Ultimate Thrills

The sport of Ultimate is flying high in Madison

May 1, 2013

UW–Madison Bella Donna Ultimate player by Candace Westgate

UW–Madison Bella Donna Ultimate player by Candace Westgate

As we slowly transition out of winter and into greener months, expect to see more than just birds flying through the air. Ultimate season is upon us, filling Madison’s parks with patrons of all ages eager to once again let their discs soar.

“In summer, every park in town, nearly every night of the week has [Ultimate] games,” says Tim DeByl, a fifteen-year veteran of the sport. “It’s Frisbee-mania.”

So what’s the fascination with this team sport played with a flying disc? (The “Frisbee” is officially dropped from Ultimate’s name, as it’s a trademarked term by Wham-O toy company.)

Perhaps it’s the “Spirit of the Game” motto, which requires players of the self-officiated sport (meaning there are no referees) to demonstrate a strong sense of respect, sportsmanship and fair play. Maybe the lure comes from the Ultimate community’s insistence on gender equality. The complimentary pitchers of Great Dane beer after Madison Ultimate Frisbee Association, or MUFA, league tournaments for players might also have something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that Madison has a special fondness for Ultimate. In fact, while participation has increased nationally more than twenty percent over the past four years, Madison boasts the largest number of Ultimate players per capita in the country, according to Midwest Ultimate operations director and CEO Chris Olig.

Growing Strong

The game began as a fringe sport, born in the summer of 1968 and the brainchild of a New Jersey high schooler named Joel Silver. The object of the seven-on-seven game is similar to football in that players score points by passing the disc to team members in the opposing team’s end zone. However, Ultimate players aren’t allowed to run with the disc and must keep pivoting when the disc is in hand.

By 1970 the first official rules were penned, and within five years the game spread to the collegiate level. Presently, the U.S. has more than 4.8 million Ultimate players, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. It’s not merely a college sport, however; Ultimate has expanded to numerous club and recreational teams, not to mention the high school and middle school teams that continue to sprout within the Madison area and beyond.

“The sport is blowing up,” says DeByl. “Before, you had never heard of it until you went to college. Now nearly every high school in the area has an Ultimate team.”

There are twelve area high school teams, some of which have both an A and B team, says Dan Raabe, Ultimate coach at James Madison Memorial High School. He feels the sport has a unique draw for students because it’s easy to learn and lacks the extreme pressure that tends to accompany other high school sports. Additionally, Raabe says the morals embodied by Ultimate teach players valuable life lessons about respect and compromise.

Coming Together

For the Madison Ultimate community, May is a particularly exciting time. On May 3, the Radicals—Madison’s newly formed professional Ultimate team—host their inaugural home game against the Minnesota Wind Chill at Breese Stevens Field.

DeByl, who is also partial owner of the Radicals and the team's current coach, hopes to make home games for the Radicals similar to the atmosphere at Mallards games.

“There will be food, beer, tailgating beforehand. We want our games to be an event for the Ultimate community, but also something that will bring in a different demographic like high school kids and parents,” DeByl says. “The goal is to do whatever we can to preserve the essence of the game while making it entertaining at the same time.”

Later in the month, Madison welcomes the Division I USA Ultimate College Championship, making this the second time in less than five years the city has hosted the event. The tournament takes place over Memorial Day weekend, when players from the top twenty open division and top twenty women's division teams compete for the national title, which is whittled down from the more than 700 collegiate teams that entered the college championship series earlier this spring.  

Rebecca Enders, co-captain of Bella Donna, UW–Madison’s women’s Ultimate team, feels hosting the tournament speaks to the strength of the city’s Ultimate community.

“[Ultimate] is a huge part of the Madison community as a whole, and it’s growing,” Enders says. “Nationals in 2010 was such a successful event, and I think it’s going to be even better this time around.”

Kylie Peterson is an editorial intern for Madison Magazine. 

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