Photos by Nita Rose-Evans. Illustration by Maggie McManus.
Photos by Nita Rose-Evans. Illustration by Maggie McManus.
Photo by Nita Rose-Evans.
Photo by Nita Rose-Evans.

Two bodies fly through the air. Tense fingertips barely brush the edge of a spinning disc thrown from 50 yards down the field.

“That’s my favorite thing about Ultimate Frisbee,” said Alina Kagan, a third-year student and second-year member of the UC Santa Cruz women’s club team. “The feeling of flying through the air to get the disc over five other people who are beneath you — for those couple of seconds, it’s like you’re flying and nothing else matters.”

Anyone who does not consider Ultimate Frisbee a sport should talk to Kagan, who just returned from the Club Nationals in Florida, and whose devotion to the sport is apparent.

“Ultimate Frisbee is my life,” Kagan said. “As of now, [it] accounts for about 60 percent of my life, if not more. Other things include eating and pooping.”

Kagan is not alone at UCSC. There are hundreds of avid Ultimate Frisbee fans in the Santa Cruz community, most of whom affectionately refer to their sport simply as Ultimate. And, on a campus where recreational outdoor activity can often be more popular than NCAA teams, Ultimate is right at home.

UCSC hosts four Ultimate Frisbee tournaments a year, including the upcoming Sean Ryan Tournament on Nov. 14.

“There is no better place to come play Ultimate,” said Kevin “Skippy” Givens, the intramural and sports club supervisor at UCSC. “This is the greatest Frisbee town in the world. We have a champion disc golf course, it’s beautiful, the weather is great — we host the most overall tournaments than anywhere in the world.”

The rules of Ultimate are simple: at the start of each possession, one team of seven players ‘pulls’ the Frisbee, throwing it to the other team. The team that catches the disc then plays offense, advancing the disc down the field. If the offense drops the disc, the possession reverses. Players may not take more than three steps with the disc, and the person in possession of the disc has 10 seconds to throw.

“Ultimate has very quick turnovers from offense to defense,” Givens said. “It’s fluid and constantly moving. It is this flow that makes it so distinct. That’s the allure.”

Discs have been flying in this manner in Santa Cruz since the 1960s. UCSC first formalized a men’s Ultimate team in 1981. Not long after that, a women’s team was formed.

“Frisbee in Santa Cruz is as old school as it gets,” Givens said in his office in the UCSC recreation department, where Frisbee-related trophies and awards line the walls.

Givens started playing Ultimate Frisbee in 1976. He competed in college with the United Flyers of Sonoma and first came to UCSC to play in a Frisbee tournament in 1977. A Frisbee fanatic for the past 33 years, Givens is also the executive director of the World Flying Disc Federation.

Local Devotion

Two tier-one Ultimate teams are present on campus. The men’s team is known simply as the ‘Slugs’ and the women’s team calls itself ‘Sol.’ Both teams practice tri-weekly on the East Field, and attend both in-state and out-of-state tournaments, beginning in November and leading up to the competitive season in the spring.

Slug captains Max Finch, Russell Wynne and Cassidy Rasmussen say their team is all about playing hard to improve their ranking.

“We play our hardest, focusing especially on our defense,” Finch said. “But we always keep it fun, because we play much better when having fun.”

Some members of the Slugs played Ultimate in high school, but many of them were involved in other sports, which then led them to Frisbee.

Ari Klevecz, a member of the Slugs for the past four years, loves Frisbee for the non-stop sprinting.

“I was always a runner. I did track and cross-country in high school. I came and tried out and fell in love with it since I could run around as much as I can.”

Organized by coach Daryl Nounnan, the Slugs’ practice consists of a variety of throwing and catching drills, with scrimmaging and conditioning at the end. Last weekend, the Slugs won a tournament in Santa Clara, and their team was narrowed down to 24 players.

On the women’s side, there are over 20 devoted girls who come to practice to play on the Sol team. Captains Clare “Juke” Riesman and Jessica “Ninja” Seay-Klatt organize weekday practices, and coach Whit Scott drives from his home in San Francisco to coach Sunday practices.

Second-year player Lyuda Grigoriva, who played Ultimate Frisbee in high school, finds that physical fitness is just one of the many ways she benefits from playing the sport.

“A lot of [Ultimate Frisbee] is about improving myself and developing the leader in me,” Grigoriva said. “Another huge part of it is being in shape — there’s no limit to how athletic you can get. The game is athletic and quick, with a lot of sprinting and quick decisions.”

Spirit of the Game

Unlike mainstream sports, Ultimate is completely self-refereed. In this unique level of sportsmanship, players adhere to what is known as the “Spirit of the Game” (SOTG) by calling their own fouls and deciding the outcomes on the field, in the middle of play.

“You are accountable only to yourself for calls, so it fosters a greater self. It makes you more responsible for the decisions you play on the field,” Riesman said.

Deanna Bjorkquist, who has played on Sol for the last three years, said the unique spirit of the game brings competing teams together. The UC Berkeley ‘Pie Queens’ often bake apple pies with the word ‘Sol’ baked in the center, and the Sonoma team ‘D’Vine’ routinely sing songs at competitions that are composed specially for the other team.

“I played basketball, softball, volleyball and track and field in the past, but Ultimate is the only sport where you call your own fouls and hang out with the opposing team on time-outs or after the game,” Bjorkquist said.

The Ultimate Players Association website lists 10 things all players should know about the SOTG. One point on the list cautions players against losing their cool in the heat of competition.

“SOTG is about how you handle yourself under pressure: how you contain your emotionality, tame your temper, and modulate your voice,” the Web site reads. “If you initiate or contribute to the unraveling of spirit, the concept falls apart quickly.”

In the history of Santa Cruz Ultimate Frisbee, no one exemplified this spirit better than Sean Ryan.

Just under 20 years ago, UCSC alumnus Ryan was an outstanding player on the Slugs and a well-known OPERS recreation leader. The year he played, the team went to Nationals. Ryan was appreciated by his teammates, including Givens, who played on an intramural team with him.

“Sean Ryan was gracious, mature beyond his years, quiet, soft-spoken, but he had a burning intensity about him,” Givens said. “For Sean, the greatest achievement was that of the team, not the individual. That’s why he was well loved by his team — he would always do whatever was needed to be done for the team.”

Ryan graduated and went on to work for the National Park Service. On an official rescue mission on Mount Rainier in 1995, he and fellow rescuer Philip Otis fell 1,200 feet to their deaths.

“He was an outstanding student leader in the recreation department,” said Matt Brower, senior recreation supervisor of UCSC. “When he died, it made sense to do something in his honor.”

Since his tragic death, several awards and scholarships have been established in Ryan’s name. In addition to the upcoming tournament named in his memory, the Sean Ryan Most Inspirational Player award is given to a player who demonstrates his qualities of sportsmanship. A scholarship in his name also goes to a member of the recreation department towards a future trip with the program.

The Ultimate Sport

Participation in Ultimate in Santa Cruz ranges from casual pick-up games to the official club team, but there are still plenty of people who do not consider Ultimate Frisbee a real sport. The misconception that Ultimate may be similar to casual Frisbee tossing often fuels the stereotype.

“Before I knew someone on the Frisbee team, I thought Ultimate was just a bunch of lazy hippies sitting around smoking joints,” said second-year UCSC student Jordan Liebman.

Riesman knows the misconception all too well.

“Frisbee is as physically demanding as any other field sport and just as intense,” she said.

Sol coach Whit Scott has been playing Ultimate for almost a decade. Scott competed in the World Games in 2003 with his team, the Brass Monkeys, and now captains the San Francisco-based club team Air. He believes that the strong camaraderie among Ultimate Frisbee players gives the sport a unique quality that sets it apart from other team sports.

“I think the culture of Frisbee is stronger than other sports,” Scott said. “No one is paid to play, everyone is committed to it because they love it.”

The History of Ultimate Frisbee

Frisbees have been around since 1871, when William Russel Frisbie’s pie company in Connecticut threw the empty pie tins around like a modern-day Frisbee.

Almost a century later, Walter Frederick Morrison tried to emulate flying saucers, which were all in the rage in the 1950’s, by creating a butyl stearate blend that shattered if dropped.

The plastic version of the disc came about when Rich Knerr and A.K. “Spud” Melin from USC teamed up with Morrison to create the Wham-O in 1957. As they toured college campuses promoting their new product, Knerr heard the term “Frisbee” — they had been tossing pie tins around since the days of Frisbie’s pie company.

Ultimate Frisbee did not evolve until 1968, when Joel Silver invented the sport at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. The next year, the first game was played with a Wham-O disc. A school team was formed in 1969, and the year after Silver wrote an official set of rules.

The first college Ultimate game happened just three years later between Rutgers and Princeton. Eight teams participated in the first organized tournament in 1975, the National Collegiate Championships.

In 1983, the first World Ultimate Championship was hosted in Gothenburg, Sweden. The U.S. boasted two club teams that won the open and women’s divisions.

In 2001, ultimate was included in the World Games in Japan along with disc golf.

Today, an estimated 100,000 players in 40 countries enjoy the sport. The Ultimate Players Association has over 13,000 members in the US.


Information from the World Flying Disc Federation,

The Sean Ryan Invitational will be held November 14 and 15 at UCSC’s upper east fields from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and attendance is free of charge.