I just got back from Costa Rica last night. I went with three guys, Boone, Norman, and Dalke (not their real names). We went for an ultimate tournament. Since Kim and I are moving back to the U.S., my friends suggested one last big adventure, our last tournament together, maybe our last time to have real, focused time together. We’re all husbands and dads, all in ministry, and always have multiple things vying for our attention. Uninterrupted time together becomes rare.
Four days to hang out and play ultimate? A treasure.
The timing of our trip seemed dubious, since Nicaragua is suffering severe political turmoil and violence right now. We were deciding day-to-day whether we would go; finally, the night before, we determined that we could. It probably sounds crazy that we decided to take such a trip at this time, but the truth is, choosing not to would have changed nothing here. Everyone was fine while we were gone. The hardest thing to explain is how normal things feel in Nicaragua right now, except when they’re not. Horrible things are happening, yet our families are safe. Panicking or creating more drama helps no one. We keep praying.
Had we planned to drive, as we have on every other trip to Costa Rica,* we would have canceled. The roads are not safe and we could not have gotten through. But because this was the last hoorah, we had decided, before any of this broke out, to fly. So we went.
We departed Managua from an empty airport. I estimated a five-to-one ratio of employees to travelers…at 6:45 PM. We could each have had a row or three of seats to ourselves, had we wanted.
Costa Rica, after a month of unpredictable violence and instability in Nicaragua, struck us as bizarre. Visiting Costa Rica always feels closer to being in the US than it does to being in Nicaragua, and even more so this time. Three hundred kilometers seemed worlds away from our turmoil here. Many Costa Ricans asked us, “How are things there? What’s going on now? It’s so sad, all that’s happening.” They care, but they asked as you would ask about any far distant, tragic yet personally unrelated situation. Our problems had not touched their world.
Most of our guy time together would sound boring if I described it or tried to write it up as dialogue. You had to be there. Being there, it was utterely hilarious. Being there, I felt so grateful for these three men, for what great friends they’ve been to me for the past seven years. Inside jokes, inappropriate comments, sudden, insightful depth in the midst of an ordinary-sounding conversation. Kindness, generosity, encouragement, affirmation. Truth-telling.
I’d never played cribbage before our trip. By the flight home, I was watching Boone and Dalke play. Cribbage went from a card game I didn’t understand to a spectator sport for me in the space of four days. I still suck at it, but the key– and maybe a key to life–is that I was playing with people I really enjoy. If they had been excited about tiddly-winks or Go Fish, we might have played those all weekend. I’m sure it would have gotten competitive.
Another lesson I remembered not to forget was to live in the present. It would have been easy for me to have felt so nostalgic about our trip that I forgot to enjoy our trip. Instead, I focused on enjoying each little moment as it happened. The breakfast burritos and incredible coffee on Thursday morning. Learning about Arenal Volcano and how it buried 15 square kilometers of Tico farmland under lava and ash. Realizing that we were sitting at that breakfast within range of that volcano. and the rocks weighing several tons that flew out of it at–ready?– 600 meters per second would have smashed us before we had time to insult one another one final time. We talked about those rocks the rest of the trip.
Other moments, lived in and remembered:
*The three of them had burgers and fries on Friday right before the game; I ate salad.
*On Saturday night, which is classic ultimate party scene, we were happily in our beds by 8:30, watching the Warriors beat the Rockets by 30, playing some cribbage, laughing about our old men selves. Crazy that our wives risk letting us go out.
*All the time spent talking and laughing in the pool and the hot tub. Norman asked me what I’ll miss most about living in Nicaragua. That was good to reflect on.
*Three of us predicted the Celtics would win Game 7, while one successfully called the outcome. A modicum of boasting ensued.**
*Sunday afternoon, post all games, sitting at our traditional Tico steak joint we always go to, reviewing the one-sided finals in our minds and what we needed to do differently to have won it all, playing–guess what?–and eating, drinking, laughing, and getting too full. We declared Sunday-afternoon-onward as the “Replenishing” portion of the trip, which sounded better than “gorging,” “bingeing,” or “drowning our sorrows.”
*The huge, bearded iguanas that came right up to us to share our breakfast on Monday morning. From there, talking about Komodo Dragons, and then all the topics that we tangented on to, one after the other.
Now I’m going to indulge a bit. You don’t have to read about the ultimate tournament (technically speaking, you don’t have to read any of this), but I am going to write about it. This was my last hurrah with my friends and my last hurrah to play an ultimate tournament here.
Dalke and Boone were on one team and Norman and I were on another. Of the eight teams, ours both made the semi-finals.
I’m forty-nine. I’m a good ultimate player, but these days I keep having to overcome the doubts that while I may be a good forty-nine-year-old ultimate player, I’m no longer competitive with the younger folks.
Hat tournaments have their own unique make up. Rather than having pre-established teams come in, for the “Volcanic Tournament,” two people maximum can request to play together and the organizers pick the teams “from a hat.” They are “randomly” put together in the sense that players rank themselves and then get placed on teams in an attempt to balance beginner, intermediate and advanced players, tall and not-so-tall, throwers and cutters (less-throwers or faster-runners-arounders). The question I always ask when ranking myself is “compared to whom?” You just guess.
I loved our team. I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed a hat team more than I enjoyed this one. I always enjoy playing with Norman. We had one elite player who was fantastically talented, tall, humble, and fun. We had a 25-year-old gal, just diagnosedas cancer free in February, playing with her PICC line still in her chest. She got Spirit of the Game. But most importantly, we figured out in a very short time how to play together and each find our role.
We played a game on Friday night, which I’d never done in a tournament before, ever. Since we arrived late Thursday, we had all Friday to relax and prepare. We prepared by sitting in the hot tub in the pouring rain for three hours.
I played awfully. I was pressing too hard, my timing was off, I messed up a couple plays I should have made and then couldn’t get those out of my head. First games in hat tournaments are notoriously ugly because the teams are just figuring out how to play together. That was us. Games were to eleven points which meant half-time at six–and we were losing 6-1. At that moment, I wondered if we would suck and if, ultimate-wise, this might be a long, rough weekend. I don’t, after all, love losing. But we fought back well in the second half and even got to 9-7 beore losing 11-7. I was bummed but not crushed.
Saturday, though. Saturday was epic.
I’ve played in a lot of tournaments, so many I’ve lost track. I’d never had an experience like Saturday.
On Saturday, our team won all five of our games. That’s a good day. We won four games at universe point. That means we were tied at the end, with time having run out and next point wins. Four times.
And we won.
All. Four. Times.
Not only have I not done that beore, I’ve never seen it before. Winning two games at universe point in a tournament is pretty darned good. You might win three, over the course of two days, if you had a clutch team.
We won four out of four that way on the same day.
The other game we finally got a blow-out, winning 11-5 (I think).
I must add that in two of our four universe point wins, we could
have won more easily but let the other team get close after we were well ahead. I realized then we loved drama.
I won’t go through a play-by-play of each game. I could. I had a good day. On Saturday, I caught the ones I dropped or mis-read on Friday, made the throws my team didn’t yet realize I could throw on Friday night, and somehow, to my amazement, became our go-to cutter.
See, that’s weird, because I’m a thrower. A handler. I’m older and slower but I can throw better. That’s my role in ultimate for at least 10-12 years now.
But something strange and magical happened on Saturday in Arenal. I got fast again.
In case you’re wondering if I’m deluded or letting the stress get to my brain, I wasn’t the only one who noticed. My team, who had not played with me before, just decided I was. But my friends, who have played with me for seven years and watched me get slower, also commented, in their affirming-but-jerky way. However, the real proof was that I cut deep and caught several hucks (US football translation: went long and caught several bombs). I beat a Tico guy who had beat me deep back in our Nicaragua tournament in November. I was getting to the disc and getting to it first. So, since we had other players, especially two gals and the aforementioned guy, who could throw well, I traveled back in time about 12 years to when I was more valuable to the team as the guy who could run fast, cut quick, and get open to catch the disc first. Then look for a throw. Or just give it back to the handlers and cut again. By the end of the fifth game I was finally cramping in both legs and had to sit out the last third of the game–which we still won on universe point!
Now remember, I went into this tournament wondering whether I could still keep up. To find out not only could I keep up but often beat much younger players shocked and delighted me. I had trained pretty hard coming in, within the confines of what my time allows and my body will put up with.*** I lost a few pounds, which sounds like no big deal but those suckers really don’t like to come off at this age like they used to when I was younger. I also think I had “home field advantage” in the sense that Costa Rica and Nicaragua are both crazy humid and most of the US players were not acclimated to the tropics. Nonetheless, having my twenty-to-thirty-years-younger teammates comment on what good condition I was in felt great. One teammate even commented on my abs…and that’s when I realized they were all BSing me.
I’m going to say three more things about our games.
We lost in the semi-finals, to a team we had beaten (by 1!) the day before. We had plenty of chances to beat them and just didn’t capitalize, but that is life and sports.
Second, I didn’t play enough in that game. In spite of having a great Saturday and gaining the confidence of all my teammates, I still was hesitant, partially pacing myself for the final game I still thought we’d have, partially not wanting to assert myself too much. But hindsight is twenty-twenty and I should have played a lot more points than I did and taken more of a chance to win it or blow it or us. Even having played for so many years, I shrink back sometimes from putting myself on the line, not wanting to risk being the goat. I played several of the crucial points, but there reached a point when I simply should have stayed in or all I could, and I did not.
Which brings me to the last thing, which may be my least favorite thing about playing ultimate: I cannot stop replaying what I could have done differently. This has always tortured me after tournaments. Relatively speaking, this was a mild one because I had much bigger things going on this weekend than simply playing ultimate and because Saturday was one of my favorite days playing ultimate, ever. But I’m still seeing a bad pass I threw, remembering when I should have gone in and knew I should have and didn’t, I’m still feeling how much energy I had left after we lost the game, which tells me I did not do what I always coach my players to do—leave it all out there! No changing any of it now, of course. The best I can do is learn from it and try to recognize the situation next time so I can make different choices.
Boone, who is arguably the best player among the four of us,**** had been nursing a nasty and strange injury coming up to the tournament. He was hopeful he might still recover and play, but I’m sure by the time we left he knew he would be very limited. He ended up playing only a few points in each game, if that. I mention this because he might have chosen not to come, realizing he would mostly be watching (torture for any of us, especially because he could have helped his team make, and possible win, the finals). I consider it a profound gift that he did all the organizing and came to spend that time with us, even though he could not play.
As we were driving back to the airport to come home, two things happened which capture both the trip and my friendship with these three. First, we “happened upon” a bungee-jumping operation. It was impressive. The jumps were 143 meters, which is a LONG way up there. I bungee jumped once, many moons ago, during the first year of our marriage, and Kim was not thrilled. It’s still one of those stories we tell. So if you’re wondering what she thought of this, she’s finding out as she’s reading, just like you are. It cost $75…
And we didn’t do it. We didn’t really have time. We hit some traffic on the way back to the airport and had some difficulty getting the car returned (we think that’s part of their racket to get to charge extra), so it was a good thing we didn’t try to squeeze it in.
But we would have. Even though it scared the bejeebers out of me the first time, I could feel the group testosterone building to do it. Dalke said his palms started sweating as soon as we drove in.
On the drive, after we didn’t bungee jump (honestly, Love, we didn’t), we talked about a deep, perilous, more-sensitive-than-I’ll-share-even-on-my-blog issue. I started it, because these are the men in my life I can trust. Yes, they’re idiots, yes, they tell more bathroom humor jokes than I’ll ever appreciate–and don’t even get me started on the country music!–but they are also the guys to whom I can speak the truth and know they will speak truth back to me, without judgment or condemnation, yet also without sugar-coating, downplaying, or evasion.
The epitome of our time together:
“Okay, I’m going to bring up a serious topic. Ready?”
Serious topic introduced.
“Sorry, I’ll be serious now, and–”
One more joke.
Then (and only then) we proceed to have a great, honest conversation for over an hour. Things in the darkness came into the light and we become more whole, maybe a little closer to God, and more trusting of one another, even as our time together (well, mine with them) dwindled.
Plus, they kept making stupid jokes.
*I’ve made 10 trips to Costa Rica in the time I’ve lived in Nicaragua: 1 family trip with in-laws, 2 youth team ultimate trips as coach, 3 ultimate tournaments for “grown-ups,” and 4 trips to coach the basketball team. In peaceful times, it’s a 3-hour drive to the border.
**Which one? Well, history is written by the winners.
***I’ve learned that if I train as hard as I can, I will injure myself and not get to play at all. I’ve therefore toned down my training to find the balance between getting in shape and overdoing it. I now save the overdoing it for the tournaments.
****If I were a captain picking teams, I would pick him first over the rest of us. Do feel free to argue otherwise.