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Budding Ultimate in Bulgaria

A deep look into the young ultimate scene in Sofia

Shopski Otryad

Ned Garvey spoke with Sarah Craycraft (SC) and Dimitar Krumov (DK) of Shopski Otryad, the ultimate club from Sofia, Bulgaria. Craycraft is an American ethnographer who’s been in and out of Bulgaria for her research and studies. She’s played previously at Ohio State and with Rival Ultimate in Columbus. Krumov is a cinematography student who has been playing ultimate since 2015. The conversation centered around ultimate in Bulgaria and the Eastern Balkans.

Ultiworld: Let’s start from the beginning. When did ultimate start in Bulgaria, and could you say a little bit about the community as a whole?

SC: Ultimate in Bulgaria started in Sofia. There are two teams now, but it started 10 years ago. A guy named Lyubomir came across it; either a video online, or on TV, but he convinced friends in his neighborhood to play. Our team is self-taught. There have been a few big players or people with a lot of skills and drills that have come through, but, for the most part, the team has organized and taught Itself by looking in other places.

DK: To add, the kind of philosophy, the concept of ultimate here in Sofia is on the same level as ultimate in [American] universities in the sixties. It’s people playing around and trying to discover something new, something on a neighborhood level. Childhood friends from one neighborhood discovered something new, and they liked the idea, so they started pulling people around them in to join the community. Ten years ago, a girl from Germany, Nasrin, brought the first discs to our city. It was only then that the seed was planted. It’s quite an odd feeling.

Even when I first joined, I thought: “what? Ultimate? What is that?” And then I realized that it’s something serious, and that people just don’t know about it at the moment. There’s a second team in Bulgaria called the Blue Caps, so we’re still on the ground floor, but I think the fact that our team’s still standing after ten years tells you a lot about us.

SC: Up until last year, Shopski was the only Bulgarian team, so when we went to tournaments we were THE Bulgarian team. Now we’re trying to reorient our identity and what it means to play on Shopski. It’s a different feeling having to travel to different countries just to play. You get better by going to tournaments, learning what other teams do, by having to play at your highest level, and we only get that opportunity every now and then.

UW: So what does a typical season look like?

DK: It revolves around traveling around the Balkans quite a lot.

SC: We’re still adapting to having a local team to play against.

DK: We go to Bucharest, Timișoara, and Brașov to play seven-on-seven. Five-on-five indoor was just introduced this season.

SC: We don’t really play during the winter. There isn’t really such a thing as a season, even though we kind of have a stop and rest period. We don’t really have a series we’re competing in, so it feels very different than a club or college season elsewhere. We try to take time off to go to one big tournament in Western Europe in June or July, and we do a training week at the seaside. That’s good for team bonding and getting in shape. We host a fall tournament every year called Disc of Peace.

DK: The word season doesn’t really mean anything to us. We’re in non-stop motion. You feel a sense of duty because you know there aren’t a lot of you, so you continue practicing, meeting as friends outside of training, and going to team meetings.

SC: There’s no “let’s organize tryouts” or “Let’s reshape the team this year”. It’s basically the same people every year. People drift in and out as their commitment wanes, but it’s a very consistent group of people, and so there’s a closeness in the community.

DK: We try to participate as much as possible, wherever we can.

UW: What does the community in Bulgaria look like, and what, if any, kind of outreach do you do to try to grow the sport and community?

DK: There are probably around 50 people that know about the sport, have played, understand the rules, and go to practices. You have people that come and go, drift away, and there are other people outside of this 50 that know about it and sometimes come play.

SC: We bring in mostly friends, but every year we take part in a festival called Live Actively that has showcase games for sports, hosted by the city. People have tried to do demonstrations at high schools, Shopski was on national TV one time, and Blue Caps have done a lot of recruitment. They play in very public places like big city parks, and they hand out flyers, but it’s hard because the visible spaces aren’t good places to play. Being seen and getting people to understand what ultimate is has been hard. It’s mostly word of mouth.

DK: I think that’s the most important thing, just being able to convince someone to come to practice with you. That’s how I was convinced to play. We have an event called Disc of Challenge, where seven players from our team bring back seven new players each, and we have a small tournament. That’s how we get a lot of people to come and try it out, and quite a lot of people have stayed afterwards. It’s one of the dates that stamped on our calendars on a yearly basis. Also, we do presentations at schools, but I’d love to see it more as one of the choices students have in P.E.

UW: What kind of balance do you try to strike between being a serious team and a fun team?

DK: What I’ve felt since day one is that it’s a super inspiring community. This team has “the power”, even though it’s being destroyed by the enemy. We have the power to rise up, to hype ourselves up, and just soldier on, to try to do “it” with blood, sweat, and tears. We’re a committed team. I think each player tries to do more and more and more each practice, and the result is visible at tournaments. We try to be good at what we do, and we know we’re not the best, but it’s something we try. It’s something I’ve felt since I’ve been on the team. First, as a feeling, and then as an action.

SC: I’m not sure that kind of spectrum works here, because it’s a totally different ball game. Our practices are more grueling than a lot of practices I’ve been to for a competitive club team. There are no subs and very few breaks. It’s just grind, grind, grind for three hours in whatever weather there is. The aspirations are to be very competitive, but just by nature of who we are, and how we survive, we have to be flexible. You have to meet people where they are. We take in new players throughout the entire year, there is no introductory period. I don’t think people would stick around if it was just a team built around being competitive and winning. I come back every year, and base my visit every year around Shopski tournaments, because it’s such a joy to play with this team. This team is going to bleed, cry and sweat all over the field. It’s just so full of heart.

We went to a tournament in Bucharest two years ago, and we cheered “ultimate is friendship” after every game, both teams. I’d never heard that before, and at the end of the day, I think that’s what ultimate in the Balkans is all about. It’s about trying to bring all the teams up, to say, “I remember playing you guys last year. Here’s what you did better, or here’s what we think we did better.” If you have a blood feud with the other teams in the region, you’re not going to grow ultimate. We need openness and friendship in order to become better, because that’s what makes driving ten hours worthwhile.

DK: I think we’re able to have both in some ways. One of my first impressions was that I’m surrounded by people with nothing in common. Everyone is different, and that’s what makes it work. It brings us together on and off the field. It makes us care more and push each other more. We don’t go out on the field with axes, we go out with hugs, but we’re still serious. Every teddy bear has a grizzly bear inside.

UW: So you would say that the atmosphere in the Balkans is quite cooperative overall?

SC: Very cooperative, to the point that at a tournament last year we gave one of our best women to a Romanian team, just so that they’d have a strong woman to play with them, and that would never happen in American club. The relationships between teams are very strong. They’re competitive, but very strong. Sometimes, we put teams together with people from Poland, Romania, Sofia, Serbia, or whoever is free and wants to travel.

DK: Revolution from Bucharest is a team that’s helped us develop a lot over the years. They’re a team that’s always been beside us and helped us for seven or eight years. There is aggression as well, but the atmosphere is overwhelmingly cooperative.

UW: So what ambitions do you have for your team, and for Bulgarian ultimate?

SC: We want to play at Windmill. And I want to get more involved with the school system and the university system, so we can start recruiting players at younger ages. There aren’t really a lot of opportunities to get involved with younger players, so we’d like to make inroads that way. We’d like to see more teams in Bulgaria and in the region, and more competitive tournaments. We’d like for teams from Western Europe to travel to our tournaments. Sometimes it’s hard for us to get into their tournaments, so it’d be nice for the travel to be two-way.

DK: Another thing that we’ll probably do until we die is to try to get the word out about ultimate, to show people that it’s a sport that people play, that it exists. It’s not really our goal to become the best in the world. We’re more like the messiah of our country, we’re carrying the torch. We know we aren’t going to win, but we’re going to pass the torch on to somebody else. We know the chain is long, and it’s up to the first few links to work hard. We want to make sure that it has a future.

SC: Personally, I’d also love to see a strengthening of, and solidarity between, women in the region. I’ve talked to players from different teams about doing clinics for players because there are so few women playing in the region. The girls who play in Bulgaria are younger, and they’re amazing scrappy players, and I’d love to see them have the opportunity to play at a worlds tournament or a U20 tournament. I don’t know how it could happen logistically, but I’d love for them to have that platform to grow and develop.

DK: It’s all about awareness, and people in our country need to know more about it.

UW: What about a national team?

SC: It’s something we’ve talked about. It’s a goal for two or three years from now. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s a concrete goal. One of the issues with us being a self-taught team is that we don’t have older players or coaches who have the logistical or playing experience, so it’s just a matter of saying that this is our goal, and just figuring out how to make it happen.

DK: We have the will, and we’ll have the manpower, so it’s just a matter of time. We have to have patience.

UW: Thanks for taking the time to speak to me. Be healthy, be well.

SC & DK: Thank you for taking the time to reach out and call. See you.

  1. Ned Garvey
    Ned Garvey

    Ned Garvey is a member of the European staff. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 2015, he’s been living and playing in Russia and Latvia. He currently lives in Riga, Latvia, and plays for Salaspils Wild Things.

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