Radical Recreation: The ultimate sport

Cait Buxbaum plays ultimate Frisbee in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley.

It’s a late November Sunday on the north side of Anchorage, the air a cold 15 degrees and the sun is starting to set around 3 p.m. Most people are probably curled up at home with a warm beverage or maybe even hunkering down for a nap before dinner, trying not to think about the coming work week. But crunching through the week-old snow behind Begich Middle School is a fearless band of potential adrenaline junkies, beginning a game of ultimate Frisbee.

Natalie Brinley throws the disc to her teammate during a pick-up game of ultimate at Begich Middle School on Sunday, Nov. 26.
Natalie Brinley throws the disc to her teammate during a pick-up game of ultimate at Begich Middle School on Sunday, Nov. 26. Photo credit: Cait Buxbaum

Known officially as “ultimate disc,” given the trademarked Frisbee brand, the sport is often referred to simply as ultimate, a lofty but apt name for a game that requires more agility and finesse than many realize.

Cody Buechner, Student Clubs and Greek Life coordinator at UAA, can attest to that.

“They don’t realize how much work it is,” Buechner said. “You really have to train hard to be competitive in this sport.”

Buechner describes ultimate as a cross between American football and soccer, with set plays and strategies that teams use to increase their chances of winning against teams with certain styles and weaknesses. All seven players on a team have roles as cutters or handlers, and within those roles, positions like deep-deep, short-deep, left and right wings, mark, straight-up and outside, for example, in a zone defense.

But ultimate wasn’t always so complex; after all, it started at a prep school in Massachusetts in the summer of 1968 with future Hollywood producer Joel Silver as its champion. In his memoir, “Ultimate Glory,” ultimate pioneer and author David Gessner called the first teams “amorphous blobs of players” with little athletic skill.

“I don’t think most people have seen the evolution of the sport,” Buechner said.

Buechner said he started playing pick-up ultimate as a high school student in Minnesota, and participated in club play through his first year of college at Minnesota State University-Mankato. However, his studies took precedence over athletics, and ultimate fell by the wayside while Buechner worked on a Bachelor of Science in Recreation, Parks and Leisure Services. It wasn’t until after he graduated and obtained a Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of South Florida that he moved to Alaska, and in 2016, began playing ultimate again.

Winter ultimate, though, was a whole different “ball” game.

“It’s different for sure,” Buechner said. “In snow, even one point will get you fatigued.”

Players have chosen to wear boots or continue playing in cleats if the snow is only ankle deep, but either way, traction is more of an issue in winter.

Kaeli Stangl, who graduated from UAA last spring with an associate’s degree in culinary arts, said, “it’s like running in sand,” but that, “a little resistance training,” isn’t so bad, especially with friends.

“It’s really difficult to motivate yourself to run in the cold, but when you can run around and have fun with a group of people, it’s not so much of a challenge,” Stangl said.

Kaeli Stangl lays out for the disc in the end zone during a pick-up game of Ultimate at Begich Middle School on Sunday, Nov. 26.
Kaeli Stangl lays out for the disc in the end zone during a pick-up game of Ultimate at Begich Middle School on Sunday, Nov. 26. Photo credit: Cait Buxbaum

James Osowski, a current UAA student, said that, “the wind is a bigger factor in the winter,” too.

- Advertisement -

“Only the most dedicated players continue to show up once the snow hits,” Osowski said.

Buechner agreed, not faulting anyone for sticking to occasional summer play.

“Those who are dedicated will play every week, and those who are new and learning might come out a little bit and then move on to the next Alaskan adventure,” Buechner said.

As a sport that is now played professionally across the globe, as well as locally, ultimate is unique in that it requires no referees at any level.

“In ultimate you are in charge of policing yourself,” Osowski said. “You must hold yourself to the spirit of the game and make fair calls based upon the circumstances you are in. There are rules that must be followed but the players are the ones enforcing those rules.”

Brady Ohlsen skies Cody Buechner during a pick-up game of Ultimate at Begich Middle School on Sunday, Nov. 26.
Brady Ohlsen skies Cody Buechner during a pick-up game of Ultimate at Begich Middle School on Sunday, Nov. 26. Photo credit: Cait Buxbaum

This “spirit of the game” is actually written into the official USA Ultimate rules, and reads as follows:

“Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate unsportsmanlike conduct from the Ultimate field. Such actions as taunting opposing players, dangerous aggression, belligerent intimidation, intentional infractions, or other ‘win-at-all-costs’ behavior are contrary to the Spirit of the Game and must be avoided by all players.”

Osowski said it is this aspect that makes ultimate his “favorite sport.”

Buechner said he’s made his best friends in the ultimate community, meeting for hikes or other outdoor activities throughout the year. However, the ultimate crowd as a whole, he said — especially at tournaments like the annual JAM and Daze of Disc events — can be a little bit much for an introvert like him.

Spirit games are often played after individual matches in tournament play, and involve alcohol and/or physical contact (such as carrying or sitting on another person). These can be much-needed ice breakers for new players and teams, especially after a tense game.

“We’d rather make sure people left happy than be super intense,” Buechner said.

Chelsea Kovalcsik breaks her mark with a forehand down field during a pick-up game of Ultimate at Begich Middle School on Sunday, Nov. 26.
Chelsea Kovalcsik breaks her mark with a forehand down field during a pick-up game of Ultimate at Begich Middle School on Sunday, Nov. 26. Photo credit: Cait Buxbaum

Chelsea Kovalcsik, another Alaska transplant and ultimate player, said she felt like the Anchorage community was “very welcoming” when she first arrived, and continually invited her back to play pick-up on the park strip that first summer. She quickly made friends, and with her college basketball days behind her, ultimate is now her “go-to” sport.

Even though she’s currently training for a marathon, Kovalcsik said she’s not taking a break from ultimate.

“I might get injured, but if it’s [diving] for a Frisbee, it’s worth it,” Kovalcsik said.

To learn more about local ultimate, go to anchorageultimate.org, or join the Anchorage Ultimate Facebook group, where times and locations for pick-up games are posted regularly.