For locals, Ultimate Frisbee is ultimate sport

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— Each Monday and Wednesday afternoon throughout the summer, about a dozen people meet at 6 p.m. on the field by the old junior high school in downtown Steamboat Springs.

For the next two hours, they sprint up and down the field, leap into the air and throw themselves on the ground, all in an effort to catch a flying disc.

They're playing Ultimate Frisbee, a sport that is increasingly popular but still widely unknown, and that players say has an underground attitude.
Ultimate was invented in 1967 at a high school in New Jersey, and soon became associated with the counter-culture movement and the party spirit of the 1970s.

It now has a following all over the world, and serious competitions or low-key pickup games can be found in many U.S. cities, including Steamboat.

The rules of the game are straightforward. Two teams of seven players face off on a field. The offensive team tries to work the disc down the field and catch it in the end zone to score a point. The person holding the disc can't run with the disc, so instead must toss it to a teammate.
If the disc is dropped or intercepted, it goes to the defensive team, which then tries to pass it down to the opposite end zone and score.

A key part of the sport is the "spirit of the game," a phrase Frisbee players use to describe the honesty and positive attitude that are central to playing the game. This "spirit" is also why there are no referees or umpires in Ultimate games: Players have the responsibility of making their own out-of-bounds or foul calls.

Tacking a definition onto "spirit of the game" can be difficult, but Stan Strounk, who has played Ultimate in Steamboat for the past few summers, had some ideas.

"You play as hard as you can, but you're not trying to better someone. You're out there doing your best," Strounk said. "(Spirit of the game) is what it's all about. That's the key ingredient."

The athleticism and spirited culture involved in the sport have turned Ultimate into a sort of addiction for some players.

"It stays with you," said Christopher Raymond, who has played Ultimate games in Steamboat for the past two summers. "You don't ever want to stop playing really."

This passion for Ultimate even drives players to search out games while they're on vacation. Last Wednesday at the Steamboat Ultimate game, about half a dozen players were tourists visiting for a week or two.

Erik Gessert, who is staying with a friend in Steamboat for a few weeks, is one example. Gessert played Ultimate through college and is now part of a summer league in Denver.

"We figured since we're up here, we might as well play," Gessert said. "I just think it's a lot of fun."

Paul Holt was another out-of-town visitor. He said he has played a handful of Ultimate games, but while visiting Steamboat for a family reunion, he saw the local games advertised in the newspaper and so came out to play.

"I'm tired out," Holt said. "But people are really friendly and very welcoming."

The games in Steamboat are easygoing: Scores are not even usually kept, and players rotate between the two teams on the field. People of all ages and all skill abilities are encouraged to play.

No one now playing knows when Ultimate first came to Steamboat. But for at least the past 10 years, about 10 to 14 people have made it out for the weekday games, players said.

People find out about the games mostly through word of mouth and also through the team's newspaper ad, said Rich Levy, who has played Ultimate for eight years in Steamboat and for about 20 years total.
"It's a pretty loose network," Levy said. "We kind of just send the signal out and hope that people show up."

The group that shows up always ends up being pretty diverse, Levy said. Players have been as young as 9, and older than 45. Some have never picked up a Frisbee before coming to the local game, while others have competed in Ultimate tournaments at the college or club-sport level.

"They are really accepting of new players and people of all abilities, which is really encouraging," said Josie Dean, who first came to play Ultimate with her husband Bruce.

More experienced players help newer players learn the basics, and all players often cheer good catches or throws by people who are on the other team.

Anyone who has an interest in playing the game should give it a try, players said.

"It's good exercise," said Jason Anderson, a friend of Gessert. "It's good to get out and instead of just running around the street, why not run around and play a game."

Because Ultimate can involve a lot of running, beginning players will probably have more fun if they are or want to be in shape. But beginners shouldn't feel like they have to be good at throwing a disc before they come out and play.

"If you can catch a Frisbee, you can play," said Jamie Moore, who is working in Steamboat for the summer. "Then you get your throws."
Ultimate players are also quick to point out that Ultimate is not the same as Frisbee golf, in which a person walks around with a disc and tries to hit certain objects, such as specific trees or signs, with only a few throws.

But Frisbee golf can be good practice for improving on the basic backhand and forehand, or "flick," throws, as well as throws such as the "hammer" and the "thumber" in which the disc ends up sailing through the air upside down.

These throws can be used in different game situations to help the thrower get the disc around a strong defense.

Learning strategies for throwing the disc, for running to the disc to catch it, for faking out the defense or for playing tough defense are important. Any player who learns the key strategies can excel at the sport, regardless of his or her natural athletic ability.

"I think it's something that people of all shapes and sizes can play," Gessert said. "It's not just dominated by people who are really tall or really fast."

But even with the focus on strategizing and on improving skills, players say the main point of the game is to enjoy it.

"It's all about the spirit of the game," Levy said. "It's about having fun."
Ultimate Frisbee games take place Monday and Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the field near the old junior high school at 8th street and Pine Street.

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