Strength in Union: Daniel Lancaster’s Miraculous Return to Ultimate

Union Jaxx's Daniel Lancaster opens up about his recent stroke that took him away from ultimate, and how his team has helped him find his way back

Union Jaxx’s Daniel Lancaster catches a disc at FCS D-III Tune Up 2024. Photo: Alphonso Abbott Jr. – BE Ultimate

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Daniel Lancaster, a student at Union University and member of D-III’s Union Jaxx, finds it hard to believe he’ll be playing at ConfRegionals this weekend. He has reason to be surprised: a year ago, Daniel suffered a sudden and nearly fatal stroke. Since then, the feasibility of Daniel stepping onto a frisbee field, or stepping whatsoever, has at times been in doubt. Against all odds, he recovered, a process to which his family, his friends on Jaxx, and his faith have been instrumental. Daniel gave Ultiworld a look at his awe-inspiring and tumultuous comeback.

Bix Weissberg: In brief, who are you and what is your playing background? 

Daniel Lancaster: I am a junior mechanical engineering major at Union. Playing background? I really don’t have any. I played a little bit in high school, just recreationally. But I wasn’t aware that there was a competitive scene [until college]. I heard about Jaxx my freshman year, but I didn’t try out. My sophomore year was when I tried out and started playing. I’ve been playing for about two years.

What was your experience with the Union Jaxx before your stroke? 

I had my stroke at the end of my sophomore year, the end of my first year playing. So I spent about a year on the team before the stroke. For the most part, it was really, really good. I love the community we’ve got there. I have some really good friends on Jaxx. I was a rookie, so I didn’t get a ton of playing time at tournaments, but I understood that and I was fine with it. I just really enjoyed the process of getting better at tournaments and being able to see the team clicking. And one of the Jaxx guys became my roommate this year which has been great.

Can you give me some details about the nature of the stroke?

It was mid-April of last year when it happened. I was in my dorm, I was just chilling. And then it kind of felt like I got a really bad headrush. I remember sitting on my couch and then I stood up. My vision kind of went, like, blurred. I started to see double a little bit, and I figured it would just go away. But it just kept getting worse. So I went to my bed and laid down and I called one of my roommates. Luckily he was in the room at the time, and I was like, “Hey, I think something’s wrong.”

An MRI taken during the stroke revealed a large blood clot, highlighted in red.
An MRI taken during the stroke revealed a large blood clot, highlighted here in red.

So he came over, and I was not doing well at all. He was like, “You should probably call your parents.” And so I called them. Luckily they live in Jackson, like ten minutes from Union, and they came over real quick. They got me in a car and we went to the emergency room for testing. They did some tests there, an MRI and CT scan, and they saw there was something, a blood clot was in the bottom-right portion of my skull. It was in the cerebellum, the little cauliflower-like thing in the bottom of the brain, and it was a pretty significant size.

It really is a blessing from the Lord that I’m alive right now. When they saw I had a blood clot, they took me over to Vanderbilt in an ambulance. We drove over there real quick, and then I got the surgery. Stayed in Vanderbilt for about a week, then came back to Jackson and was in an inpatient physical therapy clinic for about a week. Then I did some more physical therapy once I was allowed to go back home. Overall, it was probably about 1-2 months after my surgery until I was running again.

It’s literally just a miracle that I’m even alive right now. It’s kind of crazy. Every doctor that I’ve talked to has been like, “We have no idea how you survived this.” Because if you see a picture of the MRI, it’s kind of wild how close it was to my brain stem and how big it was.

And every doctor I’ve talked to has said, “If I hadn’t seen you but just saw the MRI, I would say at the very best, you would still not be able to walk,” which is kind of crazy.

That’s an amazing story. Scary, but I’m really glad to see it all went smoothly. What was the process of deciding to come back to ultimate like for you?

Right after I had the stroke it didn’t even register in my mind that I wouldn’t be able to come back to Jaxx. I was like, “Of course I’m coming back, of course I’m going to play. Ultimate is just what I do.” And it wasn’t until I started to get most of my movement back that it started to register my mind. I was like, “Oh my gosh, it is kind of a miracle that I can even move.”

I remember the first time I really started to question if I could even come back. It was in June, and it was the first time I tried to pick up a disc and throw it again. And [I threw it] across my living room to my little sister Rene. The stroke affected the right half of my body, and since I’m right handed, I tried to flick it and it just completely tanked. It went absolutely nowhere. And that was the first time I was like, “I might not be able to do this.” But then, praise God, through going to physical therapy and practice, I’ve built up the ability to throw again.

It wasn’t really a big decision for me, if I should come back or not. It was always kind of a given that yeah, I’m gonna come back. I thought, “This sucks. And it’s really hard right now. But I know that I’ll be back.” And, you know, praise God I did come back. It wasn’t until after the fact when I had the realization I could not have been able to come back. That kind of hit.

When you did decide to come back, what were the various mental and physical challenges of returning?

Daniel Lancaster gets up for a catch during a fall 2023 family weekend game.

The biggest mental challenge for me was accepting that I’m probably not going to be where I was physically before I had the stroke, and being able to come to terms with that. There were just small things like my jumping or running. Like, I know that I can jump higher, run faster than I am now, but I’m just not able to. I know of recent times when I would jump for a disc and think, “I know I can jump higher than this. I’ve jumped higher than that before.”

It took me probably a month to really come to terms with that and accept that I might not ever be able to get back to where I was, and to be grateful for the place that I am at. The fact that I can even play at all is just such a huge blessing. I should just be super thankful for that. There are odd physical things here and there, but if you didn’t know that I had a stroke, you would never pick those out. Just small things that I can tell are a little bit different than they were before. I’m kind of used to it by now, I don’t really notice it as much anymore, but it’s still there.

Did you change your approach to fitting ultimate into your life after the stroke? 

I think ultimate became a lot more of a priority for me. At first it was like I wanted to prove that I’m still able to do ultimate, even though I did have a stroke. It was about showing to everyone else that I’m going to be okay.

Daniel is visited by Jaxx teammates Calvin Pettigrew and Nate Thomas.

And then my thoughts kind of turned into more of, “I want to give back to this team because of the way that I’ve seen them support me.” After my surgery, so many of the Jaxx guys texted me or called me, a couple of them came up to the hospital and visited me, and through that I felt so much support from them. It was kind of like, “I’m going to give my all to this team because of what I’ve seen them do for me.” So it definitely took a lot more priority for me, kind of like a front seat role.

Could you talk a little bit more about how Union Jaxx has shaped your return? How has the team reacted and helped support you? 

Like I said, they were immediately just on top of it all. Super supportive. Union’s a Christian college, so pretty much all the Jaxx guys are strong believers. They were all praying for me and writing me letters, which was super sweet. And then when I came back they were very understanding. Whenever I was like, “I might need to take a step back,” they would say, “Of course, we completely understand.” They were always super encouraging to me and motivated me to get back to where I was without pushing me or being mean about it.

My stroke happened over the summer, right at the end of the semester, and then most of my recovery was over the summer. They were texting me throughout that season, seeing how I was doing, where I was at. I could always tell they weren’t asking because they were concerned about the team, they were asking because they were concerned about me and wanting me to get better. That was just super sweet to me. One of the captains texted me, “If you don’t want to come back, I completely understand. I know what you’ve been through and it’s perfectly fine.”

Now I’m back to playing. All the other guys, they kind of understand what my physical abilities are now, and they don’t really question anymore or talk about it. It’s just been super fun. I love getting back to the team.

It seems like things are in a good spot now. 

Yeah, yeah.

What are your goals for your future in ultimate? Even looking beyond college? 

Right now, the big thing for the Jaxx is winning Regionals. We’re in a region with Berry and Ave Maria, the two other big teams. They’re both really, really good. So we’re just trying to get to the place where we feel confident playing them in Regionals. We do feel confident right now, but it’s [this weekend], so we’re really having to lock in now. After that we want to do as well as we can in Nationals.

After college, I really don’t know what it’s going to look like for me. I would love to join a club team wherever I end up and just plug in there and have a bunch of fun with it. If there are more competitive opportunities for me, I would love that. But, you know, we’ll see.

Is there anything else that you think we should know? 

I think the biggest takeaway from this is I can literally only praise my Lord Jesus Christ for where I’m at today. That’s like the only reason. It’s kind of surreal when you’re talking to one of the best neurosurgeons in the world, and he tells you, “There’s no reason you should be alive right now.”  So that’s kind of been a big beacon for my faith, I guess? Just seeing, actually in my life, the only reason that I’m here is because of the Lord’s providence and His hand over me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

  1. Bix Weissberg
    Bix Weissberg

    Bix Weissberg plays D-line on the Oberlin Flying Horsecows. He has a love for disc and enjoys writing about DIII college frisbee. In his free time he can be found eating something tasty and smiling. You can reach him at [email protected]

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