manner. Play fair, be nice, help others who need it. If they happen to ask me why I’m doing things that way, then I might have an opportunity to talk about my faith…” said Pressimone.

*

In the end, what sticks out are the circumstances. As Pressimone pointed out, at the basic level, ultimate and faith can conflict in scheduling, and dedication to one can occasionally take time or participation away from the other. For now, High Tide will continue to play host to growing crowds of players and volunteers, though the former will — at least in the near future — continue to far outnumber the latter, and serve as the main revenue stream for the tournament and Disc-iple. And of course, the value systems will continue to diverge in many aspects.

Ultimate players will be flanked by willing volunteers in North Myrtle Beach for years to come, though High Tide’s mission, with its non-confrontational style, may be drowned out by the spring break bacchanalia. The priorities for Youngerman were clear: “Most people go to High Tide to party and play ultimate as a very close second.”

It’s an environment that’s big enough, and accepting enough, to let the volunteer ministry continue to grow while players continue to flock to a tournament that has gained legacy status in the sport’s short history. The question that remains is whether the two will ever begin to mix beyond their current level, or if the ministry’s mission will be swept away each year by the tide.


  1. http://disc-iple.com/spring-break-mission-trips 

  2. Check out the full list of mission activities here

  3. Pressimone told me at the beginning of our interview that, at age 28, he has yet to attend a week of High Tide. 

  4. This verbiage came both from my conversation with Ed Pulkinen and the website; see http://disc-iple.com and the above banner image. 

  1. Simon Pollock
    Simon Pollock

    Simon Pollock is a Contributing Editor at Ultiworld. He lives in Seattle and started writing for the site in 2014 while living in Baltimore, MD. Email him: simon@ultiworld.com or tweet at him: @_simonpollock_ .

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