Oberlin Ultimate

Part 2 of 3

by Michael Doyle '79

Oberlin and Beyond

The Ultimate Players Association counts anywhere between 25,000 and 65,000 competitive Ultimate players worldwide and climbing. There are at least 145 college teams that have earned their way onto the collegiate Ultimate rankings, and the 2001 World Games scheduled for Japan will include Ultimate as one of the medal sports. The sport is growing legitimate in ways only dreamed about when some New Jersey high school kids created it in revolution-minded 1968.

But one can't appreciate Ultimate-and, particularly, Oberlin Ultimate-simply by stripping away the veils of style and proclaiming the naked parallels to other established sports. It would be tantamount, say, to an otherwise estimable liberal arts college proclaiming itself "the Harvard of the Midwest;" it would not do justice to either style or substance. If Ultimate enjoyed the national popularity that its champions know it deserves, Oberlin's team in May 1998 would surely not have been ranked 35th in the nation above such Big Sport factories as Ohio University, the University of Texas, and the University of Nebraska. Ultimate's style undeniably deters some athletes and potential spectators alike, but it's the very synthesis of style and substance that makes Ultimate a quintessentially Oberlin experience.

"Our rep was pretty much that of a bunch of odd and talented individuals who were somehow Oberlin's ambassadors to the world of organized athletics; and suitably representative of Oberlin's creative oddities," said Michael Dwyer '97.

Intense, individualistic, misunderstood, astonishing, sometimes goofy beyond question, often beautiful beyond compare: Ultimate and Oberlin go together like sprouts and tofu. The sport expresses one facet of the college; not that any one activity should be burdened with too much metaphorical weight. The midnight oil burning in a Kettering science lab, the whispered phrases rising from a Con practice room, the endless vegan debates sprouting in the co-ops-an Oberlin microcosm might be appreciated in any of these. The spirit of a college is manifested in many places. For Oberlin, Ultimate happens to be one of them. This is appropriate, as Ultimate itself honors that which players conjure as the Spirit of the Game.

The Spirit of the Game is not nearly so vaporous as it sounds. It's even written down in the regulations, with the emphasis on "sportsmanship" and "fair play" and "basic joy of play." Such two-dimensional words, of course, are to the Spirit of the Game as Cliff Notes are to epic poetry: close, but no epiphany. Meaning must be incarnated in the sweat-and-blood world.

"The Spirit of the Game is what is most unique about Ultimate, but it's also what is most in jeopardy as the sport grows," said Chris Ball '80, a veteran player now working as a copy editor.

The Spirit of the Game means there are no refs, and not because play isn't robust. Just ask Retsu Takahashi, with his gloriously sprained ankle; or team founder Doug Powers '77, who dislocated his shoulder crashing to the floor in an indoor game; or Tom Keck, who serially fractured his right facial bone, dislocated his thumb, and blew out his back; or Reggie Oh with his near-crippling shin splints; or Eric Olson '95, who bizarrely busted his knuckles when his disc-grabbing dive went awry; or Moshe Imel, who started dislocating his shoulder as a freshman player and never really stopped. It's not placidity that keeps refs away, it's Ultimate's insistence that players are their own authority figures. As Ball noted, however, it's also an expression of idealism that faces increasing challenge as the sport approaches the mainstream.

The Spirit of the Game means all-out exertion married to creative expression. For Oberlin, that's a match made in Heaven. Other sports are matured; something established that players must adapt themselves to. Ultimate is immature, which means it's still growing. Players still have the power to make it up as they go along, and they can seem a little delirious at times. At an October 31, 1998 tournament, Ultimate player and Oberlin Review writer Jacob Kramer-Duffield '01 reported that the Flying Horsecows changed their name to the Headless Horsecows and showed up to play in full Halloween regalia. The more outlandish the costume, the more game time a player received. It was utterly ridiculous; and, at the end of the day, the Oberlin players had run through the aerobic equivalent of four soccer or basketball games, three of which they won.

Oberlin Ultimate "It's athleticism at the highest levels," said Houston Miller '76, now a chemistry professor at George Washington University, "and yet people do this while maintaining the tongue-in-cheek attitude that this is just a game...there is still room for shock because it is a circus. It's not collegiate sports with pom-poms waving."

Circuses need music, something for which Oberlin Ultimate has always been known. In the team's earliest years, the technically adept James Miller '78-Houston's brother and now a neurobiologist with Silicon Valley stock options-began setting up tape decks and speakers in the Fieldhouse. Games moved at the syncopated pace of a Little Feat song or riding atop an endless Quicksilver Messenger Service jam. Eventually, of course, the music evolved as each team found its own identity. This go-your-own way spirit is seen soon enough, watching the Oberlin women's team. In the early 1990s, they began adopting an evolving series of homemade uniforms. For a while, the Praying Manti wore black-and-silver skirts and T-shirts depicting a cleat-wearing, disc-clutching preying mantis. Later they wore shocking orange T-shirts, turquoise skirts, and knee-high orange socks. They played their music loud. The women players were a field hockey team gone piratical, having thrown overboard their spinster coach and setting course for someplace dangerous.

"We were the hippest, coolest, buffest, most fantastic, self-assured group of women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing," said Annie Zeidman '92. "Folks just took one look at us and knew that."

The Spirit of the Game means intense competition restrained by respect and good humor. Nothing has ever expressed the idea better than the Oberlin Mellow Invitational Tournament begun in the 1980s. OMIT sprang from the radical inspiration that scorekeeping was extraneous to outstanding play: intrinsically motivated players would strive just as hard whether or not points were being tallied. Teams came to play scoreless games; not everyone appreciated the concept, but many did. The Oberlin teams started getting a reputation and, in the 1992 National tournament held in Colorado, the Flying Horsecows proved exultant even in defeat. Their chants, oms, post-game circles and all-out inspired play won them the tournament's Spirit of the Game Award. For players in an Ultimate tournament, that's short of a crown, but a lot more meaningful than Miss Congeniality because it invokes the heart of the game itself.

"We were the most spirited team at Nationals, really without any contest, because we were so damn happy to be there," recalled Keck, who's now an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma.

By reaching the Nationals-a feat repeated by both the men's and women's teams in 1997-the Oberlin players also achieved that which had eluded the athletic misfits and high-potential underachievers who founded the college's first Ultimate team in 1976.

Appropriately enough, Doug Powers first got the disc spinning with an ExCo class in 1975, which by 1976 had evolved into team practices on the North Quad. The sport was still finding its way. Games were played not to 15 points, but in timed halves that fit the soccer or basketball model, but which also invited stalling play. Some teams, like Antioch, expressed purity of purpose by playing entirely in bare feet. At night, exhausted players endlessly hashed out the future of the game: Picture Abner Doubleday and his best friends envisioning baseball's alternative futures while dreaming over a bottle of absinthe. The players in early tournaments were literally writing the book on Ultimate; something subsequent generations have continued to update. In January 1989, fruitfully combining the spirit both of Ultimate and Winter Term, Takahashi and Lev Fruchter '89 hammered out an opus entitled "Keys to Ultimate" that eventually grew to about 100 pages.

"The unintended effect that this project had was to introduce a methodical, deliberate approach to recruiting, encouraging, and developing new players while strategically honing the team," Takahashi said.

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