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Playing With Spirit

The Quirky Game Called Ultimate

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From left to right, front row: Olin Duggan, Jovan Strange, Andre Savard, Cadence Centers, Beorn Morrow-Caron. Standing: Gabe Hall, Wyatt Smith, Ethan Toth, Jasper Turner, Evan Benoit, Ethan Borland, Cale Ellingson, Liam Boyles, Fletcher Turner, Jasper Ecklund, Cam Mack ( coach), Embry Ericson, Dax Desharnais. Photo by Cheryl Eckland
The Montpelier High School Ultimate team made the headline in the Times Argus sports pages when they defeated Central Valley Union High School to win the state championship on Saturday, June 10. Maybe your reaction to this newsflash was, “Ultimate … what?” The game, formerly known as Ultimate Frisbee, hasn’t been around all that long.

Vermont made Ultimate a varsity sport in 2017, the first state to do so, and in 2019, the MHS team became the first squad in the nation to win a state championship. Ultimate is now one of the fastest growing sports in the country but MHS senior Ethan Borland notes, “I don’t think people completely recognize how different a sport it is.” 

The origins of Ultimate may go back to the 1940s and the old Frisbie Bakery in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Frisbie pies came in metal pie plates that nearby Yale students enjoyed tossing in the air, calling out “Frisbie” in the same way golfers yell, “Fore!” 

In the late 1950s, the Wham-O company bought the patent for a frisbee-like plastic disc called the Pluto Platter, renamed it the Frisbee, and patented the name. Frisbees were an instant hit. 

In 1968, high school students from Maplewood, New Jersey, developed a set of formal, if quirky rules, and called the game Ultimate Frisbee, which is now played by both men and women.

Teams of players (usually seven on a team) compete to score points by catching the disc/frisbee in the end zone. A player cannot run while holding the disc but has 10 seconds to throw it to a teammate. The idea is to keep the disc moving to an end zone, but no player may enter the end zone unless holding the disc. No physical contact is allowed. The game stops when one team wins a predetermined number of goals, usually 15. 

What makes Ultimate unique is the “spirit of the game,” an honor system that makes each player responsible for knowing the rules, and players are expected to call their own fouls. In the event of a disagreement or line call, the game stops until players resolve the issue. Except at the highest levels of college plays, there are no referees.

This exercise in conflict resolution teaches players how to express their own perspective while listening to the other person’s point of view.

“I’ve learned to negotiate and engage in discussion,” said MHS sophomore Forrest Holloway. His teammate, Jasper Turner, notes, “I’m not the same person I was before. I’ve become part of a community and that’s a product of how the game is played. You’re expected to keep
yourself in check.”

Montpelier High’s coach, Cam Mack, says, “Each team has their own identity and can express ‘the spirit’ in their own way.”

Players are expected to have a friendly attitude toward opponents at all times. Some teams may gather after a game in a “spirit circle,” sharing positive actions and skills they noticed in their opponents. Not surprisingly, “the spirit” builds mutual respect and trust even between opposing teams. 

For Mack, Ultimate can be very competitive — or not. 

“Players should bring their own intensity … It’s not so important that I win but that I have fun, and when you have fun, you win.” When Mack arrived at the championship game, he was wearing a pink unicorn outfit, one of several costumes he wears to the games. 

He encourages self expression in his players as well. “Maybe they want to sing or just yell before starting a game.” 

Montpelier High junior Andre Savard says “We play for fun … It’s a game for anyone and everyone.” Savard is already hoping to find a college that offers Ultimate. 

Mack is a long time player himself and notes that “Ultimate became my identity,” but he refuses to claim credit for his team’s success. “I was the bystander,” he says.

Lillian Savard, mother of Rene, feels that Mack “is more than a coach. He’s such a good role model. He teaches them to be better human beings.” 

Are all Ultimate players better human beings? Athletics were always supposed to teach the basics of fair play and good sportsmanship. The old British saying “It’s not cricket” referred to unsportsmanlike behavior in the game of cricket and eventually to dishonesty and bad behavior in general. 

Then there’s the quote attributed to Vince Lombardi “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Although he eventually backtracked on this, it can feel like an American proverb. 

A 2015 article in The Guardian suggested that things may be starting to change. The author, Beau Dure, applauds modern sports such as snowboarding and Ultimate, which avoid a “despise thy enemy ethos.” Dure notes that during the wildly popular show, American Ninja Warrior, contestants can be seen cheering each other on as if they’re all working together to defeat that punishing obstacle course. 

If change is coming, it’s coming slowly. It’s satisfying to imagine, however, that “the spirit of the game” might take hold in our athletics and even in our culture. Perhaps some day, we may evaluate our political leaders on, among other things, their sense of fair play and their courtesy toward opponents. 

Stranger things have happened.

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