For Akshat, filming Pittsburgh men's team has had a profound impact beyond just ultimate.
December 14, 2021 by Guest Author in Profile with 0 comments
This piece was written by guest author Akshat Rajan.
Nationals week. If you’re one of the lucky players who has been there, you know the feeling: flying in late and squeezing into a rental car with your half-asleep teammates to drive to a hotel whose parking lot always has a few people throwing a frisbee around, no matter how late it is. Once in the lobby, it’s a rat race to claim bed spots and to find your wristband, which for some reason, is important. For cinematographers, it’s relatively similar, but also includes a battery check, cleaning lenses, and cramming a tripod into a bag that probably wouldn’t qualify as an airline check bag. Instead of a wristband, we get a special media pass to throw around our necks that many of us lose by the end of pool play.
Had it not been for the pandemic, May 2020 would’ve been my eighth straight Memorial Day weekend spent at D-I College Nationals, six in a row with Pitt men’s ultimate. However, unlike other filming opportunities, you know that with Pitt you’re about to come away with something different, something more than a paycheck, overpriced Nationals sublimated gear, and USA Ultimate sponsored lip balm (sorry, the swag bag really sucks sometimes).
On top of the opportunity to capture one of the best college programs in the world and getting to work alongside the talented coaching staff, filming Pittsburgh has been a spiritual experience. My yearly pilgrimage to Nationals with the team has substantially affected my personal development and professional growth. It paid dividends by encouraging me to create a space for me to interview for, get accepted to, and perform in medical school. Pitt’s philosophy is more than just frisbee, but better development of yourself and your relationships with others. I will always turn down any offer with good pay and accommodations to fly to film them. Call it selfish, but maybe you just have to feel it for yourself.
Chapter I: F*ck Pitt
My introduction to the Pitt program was rather comical, as I recall sitting by Isaac Saul, a freshly crowned 2012 college champion, wearing his shiny gold medal and talking trash at a summer league game in central New Jersey. I had just watched his team on Nexgen’s livestream1 make a near impossible comeback win against Carleton after going down 8-3 in the semifinals. A text from a high school teammate had spurred me to tune in to watch Trent Dillon, or as he put it, “that Radnor kid that used to crush us in high school.” I was happy for them and slightly inspired.
After that summer, I headed to Penn State for college with an interest to play ultimate in some fashion, but also balance my other pursuits and hobbies. I immediately picked up on Penn State’s strong school pride and frequently took part in the late Friday night “Fuck Pitt” chants that were initiated at every social gathering by my college brethren. To no surprise, this was more or less the norm with the frisbee teams, too. As a fellow member of the Ohio Valley region, Pitt was considered a rival to Penn State Spank, though results indicate otherwise.2 I picked up on this vibe as I assimilated into college and Penn State ultimate. Even before really picking up college ultimate cinematography, I was already rooting against Pittsburgh.
Fast forward to the 2014 D-I College Championships in Cincinnati, where I was a camera operator with Nexgen. When our leader, Kevin Minderhout, raised a discussion between the crew to determine what men’s quarterfinal to stream, I heavily advocated for Pitt vs. UNC-Wilmington, but was voted out in favor of Oregon vs. Texas. This was unsurprising, as most of the biased Nexgen crew had deep ties to Oregon, but I felt connected to the Pittsburgh team. As soon as that game ended, I hastily set my NGN camera down on the grass, which probably had a higher net worth than I did at the time, and sprinted across to field six to get a glimpse of the universe point ending of the Pitt game. My heart skipped a beat when Max Thorne missed a routine layout catch in the red zone and UNCW hucked to win. While I felt bad for them, they had already won two championships, so maybe it was someone else’s turn. I channeled my inner “F*ck Pitt” and cheered for Wilmington’s Charlie Lian, a brief teammate of mine on our legendary summer league squad, Dumplin Boyz.3
That fall, I filmed Pitt at Steel City Showdown and spent the following spring watching more livestreams. Unsurprisingly, Pittsburgh won every regular season tournament that spring, so I was coincidentally consuming a ton of Pitt footage. May arrived, and I was at Nationals again, this time with Maryland to support my high school teammates, Mark Lin and Garrett Yung. Once again, I watched Pitt lose in quarters, this time against Central Florida. I couldn’t explain it then, and I still can’t explain it now, but that loss was a tough one for me to witness. I’ve never gotten emotionally involved with a team I wasn’t on or associated with, but for the first time, this oddly felt like it. But still… “F*ck Pitt”… right?
Chapter II: The Summer of 2015
The summer of 2015 was full of reflection. With a lower than average GPA and no research or publications, I questioned if medical school was still an option. Frisbee-wise, I had just wrapped up a season co-captaining Penn State B, with a lot of time spent focusing on my players’ development versus my own. Could I even manage to make Penn State A in the fall if I barely had time to work on my own game? I felt like an outsider, both with ultimate and as a pre-med. My classmates were doing great things outside of the classroom, and my high school frisbee friends had all made Nationals. Richard, Alex, and I were the only ones who hadn’t, and we all went to Penn State.4 Let me tell you, being around that was tough. Every single high school ultimate teammate of mine had made Nationals, and every single pre-med classmate of mine both at PSU and other colleges had an academic pedigree good for medical school. My imposter syndrome felt overwhelming.
Things changed in August, when I helped out a college teammate of mine by offering to host his club team, Pittsburgh Slag Dump, at my house for two tournament weekends. I lived two miles away from the fields and had a big basement, a prime candidate for ultimate player storage.
The night before the tournament, a few of the Slag Dump guys went to take a late night stroll and I decided to tag along. After an hour, it was just me and Sam VanDusen, a player on Pitt’s college team. We stayed up until the early AM, talking and walking around my neighborhood discussing ultimate and our own personal demons and goals. At first, he was just a stranger who I knew had dope lefty pulls. But it wasn’t long before he seemed like a close friend. I learned about his work ethic, confidence, and belief in himself. I shared a similar walk with Kevin Tang when hosting Slag Dump a week later for Club Sectionals. Like the night conversing with Sam, Kevin was motivational, but we also related to one another, as he was a fellow frisbee player applying to medical schools. It was another night well spent talking about our personal, professional, and frisbee goals. I credit these very conversations for helping me conquer uncertainty and realizing I can’t miss a shot unless I attempt to take it. I wanted to make Penn State A to get the chance to share the field with Kevin and Sam.
Though I did make the team that fall of my senior year, and even took up the stressful position as President of the club, I ended up dropping both to secure a highly demanding research assistant gig in a behavioral neurogenetics lab, with the possibility of publishing a paper. I knew I needed to strengthen my resume, but I continued to live with the guilt of leaving the team and still sometimes look back at my messages to Codi Wood and Jacob Smith when I made the decision. Was it worth it?
Chapter III: Embracing the Underdog Mentality
Despite being friendly with some of the Slag dudes like Kevin, Carl and Sam, the Pitt A team was still relatively full of strangers. Hafeez Shams and Ben Morgenstern, both who were on B and absolutely dominated Penn State B every time we played them, were really the only Pitt people I talked to at our rainy 2016 Ohio Valley Regionals. To my surprise, Trent and Coach Nick Kaczmarek approached me after their gutsy backdoor qualification to Nationals asking if I could help cover their championship pursuit in Raleigh. The chance to be close and personal with a top five college team? I was in. It also helped that I got to build up the hype for my first Nationals by helping Aaron Watson, a Pitt alum, with arranging, sorting and providing clips for Trent’s Callahan video.
Pitt had an unusual regular season that year, with numerous articles and podcasts describing their irregular performance where they failed to win any regular season tournaments, only reaching one tournament final. Even with their accomplished fifth years and the eventual Callahan award winner, their hopes for bracket play seemed bleak. I was in similar shoes, with just about every mock interviewer and Penn State guidance counselor telling me to switch majors at the last minute just before graduating or get a masters and do something else. Medical school was “not in the cards” for me. My GPA and MCAT score weren’t high enough. Meawhile, Pitt had dropped a must-win game to Lehigh at Regionals and had to fight their way through the backdoor bracket to even make Nationals. The media spotlight was more focused on their inability to win the Region than the capability they had as a team.
On the eve of Nationals, I drove down to Raleigh and found myself sharing a room with the Pittsburgh coaching staff. These were top of the line coaches and a former star player I watched win two back to back championships, and I was intimidated to be sharing a hotel room with them. Nick was discussing the next day’s strategy and going over an immense binder full of plays while reviewing game film of other teams. Prior to that night, I was unaware that I would be covering anything more than just Pitt games. Nick asked for my help with scouting and filming different teams so we could dissect the footage. He valued my input, despite that I was a guy he barely knew and who didn’t have half of the ultimate resume of their coaching staff or even the the team itself. But I was hooked by the importance and the trust.
On day one of pool play, Pitt dropped their first game against Auburn, the bottom seed in the pool. It was a huge upset and had the media roaring, validating their concerns and criticisms about Pitt’s chances. In the next round, the team was down against Minnesota, sparking questions about if Pitt would even make the bracket. After an empowering speech at half time, Pitt exploded into the second half in an emphatic comeback to escape elimination. It was something I had never captured before. There was an energy and fire to it that one can only experience in person. Pitt cruised through the rest of pool play with wins over Carleton and Utah and made a run to the semifinals.
Even just as a cameraman, I felt emotionally involved and empowered as I realized I was beginning to take every motivational speech in the huddle to heart. How do we overcome being underdogs and toss aside what others think of us? Pitt tossed all the doubt and made it to the semifinals. I could toss the doubt cast by my guidance counselors and even by myself.
I still stand by this today, but that irregular season, the loss to Lehigh at Regionals and to Auburn in pool — they are all the reasons Pitt made it to the semifinals. They pushed through the negativity and pain after those losses and found the underdog mentality within themselves, the internal belief of how to win. I learned I needed to find it for myself. I could also call myself an underdog when it came to med school applications. I could do something about it. That very week after Nationals, I put together a proper MCAT study schedule to retake the exam and prove my counselors wrong. An early loss didn’t have to decide how things would end for me.
Chapter IV: One Breath, One Mind. In Lak’ech.
After graduating in 2016, I spent my first gap year working as a medical scribe at a local ER, while twiddling my thumbs hopeful for medical school interviews. Weeks and months passed, and I found myself with only two late interviews, both which led to rejections. I came up empty.
I was overwhelmed with sadness and denial as I had trouble wrestling with the idea that I had to take another gap year and lacked the capacity to get over my embarrassment. My friends were all getting into schools while I was stuck behind. Instead of reviewing my mistakes and putting it on myself, the denial gradually led to anger, and I found myself blaming everyone else as the cause of my rejections. I was angry at my family, coworkers, teammates, and friends.
Luckily for me, Pitt invited me to College Nationals and I had a weekend to distract myself and look forward to. I was delighted to be working alongside an all-time ultimate cinematography great, Charles Cleary, known as Unchuckable, who was hired to film a documentary piece for Pittsburgh’s trip to Nationals.5
The first day a Nationals was a dewy Thursday morning, opening with a demolition of UConn followed by an absolute clinic against Michigan. Pitt looked good, but they awaited a big test in a highly anticipated game against UNCW the next day, only two fields down from the same field that Pitt had lost to them in the 2014 quarterfinals. After a tough loss to Wilmington, in a game I’d describe as a brawl, the team rounded out wins against Texas A&M and Auburn as they prepared for quarterfinals against the no. 1 seed, UMass.
After Nick and I spent the night poring over UMass scouting footage that I had filmed earlier, Chuck and I started chatting and immediately agreed in unison that this Pitt team’s philosophical approach to the game and the team was different from other teams we’ve captured. They were using ideologies rooted in Mayan and Zen Buddhism. We were enamored by it and it became the substance for our respective media art for the weekend. Every huddle was preceded by an uttering of “One breath, one mind,” a take on the Buddhist approach to mindfulness that Phil Jackson incorporated during his legendary coaching stint with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.
“Though mindfulness meditation has its roots in Buddhism, it’s an easily accessible technique for quieting the restless mind and focusing attention on whatever is happening in the present moment. I discovered that when I had the players sit in silence, breathing together in sync, it helped align them on a nonverbal level far more effectively than words. One breath equals one mind.” – Phil Jackson.
In addition to “One Breath, One Mind” was “In Lak’Ech,” a Mayan ideology that translated to “I am you, as you are me.” As explained by Dr. Fidencio Briceño Chel, a renowned Mexican anthropologist and linguist, it stands for “learning to get along with everything around him, because it is through his relationship with those others that he builds his person, his respect, his prestige, his family, his community, his people and his world.”
If you spent a minute in those Pitt huddles and absorbed what was being done and said, you would’ve been enlightened. Chuck’s “One Breath, One Mind” documentary captures it all, but experiencing it in person was mind-numbing and revolutionary towards personal and interpersonal development. The effect the culture and philosophy had on it’s players is clear. I was already beginning to formulate ways to be a better leader and individual after just one weekend in Nationals. It was life-changing.
Though 2017 ended in a quarterfinal defeat for Pittsburgh and two interview rejections for me, the trip also left me with feelings of hopefulness, optimism, and ability to look forward to the future. I now have bits of Zen Buddhism and Mayan philosophy that I can incorporate in my own personal and professional development. I often find myself listening to Nick’s eloquent speech in the last team huddle after losing to UMass (which is also captured at the end of Chuck’s fantastic documentary).
“I really want you to leave with this lesson. Whether it’s the relationship you build with people, family, at work, you’re going to have a lot of times in life where you’re going to want something back or overthink something that happened before and what you could’ve done differently. You can take a lesson from that thing and go get better at something, but you cannot, will not, fix something that was in the past. And if you fixate on that for too long, rather than setting up to do right in the future and in the present, it will eat you up. Take that lesson and don’t let anything eat ya up. We’ll find a way to grow, that’s what all of us will do out of this.”
I still have a trimmed clip of Nick’s speech saved on my phone that I pull out on tough days and I’m not ashamed of it. I walked out of College Nationals with newfound resolve and took Nick’s words to heart. It was time to stop fixating on the past and time to start setting myself up to do right in the future.
Chapter V: Baddest Man Alive
The developments post-2017 Nationals were massive. I was able to apply these lessons towards becoming a better coach for my former high school, and was promoted to being a Scribe trainer, responsible for training and orienting new co-workers. I had numerous medical school interviews and even spent a portion in each of them discussing In Lak’ech when questioned about leadership and values. This all led to getting an acceptance to my #1 choice, close to home in Philadelphia.6
What started out as an overwhelming sense of jubilation (upon opening my acceptance in the mail, I took my shirt and pants off and sprinted two miles in my underwear around my neighborhood screaming at the top of my lungs) eventually led to uncertainty and doubt. Did I deserve that seat? 13,000 people applied that year and I was one of the 255 people in the class. I was not confident I would do well, nervous about starting school. I questioned my abilities and my performance.
Fortunately, there was yet another College Nationals to distract my mind! This year’s Pitt mantra was all about confidence and being the “Baddest Man Alive.” I recalled Isaac Saul praising Nick’s “humility to prepare and the confidence to perform” mantra. 2018 Pittsburgh was ferocious and ripe with swagger. Every score had a spike, and damn, I felt like a bad man in those huddles.
After a loss to Brown in pool play, Pitt needed to beat Washington by three points in order to win the pool due to a point differential. Riding the team’s internally generated energy, they pulled it off. In preparation for a quarterfinal against hometown favorite Wisconsin, the scouting and coaching staff did an immense job preparing the team. Every matchup, mark, and defensive position was analyzed. If you watch that game on my YouTube channel, you’ll notice Wisconsin struggles to complete even one throw or reset many of the points. Other than a few Wisconsin highlights, such as the full extension catch by John Tan that made it on to the SportsCenter Top 10, the game was pretty one sided.7
In their semifinal, Pitt went up against Carleton. No one saw it coming, but Pitt rolled them, a team that many pegged to be the championship favorite. Turn the volume up at halftime and you can hear the glorious animal sounds that the Pitt huddle produced after taking half. There was an energy there that I’ve never seen in another college team. The crowd was electric too, with shrieks of disbelief every time Noah Robinson made a play in that game, which felt like every other point. We really felt like the Baddest Men Alive.
Despite a loss to North Carolina in the final the next day, the trip was yet another that produced glorious feelings that carried past the final huddle. I walked away feeling like one of the Baddest Men Alive, imbued with the confidence that I needed to combat the dread of beginning medical school. That fall was not smooth sailing however, as I performed quite poorly on my first two anatomy exams and needed a big victory on my last two exams to pass the class. But I remembered what Pitt did when they need to beat Washington by three to keep their season alive, and channeling the team, I found the success I needed.
Chapter VI: Memories and Beyond
In 2019, a year into medical school, and I found myself once again flying for Nationals, this time in Austin. I was fresh post-midterms without any qualms and it was interestingly the first Nationals where nothing stressful malingered in my head. You might expect me to preach another Nick lesson or new Pitt mantra, but after the 2019 Nationals, I’ll leave you with one of my own.
This trip was spent truly enjoying the moment and company of the Pitt guys. Whether it was walking to an In-and-Out, Michael Ing helping me fix a flat tire on my rental car, or the daily electric scootering across downtown Austin, it’s these moments I look back and reflect on when I reflect on that Nationals. In fact, the first thing that comes to my mind from the trip is the 10 mile electric scootering trek Kevin Tsui, Will Helenski, Will Hoffenkamp, and I took through UT Austin and a completely dark and scary park.
With all the effort we put into chasing plastic, it’s easy to reflect on wins, losses, layout grabs, and practices. Oftentimes, you may forget about what makes college ultimate so special: the memories you share with teammates and lifelong friends. Once you become a long lost alumni, you tend to look back at those very moments rather than the times spent on the field. Those games slowly become a blur, but it’s the conversations and experiences you have with people that last forever. I would do anything for the banter-filled car ride to a college tournament, a late night dinner post practice at a campus dining hall, and the deep conversations I had in the rural, worn down hotels spread across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and West Virginia. As Kevin Tang calls it, “Chasing Nostalgia.”
Investing in a college ultimate experience is not only to develop your game and athleticism, but a means of developing yourself into a better person, thinker, leader, and overall individual. To any high schoolers reading this, put an effort into utilizing the ideals and philosophies you absorb from your respective coaches and teammates into your daily life, conquests, and obstacles. It’s applicable to more than just ultimate and you will walk away with more than just ultimate IQ and athleticism after college. Look at the effect it’s had on me, a simple cinematographer with only one or two weekends a year with the team. I can’t imagine what could’ve been if I spent five years as an actual member of the team.
This week, after a two year drought due to the pandemic, I will once again be embarking on a plane to college Nationals. It will be a vacation. It is my birthday weekend after all. Now as a fourth year medical student graduating in a few months and beginning Emergency Medicine residency next summer, I look forward to my time in Los Angeles with the Pitt team and the new memories and life lessons I can take away from this trip. Residency will be stressful with plenty of sleepless nights and doubts in my ability, but these are all things I know how to handle thanks to my time with Pitt. Here’s to another bucket full of memories I will capture and experience alongside the Pitt brotherhood for the weekend. I’m counting the days.
Sorry, Spank fellas. ↩
I was a benchwarmer, but boy did we look fresh in our Jeremy Lin Knicks jerseys. ↩
Though Alex finally conquered that drought and earned a bid to Nationals as a 5th year with Maryland in 2018 ↩
Chuck has cute bunnies by the way. ↩
Fly Eagles Fly! ↩
I was actually playing Pot Limit Omaha poker at a local Wisconsin casino that night when every TV in the room had ESPN on and saw my very own clip playing on 15 bar-sized screens above me. ↩