A chronological account of one of the craziest World Championship days ever.
July 31, 2018 by Tim Schoch in News with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2018 WFDF World Ultimate Club Championships is presented by VC Ultimate; all opinions are those of the authors. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at VC Ultimate!
The World Flying Disc Federation 2018 World Ultimate Club Championships may have been the most well-run world championship event in ultimate history. Fields were properly lined and well maintained. Golf carts were constantly swarming the fields, bringing water to field sites and escorting fans across the 29 fields. Scorekeepers and stat-takers had an app that allowed them to live-report games online. There were hundreds of volunteers smoothly working together under the leadership of experienced tournament director Dale Wilker along with the rest of the Tournament Organizing Committee and the WFDF staff. Everything was going so well that when the sun set on Thursday night, with four teams still alive for a title in each division, we were two clear sky days away from an article, already in the planning stages, titled “The Best Run Tournament Ever.”
But it wouldn’t be that easy.
In only a few hours, the overwhelming excitement for the star-studded semifinal matchups, energy that had precipitated from exciting quarterfinal rounds in each division, turned to nervous anticipation.
Lightning in the area and a tornado warning across the county had stopped play in the middle of the semifinals, and, with purple and orange lighting up the radar for the rest of Friday and into Saturday, it looked likely that there would be no way to finish the games outside.
This is the story of how crisis was averted and of the efforts of hundreds of WFDF, USAU, Ultiworld, and Fulcrum personnel who pulled off one of the craziest nights in ultimate history and of the players and coaches who lived through it all. This is an hour-by-hour retelling of that lightning delay, from the first signs of trouble that morning to the moment when the first indoor pull in WUCC history sailed from endzone to endzone.
Welcome to Plan Q.
7:11 AM: WFDF sends out their first of many logistical tweets that they will be sending out via the WUCC 2018 and WFDF twitter accounts. Thunderstorms are in the immediate area, and ground transportation will be suspended until the storm cell passes.
On the ground at the Lebanon Sports Complex, the TOC is monitoring the weather closely. Player safety is of the utmost concern and is something that every WFDF official I spoke with reiterated after the fact. So much so that all week long the TOC has been using “a mobile command center from the local law enforcement officials with an actual live Doppler radar capacity,” according to Tim Rockwood, WFDF Managing Director of Broadcasting and Marketing. It is a million dollar truck with “very sophisticated detection, surveillance, and weather monitoring equipment.” He says, “it was deployed the entire tournament,” but that this was the first time it was needed to make decisions regarding weather safety.
Another tweet 40 minutes later states that first round games, including all of the semifinals, are postponed. All volunteers are asked to stay home until the ‘all clear’ is given. There is no firm plan for a start time, but teams, fans, volunteers, and media personnel are told to keep checking their emails and the official social media accounts.
The decision-making is left up to the TOC, the WFDF Ultimate Committee, and select officials including Reuben Berg, head game advisor. These are the people who have been developed contingency plans specifically for these scenarios. WFDF President Robert “Nob” Rauch has had complete trust in this team from the beginning because, as he says, they are “the people who know how to make those hard triage decisions.”
Rockwood explains the protocol they are using: “We have a rule that if lightning strikes within 10 kilometers (or 6.2 miles), we have to clear the fields immediately.” Per protocol, they will keep teams, fans, and volunteers off the fields for 30 minutes, a timer that resets with each strike. While it is a standard procedure, the TOC is going to follow it religiously. “Safety first is basically a cliché but it’s at the heart of what we do,” said Will Deaver, the head of Competition Programs at USA Ultimate, who is serving in an advisory capacity at WUCC.
A little past 8:00 AM, WFDF releases an updated schedule. The 9:00 AM games will be played at 11:00 AM, save some of the consolation rounds. The radar seems to show a break in the storm long enough to get one round in, but that looks like that will be it and, internally, the TOC is nervously checking their screens. Canceling later consolation rounds will be easy enough, but the semifinal rounds have to be played. A champion in each division must be crowned.
Teams begin to arrive, go through their warm-ups, and, at 11:00 AM, the semifinal rounds begin. The weather is clear, sunny, and humid, but, thankfully, not as suffocatingly hot as in the past days. Grey clouds are on the western horizon, but they are of little concern at this point as the sun is shining down on all of the teams.
The first sign of trouble is the wind.
It picks up slowly at first, but a half an hour into the round, the games have gone completely upwind-downwind.1 The gusts are cold and the temperature begins to drop with the impending cold front and low-pressure area’s approach. The grey clouds are a little closer and a little more ominous above the tree line, but teams don’t notice: they are fighting for their lives.
For the most part, the games are going as expected. Revolver (USA) is up two points on GOAT (CAN) at half, Revolution (COL) and Brute Squad (USA) are trading punches, and Colony (AUS) just got an upwind break on Doublewide (USA) and is pulling downwind to complete the break. The only real surprise is the two mixed games that are in blowout territory at 8-4.
11:52 AM: A singular, droning air horn sounds across the field complex and, after ten straight seconds, makes it clear that games will not be completed then and there. After 50 minutes of play, teams are unhappy with the stoppage and grumble as they meander to their cars. “Where even is the lightning?” I hear one GOAT player wonder.
But even if the players are skeptical of the threat, the TOC’s technology detected a lightning strike within 10 km. They see what teams cannot — a major thunderstorm, small but intense, is almost upon them. The wait time is undetermined.
Rumors pass from car to car and via Twitter that the day at Lebanon Sports Complex might be over. WFDF then confirms that the 11:00 AM consolation games will be considered complete and that the 1 PM games will start as soon as they get the ‘all clear.’ “We had decided that if we got any lightning after 1:00 PM we would consider [the first round of consolation games] to be final and cancel those games,” said Rauch.
The semifinals, though, are still to be played out.
2:00 PM: Without a lightning strike for the past 30 minutes, an all-clear is announced and teams are given the go-ahead to return to the fields and start re-warming up for a 2:30 PM start. But just as teams are halfway through their warmups, another lightning strike in the area forces yet another delay.
“We had seen an opening in the storm that should’ve been about an hour and 15 minutes, but then we watched a new cell developed right on top of us on radar,” said Deaver. “We thought we were going to be able to finish the semifinals but we just didn’t have enough time.”
“Frankly it was a pretty easy call,” said Rockwood, “safety is the paramount concern.”
Deaver remembers there “just being one moment where everyone realized it was actually very dangerous. Even the yahoos playing shirtless soccer in the back corner of the fields suddenly got the hell out of there.”
Teams scatter from the field site, and the Ultiworld, Fulcrum, and Fanseat crews need to decide what to do with all of their streaming equipment. Without a clear plan from WFDF, the three companies are in the dark, unsure if there will be restarted semifinal games to stream and left balancing the threat of an impending thunderstorm cell that had recorded 60 MPH winds and quarter-sized hail just a few miles west with the threat to their personnel of staying and taking down their gear.
After checking the radar on his phone, Charlie Eisenhood, Editor-in-Chief at Ultiworld, decides that the only option is to tear down all of the critical gear—cameras, monitors, and production equipment—before the approaching cell hits Lebanon. Purple is not a color you want to see heading towards you on radar.
In a nervous blur, the Ultiworld staff begins pulling down the cameras off the scaffolding and unclipping the tarps from their posts. “If you don’t need to be on the scaffolding, don’t be,” shouts Eisenhood at one point after a bombing thunderclap. It’s a tense five minutes, but with the efficiency of people running from a storm, we get everything valuable off the structure and loaded into the cars. WFDF Event Manager Karina Woldt zooms by on a golf cart, letting us know that there will be no further games played outside that day.
We leave the hundreds of feet of cabling to be dealt with later, thinking that our day of streaming is over and keeping safe the priority.
Loaded into cars and thus probably safe from whatever apocalypse was approaching, Eisenhood pulls out his phone and starts texting his WFDF contacts, tweeting updates from what he had gotten on record. We learn that the top officials are making calls across the area to find an indoor facility that could host the games for today and tomorrow.
At this point, every option is on the table except for a continuation of games at Lebanon, Rauch remembers. “As we were going through midday talking about contingency plans it was just like ‘this doesn’t look good,’ and when all of a sudden at 3:00, 3:30 in the afternoon, you know, we’re getting another lightning strike,” he said. “We were told there was a tornado warning and it’s like, you know what? You just don’t mess with that and so, it’s like, ok, this is not plan B or C, it’s sort of Plan Q.”
The TOC had anticipated a day of weather like this and had even been in contact with the Wall 2 Wall indoor soccer complex, where the games would eventually end up, during the tournament planning process.
“The tournament organizing committee met with them 6 months ago, but it was plan A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J,” said Rockwood.2 The site was never booked because it could not support the 29 fields the tournament needed, but as a one field, last minute backup, it might just work. Rauch and Rockwood head over to the site hoping to secure it for the night and possibly the next day.
3:40 PM: Driving back to Chez Ultiworld, Charlie gets a call from Rockwood with the news that an indoor alternative has been found. “Get over to Wall2Wall soccer complex,” he says. Charlie pulls over and instructs video director Aidan Shapiro-Leighton to pull up the sports complex address. It’s 15 minutes away, and we’re booking it.
Charlie then calls Joshua Havens of Fulcrum Media, who, with his team, is tearing down their equipment. The back of our SUV has our cameras, mics, and streaming equipment, but we have no cables with which to connect it all—they are still at the fields. Eisenhood asks Havens if the Fulcrum team can pull our cables if it’s safe enough and they are able to. From here on out, it’s a team effort between the two companies.
A few minutes before 4:00 PM, we pull into Wall2Wall. The parking lot is barren, save for a few cars presumably belonging to employees. Inside, Rauch and Rockwood are waiting for us.
They ask the employee behind the desk to get a manager on the phone since we’re about to try to fill this place with a thousand players, fans, media, and volunteers. While Rauch is talking with a manager, the rest of us explore the facility. The turf field is located around the corner from the main lobby, and the only light in the giant warehouse is the glow through the glass wall that stretches half the length of the field. We enter and get to see what we’re working with.
The dark room is cavernous. The turf is short. The pounding rain above is a murmur on the metal roof above us. There are no features or installations that can be used to set up a camera. It’s definitely a big enough venue to fit a nearly full-sized field and has enough space on either side for spectators to be packed into. Then we hear a crash booming from outside. Even indoors, the thunder is deafening, reverberating off of the metal roof.
A few minutes later, Rauch and Rockwood join us on the field and the staff flips the lights. Row after row of fluorescent lighting roars to life. There’s a garage door built into one of the walls and Eisenhood thinks it might be big enough for a scissor lift to fit through, but it’s almost closing time on a Friday afternoon. The longer they wait, the less likely they’ll be able to find a place that will rent them one.
4:08 PM: Eisenhood makes the call and is miraculously able to find an equipment rental store that is willing to drop off on this short of notice, but it’ll need to be placed at 4:30 at the latest. Just before the deadline, at 4:27 PM, Rauch gives Eisenhood the go-ahead to order a scissor lift and 11 minutes later3, the small lift is delivered. This marks the point of the day where, after hours of everything going wrong, things start going right.
By this point, the lobby has filled with WFDF officials trying to make sense of everything. Reuben Berg takes the lead on deciding what the rules of the new venue and the shortened games will be. (Throws that hit the ceiling are determined to be a do-over.) It’s all hands on deck strategizing and moving equipment in. Shapiro-Leighton and I even enlist some of the top officials at WFDF to help us unload our camera and streaming gear.
Deaver and the President of UK Ultimate, Si Hill, take the lead on field setup, and port-a-fields are called in from the Cincinnati Ultimate Players Association. Their first goal is to get a full-sized field, but realizing there is not enough room length-wise they compromise, reducing the endzones to 17 yds each and the playing field proper to 66 yds to give space between the back of the endzone and the walls. In an effort to avoid confusing players, they decide to use existing lines which put the field at just shy of 44 yds wide. The shortened endzones benefit the defense, but the wider field and shorter playing field proper balance that out for the offense.
4:30 PM: In the messy office of this suburban soccer complex, Rauch signs the rental contract for the night and the following day. It’s final: world champions will be decided indoors for the first time ever, in the middle of suburban Cincinnati and 40ft from a batting cage.
It was a tough decision for the TOC to lock in the complex for the finals as well, but looking back on it, WFDF Ultimate Committee chairman Brian Gisel thinks it was the right decision. “For good or bad, once we came into the site, we moved a lot of our logistical equipment in here,” he said. It would have been a tall order to turn around and move the entire set up to Mason High School, the original site of the finals. “At that point, we were all in,” said Gisel. It also made sense because of the intermittent thunderstorms scheduled for the next day.
“We had to be assured that we could get our finals in and Wall2Wall was the only site we could be assured that they would be played,” he said.
Because of the preexisting soccer schedule for the night, there would have to be a break between the men’s and women’s semifinals and the mixed semifinals, and each game would be limited to 20 minutes before a hard cap.
Even though, according to WFDF rules, four of the semifinals could’ve been declared officially over because they’d reached halftime, the TOC decided to extend all six semifinals by an extra 20 minutes. Gisel says that they discussed extending only the two games that did not reach half but wanted to “give everyone an extra 20 minutes, so a total of about 70 minutes, which is very reasonable for a weather delay.”
I later learned that if Revolution and Colony had taken half then likely none of the semifinals would’ve been extended at all.
“I do feel like if we had gotten six of six then we wouldn’t have pushed it,” said Gisel. “[We] probably would’ve been here for finals but we wouldn’t have pushed it for semis.”
The next hour is a blur. The Ultiworld staff now has the singular goal of setting up the live stream in the next two hours. At one point, Charlie turns to me and tells me I better be ready to operate a camera tonight, something I have no experience doing. The TOC needs to get the medical staff set up and make sure there is adequate water and ice for the players. They mobilize their army of volunteers who arrive in waves to bring the supplies, snacks, and meals meant for the final day at the Lebanon sports complex that went uneaten earlier in the day.
The Fulcrum crew arrives and they, along with the Ultiworld video crew, start laying the cables, positioning the cameras, and troubleshooting their livestreaming capabilities. The project is held up by the lack of quality internet in the complex. Earlier plans to have the livestream get set up on the near side of the field were scrapped to allow for the most spectators in the venue. The problem is eventually resolved by using LTE wireless uplink, first from Eisenhood’s cell phone hotspot and then from Fulcrum’s bonded modem.
Shane Schuman, the staffer behind the desk when two random men walked in earlier this afternoon, says that “Fridays are usually an easier day.” Even as someone who has never played ultimate, he says, “It’s pretty exciting. We get pretty busy in the winter, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this.”
5:08 PM: The night’s schedule is set. Revolver and GOAT will lead off the evening at 6:30 PM followed by the other men’s semifinal and then the women’s semifinals. Then the games will pause for two hours as a rec league soccer game takes over the space, even after the TOC offered to buy their time slot from them. The mixed semifinals will finish up the night.
The VC Ultimate and Universe Point cleats employees are already in the lobby of Wall2Wall, ready to sell their merchandise once fans start arriving. They’re moving at the same frantic pace as the media and WFDF staff to make sure they have their inventories stocked.
5:33 PM: Decked out in their fluorescent yellow jerseys still wet with sweat from their game earlier today, Revolver rolls in. Some of the San Francisco players had put their cleats in the fridge hoping to kill some of the smell thinking they weren’t going to play again today. Their coach Martin Cochran tells me that they had heard rumors from Molly Brown that they would be playing later tonight, so they had prepared as a team to retake the field but had only gotten the official word at 5:08 PM when WFDF tweeted the official schedule. In 25 minutes, they mobilized from their hotel.
GOAT’s path to Wall2Wall was less intentional.
Still, GOAT’s coach Sachin Raina tells me that this indoor environment is “[their] element” since they have so much experience playing on turf in the winter. With 30 minutes to game time, the field is set up, the medical team is in place, but the livestream is still getting prepared.
In a lucid moment amongst the chaos, Raina remarks that his players “know they only have to try hard for 20 minutes. The warm-up is going to be longer than the game.” The piece of veteran wisdom often repeated at tournaments that “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” simply does not apply. This is a 100-meter dash, and for the teams who are behind, it’s like they are starting a second behind their opponents.
About five minutes before game time, the WFDF staff open up the doors in the glass wall and let the crowds pour in. Initially, there was some concern that not many spectators would show up because of the last minute announcement, but those concerns evaporated with around 30 minutes to game time. There are at least 1,000 spectators, but some of the estimates from WFDF officials after the fact put the number at 1,500 or even as high as 2,000, well over the 900 person maximum capacity, as listed by the fire department.
6:30 PM: Revolver’s Cassidy Rasmussen takes a few steps back, swings his arm in the air, and releases the first pull WUCC has seen in seven hours. After all the stress, lightning, and miscommunication, the games are off. I had been planning on periscoping the pregame atmosphere of the crowd and the final part of warmups but was urged to continue streaming the game on my phone by the commenters since the livestream wasn’t quite yet working at this point.
An insufficient internet connection keeps the stream down for the first few points, but within a few minutes of further tinkering, the semifinals are livestreaming across the world. Evan Lepler and Ian Toner4 are on the call. The crowd watches and roars as Revolver races to 15 points over GOAT. Colony hangs on and stuns Doublewide on double game point. Revolution jumps further ahead on Brute after a dropped pull and an impossible catch from Laura Ospina and never looks back. And then Riot keeps their hot streak alive, downing Molly Brown.
The WFDF staff rushes onto the field to remove the port-a-field tape from the endzones to make room for the rec league soccer games. It’s a totally bizarre scene—Ultiworld, Fulcrum, and WFDF staff watch the terrible soccer that is being played and wonder why the hell this is going on instead of the world championships of ultimate. One particularly loud player starts a screaming match with a referee over a goal that is considered no good. Maybe it’s because all of us were running on fumes at this point, but it feels surreal.
Eventually, the soccer games finish, and BFG and AMP take the field to warm up for their semifinal, followed by the Boston showdown of Slow White vs. Wild Card. Most of the teams that have finished playing their semifinals have cleared out by now, but AMP is still cleated for the most part. When I ask them why, they say they’re going to play a third-place game once this game finishes.
Knowing playing another game or three will either mean an early wake-up or a very, very long night for the teams and staff, WFDF offers all the semifinal losers bronze medals. There will be no third-place game in any division.
With the final point of the night scored, the crowd and remaining players trickle out of the building. The WFDF staff and volunteers buzz around, finishing their tasks for the night and then begin to head off into the night. The media personnel, on the other hand, not sure what we’d just lived through and seeing midnight staring back at us on our phones, just kind of stand there. Some people start throwing.
As a journalist, you get to cover incredible stories, but there aren’t many times you get to live them yourself. But that’s what we did. We got to be a small part of pulling off the craziest night in international ultimate history.
All the fields were aligned with upwind downwind except for the two women’s semifinals which both were crosswinds ↩
Someone didn’t let him know that back up plans J through P had fallen through and we were on plan Q at this point ↩
Serendipitously, the rental shop was a quarter mile away ↩
Toner had ironically changed into an Atlanta Chain Lightning jersey by this point ↩