The future still exists, and in overwhelming likelihood, there's ultimate in it.
May 22, 2020 by Mags Colvett in Opinion with 0 comments
“How’d you start playing?”
There’s a reason ultimate players ask each other this so often. If the answer is one that might be typical of most sports — one or both of your parents played, they took you to games, it was always sort of around — then that in itself is a story. For most of us, though, there’s a distinct moment in memory where ultimate crossed the frame of our consciousness for the first time. The impetus could have been anything: a sibling, a teacher, a middle school crush, a woman who waved you to her booth at the involvement fair and introduced herself as “Groot.” But there was a door, and a small decision — a whim, even — to open it. And on the other side, a world where your friendships, your fixations, and the shape of your weeknights became something very different than they might have been otherwise.
In this year’s live-via-remote-video Callahan Award presentation, women’s division winner Anne Worth said, “It really is just total chance that I found this community, and I think about that often — that I could have just played water polo or handball or something, some other sport that sounded like I could join at the college level without having ever played it before.” She’s not alone. The fact is, most of us remember a time before we knew what ultimate was; those who don’t are, at most, one or two playing generations removed from someone central in our lives who does. And however we describe what draws us to the sport — whether gameplay or community or peripheral shenanigans come first, or each of those at different times; whether spirit evangelist or spirit skeptic — what comes up again and again is a deep appreciation for having found it at all, like being let in on a cosmic secret the cosmos could just as easily have withheld.
Here’s my origin story: I was 25 and between grad programs, living on my parents’ farm, indoors and online on Memorial Day. I saw a tweet — a rare blip from the frisbee dimension — mentioning that a college ultimate championship of some sort would be on a weird, backdoor ESPN channel I was pretty sure I could get with the family cable password. On a whim, I pulled it up, thinking I’d kill a few minutes on a mildly interesting corner of the human experience and move on with my day. Instead, I sat through both finals — compelled by the action and the magic-trick novelty of watching discs bend in the air, but also the signs of a much more elaborate competitive structure and half-hidden subculture than it had ever occurred to me to imagine. I was riveted. I was intrigued. I was in.
That was the door. What brought me there? Chance and curiosity. And, if I’m honest, a penchant for oddball stuff that isn’t quite ironic but derives some of its pleasure from a self-awareness not unlike irony’s — if you’ve ever won a tournament in neon hot pants, you get it. What made me go through it? Whatever freak magnetism makes us love what we love, mainly, but another piece was this: it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I’d been able to reckon with my nonbinary identity, and I’d never felt secure enough in myself or my social setting to play any of the sports I’d had access to in high school or undergrad. But here was a new sport, one that seemed to welcome traditional and less-than-traditional athletes alike. Never played? You could learn. A lot of people did, at 19 or 20 or even 25.
The inconceivable had become conceivable. I ordered an UltraStar and started walking the fields at my parents’ place with headphones in, trying to teach myself to throw. Ultimate lived in my mind for months before I ever saw another person catch a disc. By the time I came to my first practices at Ohio State as a grad student with eligibility to burn, my days had already changed, tangibly, in a way I couldn’t have expected before I opened that ESPN app. They would go on to change more than I could have expected even then.
Three years later, I think of that summer on the farm when I go to a park and throw to no one for a while. I have a few more discs now. I also sanitize them, and wear gloves and a mask while I’m out. Like then, ultimate lives as an idea, a set of skills I work at in the hope I might go out and use them in some indefinite future. Like then, I don’t exactly know what that future looks like.
I didn’t expect this, either.
Unlike that summer, though, ultimate also lives as a set of memories and relationships that have added great joy to my life. It’s been a craft to find satisfaction in, and a medium for being with others that makes the time we give it meaningful despite its essential meaninglessness. I’m kind of describing sports in general here, and much of the community and continuity I’ve happened to find in ultimate could come from almost any arbitrary pastime: if this were Cornholeworld, I’d be talking about the wonder and revelation of tossing beanbags onto a board. And it’s true that some of what’s touted as magic and special about the ultimate ethos isn’t necessarily perfect in practice, or even all that unique to ultimate.1
But I do think there are some legitimately magical things about this sport. You can see one of them in the intense attachment people like us feel even now, what makes us continue to care enough to throw into couches and argue over old tape2 as cleats molder in the garage.3 It’s not just the hours suddenly available in our weeks. I think it’s also an awareness that not only is there no ultimate now, but that — for any one of us — there might not have been any ultimate ever. Which makes its presence precious and its absence personally felt, and the desire to keep the flame alive that much more urgent-feeling.
Whether you’re an elite player or a rec league perennial or a coach or a parent, to give big pieces of your time and self to ultimate is to have arrived at a present many of us couldn’t have pictured until we were in it. There was probably a time when you didn’t expect that, but here you are now.
And, well, here we are now. We’re in a moment where the future is hard to project: within weeks, so much that seemed dependable about the world disappeared, with no clear sense of when or in what form or even if it might return. To hope it’ll all come back exactly how it left, and sooner rather than later — the longed-for “when this is all over” — is understandable, but that’s a promise nobody can make yet. (If you’re hovering on the checkout page, you probably shouldn’t book that hotel for Wildwood.)
That future still exists, though, and in overwhelming likelihood, there’s ultimate in it. When and how? We don’t know that yet, not everywhere and not reliably. But to have made your way to ultimate once before — to this beautiful meaningful meaninglessness that’s become, for so many of us, a home of sorts in this world — is to know that a future you couldn’t have foreseen can become a present you make a life in: not only its challenges, but its rewards and connections, too. Every day we stay safe, look after each other, and keep the faith, we move towards another one.
I’ll see you there.