One of Europe's brightest young stars had a unique experience joining the PUL's Colombian club, and Ultiworld had the chance to interview her and hear her perspective.
August 31, 2021 by Graham Gerhart in Profile with 0 comments
The return of the Premier Ultimate League has brought many familiar faces back into the spotlight as women’s ultimate continues to slowly ramp back up. While it’s exciting to see established stars grace the field after so much time off from the sport, the PUL has also been an avenue for highlighting new talent that are becoming the next generation of household names.
Along with previous college stars rising to prominence and small-town heroes stepping into the spotlight, Medellín Revo Pro brought a host of international players who are quickly becoming the face of South American ultimate.
While most of the roster comes from Colombia, the team also featured Levke Walczak, a European star and veritable globetrotter. Known for her quick ascendency in Germany’s ultimate scene, which quickly led to a number of appearances on a variety of elite club and national teams, Walczak is one of the most recognizable stars in Europe. However, aside from her time with the Eurostars in their last tour of the US, the PUL has been her major debut across the pond. Before her impressive weekend with Medellín Revo Pro — whom she helped win the International Series — we had a chance to get her on a call to discuss her growth in the sport, her future, and how a German medical student found herself playing on a South American pro team.
Ultiworld: You and your Medellín teammates have been adjusting to your hotel in Boston. How has that been going?
Levke: It’s been going well so far! The last time I played in Boston [for the Eurostars], we were hosted by players and sleeping on couches or sharing bed spots. This time around, the hotel has meant we are all together, and there’s a pool, so we have more free time together and more camaraderie.
Ultiworld: Aside from the hotel, are you seeing a lot of similarities with the camaraderie and social aspect of the Eurostars Tour and the PUL event so far?
Levke: They’re actually quite different. With Revolution, we’re all co-responsible for everything, whereas a lot of details were organized for us with the Eurostars. This time around, everyone on the team has a role, and are dealing with other responsibilities, too. Some are still working or teaching during the day! We also have players trying to work on social media engagement and thanking sponsors or fans. The team also organizes rehab massages or [physiotherapy] for each other. We are all organizing everything for ourselves. When there is free time, it tends to be very precious, but the Colombians know how to have a good time when there are moments off.
Ultiworld: I do want to get back to your team chemistry, but I want to make sure we get all the introductory info out of the way first. For those who don’t know, how did you get started in ultimate, and where has it taken you before ending up in Boston playing with Medellín Revolution?
Levke: I actually started playing just after school. I played competitive [soccer] as a teen but found ultimate after I graduated high school. I didn’t know what I was doing to start – I don’t think anyone does – but only a few weeks after picking it up, I went to a training camp in Croatia hosted by Cara Crouch and her husband, [Michael “Tank” Natenberg]. All of those players had played in the World Games and getting their input after only a few short weeks of playing really helped.
I actually give a lot of my success to good coaches. Even though I couldn’t throw to start, I understood defense thanks to them, and knew my role on the field. So two months later there were U23 trials for the German team, and I went to tryouts. If I had known better, I might not have tried out even, but I made the team and enjoyed ultimate so much at every point that I just wanted to keep going.
I think I had good fortune from that tryout onward. The U23 coaches, Mike Nash & Allen Clement were also the coaches for our senior squad playing at WUGC in 2016, and after I played well at U23 in London and there was a player that dropped out of the senior squad, I was one of the few players that could make it to WUGC and could fit with the team, so I went to WUGC the next year, too. After that I just kept playing for different teams and trying to improve.
Ultiworld: So what you’re saying is that the short time you had to train with Revolution is actually quite common for you?
Levke: Very common! For me, the three weeks of practicing in Medellín was long!
Ultiworld: We’ll gloss over the multiple impressive club teams and national teams you’ve played on since WUGC in 2016, but needless to say, you have an impressive resume, and a lot of it involves traveling and playing in new environments and with new teams. Has that always been your plan?
Levke: My travel lifestyle is very connected to ultimate, but I think I also would have traveled if not for ultimate. This was just a perfect path for it. Back when I played competitive soccer, my team was quite far from the other teams, so we’d have to travel a lot for games. One game could be 5-6 hours of travel, so it became very normal for me. I enjoy traveling with a team! It lets the team bonding happen and you get fun moments together. I also know how to make alone time for myself when everyone’s around and be calm without actually being alone.
Ultiworld: Are you good at sleeping in any environment?
Levke: Very good! I can sleep in noisy airports, upright on busses, or on the floor.
Ultiworld: That’s a useful skill to have when traveling so much! Is there any aspect of traveling and playing with new teams that you enjoy the most?
Levke: I like always learning to adapt and finding new elements to my game. I’ve had to do that from the start, so it’s a part of who I am as a player now. I’m always trying to find what I can add to my game from a new team and how that will help me improve. All the differences have made me a better player.
Ultiworld: That’s a good segue into your time with Medellín! Any major takeaways from your time training with the team?
Levke: The team trains differently from so many others. There’s a lot more playing than doing walkthrough drills or discussing strategy. If [head coach] Mauricio [Moore] or one of the other leaders wants the team to work on a skill, we adjust the game to make it work. If we’re working on clearing properly, maybe you have to run to the sideline after throwing the disc. If we’re working on handler swings, maybe we have to do a certain amount before we are allowed to score. That’s different from most other teams.
There’s also not much focus on throwing at all. Maybe that’s just because everyone’s good at it. I know players practice throwing outside of the time with the team, but when we’re together, it’s almost all fast-paced drills and focused scrimmages.
Ultiworld: How does that compare with what you’ve seen in Europe?
Levke: That’s difficult. There’s so much uniqueness in Europe. It’s not all one thing. There certainly is a lot of focus on movement or flow in Medellín. The sideline is also very loud. Germans are more reserved, normally.
Ultiworld: I’m sure it’s fun being a part of that sideline! Has there been any problem with the language barrier?
Levke: Language wasn’t so much of a problem because many principles of ultimate can be shown, rather than spoken. Even when I struggled to understand what they were saying, it’s easy to follow the ideas that they want, even in not-so-good English, because it’s all visible on the field itself. Language hasn’t been too much of an issue in that regard.
There have been some challenges while being with the team, but mostly outside of ultimate, as the team is very forgiving. Even during practices, they speak slower for me or try to have someone to translate on the side. Although, when they are making jokes, which is a lot, I do miss out on some of those. Sometimes I can still understand the idea of the joke, and just being a part of the team’s happy atmosphere is worth it. I’m also improving at understanding. When I first joined the team, it was a lot.
Ultiworld: Let’s talk about that! How did you find your way to Colombia, playing for Revolution?
Lekve: At the U24 world champs in Australia, I played against the Colombians, and Manu & Valeria [Cardenas] started talking to me, and then Mauricio approached me, and together they asked if I wanted to play for them for the Pan American Championships. I didn’t quite understand at the start but they were very excited and we exchanged numbers. The Pan American Champs was too [soon], so I couldn’t go, but then they offered for the PUL in 2020. We all know that COVID-19 got in the way there, but it seemed like it might be on and off for a while, so I kept rebooking my ticket.
Right as things were getting better this year, the Colombian protests were happening, too, so I wasn’t sure if I was going to go at all in case it was dangerous. I’d never been to Colombia before but they warn you with stories. Still, I was excited to join the team so I came anyway.
Ultiworld: How was it for you when you arrived?
Levke: Well, when I first arrived it was actually quite funny. After going from the airport I went straight to the Cardenas’ family home, and there was such loud music going on. When I actually went inside, Valeria was there calmly studying in the loud music, and she had friends over who were dancing, and her mother was making a huge meal for everyone. I felt I had really stepped into Colombia right then!
Ultiworld: Did you stay with the Cardenas family the entire time?
Levke: No. I went to a number of different teammates and stayed with them so I could get to know everyone. There were many different living situations. I stayed in so many different areas of Medellín while I was there. The biggest memory of it all was the motorcycles, though. It’s wild going through all the traffic and getting around like that. I was never by myself on a motorbike, that would have been too much. Even when I was riding a bicycle on my own, it was intimidating at times! So many hills, too!
Ultiworld: It sounds like the memories are worth it, though! And now you’re about to make more in your first PUL game! What made you want to play in the PUL?
Levke: I’ve always wanted to compete in the PUL! The level of ultimate in the league is what I want to play at my entire career, and the season having a shorter length is perfect, it’s a lot harder to do a full season of club while also being in medical school in Germany.
I also love what the PUL stands for. I love the PUL’s drive for equity, and increasing visibility for diversity and gender equity. There aren’t many other sports leagues or tournaments with the same commitment to these values as the PUL. It’s very encouraging for me that maybe we can see something like this in Europe sometime in the future, too.
Ultiworld: Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to with your PUL games? Anyone you want to play against?
Levke: After playing with the Eurostars, I think I’m more familiar with American ultimate. There’s not as much initial surprise or unexpectedness this time. I just want to do what I do best. I’m focusing on shutting down every player I go up against. If I do that, I’ll have done everything I want in the PUL.
Ultiworld: What’s in the future for you? Any new travel spots where you want to play? Maybe Antarctica next?
Levke: Nothing planned for Antarctica, although maybe sometime? I still feel like all of this is the beginning for me and I have so much more to learn. The World Games is the next big push for me, and I want to play on the women’s senior team for Germany, too. Maybe once I’m done with medical school, I’d love to play for a US team in the club season, too!
Ultiworld: Thank you very much for getting on this call Levke, I’m looking forward to seeing you compete!
Levke: Thank you! I’m excited to see what the team can do!