Four of the best players in Europe share their American experiences!
November 27, 2023 by Becky Thompson in Interview with 0 comments
With every year and every major tournament, countries and players continue to prove that the rest of the world is catching up with – and in some cases, surpassing – the United States. The US is still at the pinnacle of the sport, but there was a significant shift this year with more European players than ever competing in the USAU club series. It’s not the first time we have seen players from Europe head across the Atlantic to play in the United States. However, this year certainly felt different.
Four of the players who competed played in the finals, with three of them taking home gold medals.
Competing on the biggest stages of our sport is nothing new for Levke Walczak. The German star has done it all – the World Games, a gold medal at WUCC with Colombia’s Revolution and now a gold medal with Brute Squad at USAU nationals.
Speaking in a post-game interview after the final, Walczak appealed to other European players, encouraging them and saying that they are on the level of USA players and they too should take on this experience.
The passion that exuded from her in that moment got me thinking. How much has the gap closed between European players and the United States? What are some of the key differences and what does the future hold for the game in Europe?
The players who travelled out from Europe all had slightly different circumstances and experiences. This year, there were almost enough European players at USAU nationals to field a full mixed team, so there are many that deserve to be recognised and talked about.
But for now, we will focus on the four players who competed in the finals; Walczak and Lena ‘Lilli’ Trautmann with Brute Squad, Ben Oort with Truck Stop and Connor McHale with Chicago Machine.
Immersing in the Experience
Walczak and her Germany teammate Trautmann, who won gold with Boston’s Brute Squad, joined up with their teammates in September. The two spent the weeks leading up to Regionals and Nationals training with the team and staying with different teammates along the way.
Joining a team already in the full swing of their season can be challenging and is a reality for most of the players who travelled over from Europe to compete in the USAU series.
“I was living with the teammates, just kind of couch surfing,” Walczak explained as she described her experience in the States.
“It definitely helped being involved in the team and being part of the team dynamics because it’s very hard dive in. But as soon as I got there, I just dove right into the team. Especially because I was living with my teammates […] I was going to everything. I was part of everything, and tried to take everything in.”
Despite the experience being overall a good one, Walczak explained that it can be difficult to spend that time away from home as well.
“The experience is so great, but then having to live here in order to have that experience, it’s also kind of difficult,” she explained.
“On one hand, I would love to spend more time with [Brute Squad] and I feel like the more time I spent with the team, the better the experience gets. But on the other hand, I’m not a big fan of the US and I don’t really like spending a lot of time in the US, and I don’t like to miss out on the time and the life that I have in Europe.”
However, for Walczak sharing the experience with her teammate Trautmann made it even more unique and helped with the challenges they faced.
“We really used our connection that we had just from having played ultimate together in Germany for many years, and we also used that connection off the field and we met a lot and exchanged experiences,” she added.
Trautmann agreed, explaining that sharing the experience with Walczak gave her a safe space and someone who understood the experience they were sharing.
“I think it was an awesome team experience,” said Trautmann.
“I don’t know where to start. I’m just so happy that I could have this experience and play with the team and get to play in the final. Also, because that was my first time playing in a final in a big tournament ever. I’m used to losing in semis.
“I came there and then the first weekend we played Pro Champs. I didn’t have a practice with the team before playing with them. But everyone was so open and approaching me, and trying to get to know me during that tournament. So, I felt welcome right from the first moment on. I love the team for it because I really felt at home from the beginning.”
McHale finished second with Chicago Machine. The 30-year-old from London set off for the States after competing in UK Nationals in August.
“At the time it was fairly surreal,” he explained. “The idea that I was living in the US and was able to compete with some of the best players in the world made me a little nervous, but over time that fell away and just left excitement and desire to get to work.”
McHale spent the next few months living and training with Machine, with a small trip back to Poland to compete in the European Club Finals in the middle1, and embracing the experience. He acknowledged that the support he received really allowed him to experience it to the fullest.
“To have four Europeans competing in finals and even more throughout the top eight, it’s a real testament to the level we’re able to compete at.
“I think, sadly, that people’s professional lives and costs associated with travelling to the US to compete will continue to be a blocker unless teams start to actively recruit from Europe and are able to provide subsidized accommodation and travel. I was very fortunate to be able to afford to be in Chicago for that time but the support from Machine was invaluable.”
Oort, who competed in the AUDL season with DC Breeze prior to winning gold with DC’s Truck Stop at Nationals, spent the longest of the four in the States – travelling back once to compete for the Netherlands at the World U24 Ultimate Championships.
“The big thing for me was, I was there for such a long time. So, I got to start fresh for Truck leading up to this year’s Nationals,” said Oort.
“I really got everything out of it, which makes it a lot easier to fit into the team and actually get a role and be part of their culture. That was my intent going in and I feel like that was something I achieved.
“Obviously, I came here to win a championship and we got that done. It’s been on my bucket list for a very, very long time now – US Nationals. And I’ve been very lucky and honored to actually go there in the first place and then go win it on the first try. Not a lot of players can have the luck to win it on their first try.”
While there is little doubt now that European players can be, and are, on the same level of players in the United States, having the opportunity to go and compete in the USAU series is not as simple as being a good player as Oort explains.
“It takes a lot more than just being good at frisbee to go there,” the 23-year-old student from Amsterdam said. “It takes a lot of dedication outside of the field to be able to do it.
“I got to play the full season with them, but for me that was almost crucial. I wouldn’t be able to just show up at Nationals and have the role that I have. I can’t speak for the others, but that’s at least how it went in my experience.”
Takeaways from the Season
Each of these players had their own unique experience and each shared some of the lessons they took away from their time in America.
For Oort, he felt the amount of sport played in schools – not just ultimate – plays a significant role in the level of American players in addition to many of them starting the sport at young ages.
“I think the thing that would make the biggest impact here [in Europe] in the long term would be introducing Frisbee to high schools and more colleges. I just saw how big sports in general are in high school and college [in the States], whether it’s baseball or American football or basketball or whatever sport it is. If you don’t introduce it in schools, it’s going to take so much for people to get into the sport. Just looking at my team, and I’m sure it’s the same for most of the other US club teams, so many good players from our team came from the college team and high school teams,” he said.
“For me, I was lucky that my dad used to play, so I was able to start at a very young age, which in my opinion makes me into the player I am today. But I know that a lot of other people don’t even have that opportunity.”
Meanwhile Trautmann, whose German club team in Karlsruhe hasn’t competed at EUCF in the last two years, said that comparing the two experiences is challenging as the recent seasons have looked different for her. However, the 30-year-old said there are still many takeaways from her time in the States.
“I think the biggest difference that I noticed is the amount of weekends that you have for preparation,” said Trautmann. “I would say it feels more intense because you spend so many more weekends together.”
Walczak echoed Trautmann’s feelings, saying that she also found the intensity of trainings to be different.
“I think in Europe, a practice weekend is kind of like an occasional thing, and then like weekday practices, but the weekend practices [in the States] are just so intense,” said Walczak.
“Those four or five months of the season, the team is so close, and the social life is also so much around the team. I think the connections within those months of the season are just extremely tight in the US.”
Acknowledging that the skill of European players is on par with the United States is a big step forward for McHale, however learning from the US teams have been doing so well for so many years and respecting their depth is key to moving the European scene forward.
“I think there needs to be two forms of appreciation,” he said. “The first is that we as a continent are able to provide world class players that can go toe to toe with the US, so to remember that when forming goals for Worlds and beyond that we can beat these teams.
“That being said, we also need to respect and appreciate the skill level gap that can exist between a 26-player US squad vs a 26-player European squad. The US provides some of the best and most successful teams in the history of the sport, and so we have an opportunity to analyze and learn from those skill sets to bring us to a higher standard.”
That being said, McHale, who has been playing the sport for nine years, also emphasises that the game and level in Europe has helped players like him achieve their goals of competing in the States.
“I don’t deny that Ben [Oort], Levke [Walczak], Lilli [Trautmann] and I, amongst others, have all improved from having a competitive and successful US Series, but the reason we were able to contribute to our teams is because of where the European scene has brought us.”
Looking to the Future
Inspiring future generations of European players is important to all four of the finalists and each spoke highly of wanting others to be able to pursue the same goals and dreams that they have this year.
Oort, who has since had players reach out to him for advice on playing in the States, said he looked up to players like Justin Foord who went over to play in the US before him and that has helped lead the recognition European players are receiving this year.
“I realized a long time ago that European players are capable of doing it,” he said.
“But I do feel this year was the first year that we got as much attention as we did, or we had players that had significant contributions or roles in the team. So, I do think that this year was probably the best way to showcase that it was possible and I hope that it can inspire others.”
Looking ahead to the 2024 season and World Championships ahead, Trautmann believes that the momentum and talent European teams and players have built in the last few years will only continue – especially with more investment into youth in the continent.
“The competition [at Worlds] gets better every year and it’s great to see,” she said.
“I think what we can see with France is that they did a really great job with youth player development and I think that’s paying off.
“I think the more that a country puts into developing youth and more players, that’s when they grow the most. At Worlds, I really hope to see more European teams at the podium, but I’m also quite confident that it will happen.
“I think what is a little bit hard still for European teams is to get the same depth as the US teams. I think that’s why beach and World Games is such a great opportunity because you have a smaller roster and that’s where it’s easier to compete with these teams.”
Walczak agreed, explaining that seeing European players compete at the highest level in the US will help other European teams with their perception of how they stack up against USA teams.
“I think at World Championships, a lot of the European teams are so scared of playing a US team that they stop competing well. It’s a mental toughness and I think that part is going to get so much better,” she said.
“It’s going to improve so much because the players are going to understand that Frisbee is also just Frisbee when it’s played in the US.”
While the US scene is incredible, Walczak also emphasized that competing in the US doesn’t need to be the focal point of great ultimate either.
“The European level is also high. You can come over here [the play in the US] but I don’t actually think that that’s necessary [to be great].
“I think it’s a great experience and US Nationals is probably still the best or one of the best and craziest competitions just because there are so many teams that are on that stage and highest level.
“But I think, personally, that the whole Frisbee world and community should just start looking to all the places; to Asia, to Europe, to Colombia, to South America and should stop focusing just on the US.”
As for whether we will see more players from around the world come to compete in Europe, Walczak believes the whole world can benefit from more shared experiences.
“At the end of the day, Frisbee is all about friendship and connection and the more friendship and connections there are intercontinental, the more players will go internationally to compete.”
He helped Clapham regain the European title. ↩