What Is an Ultimate Tournament?

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[Kelsey, me, and Corin at the end of Saturday]

On Halloween weekend, my son, Corin, and I played in Hanford Howl ’21, my first tournament since 2019, his first tournament, period. I suffered a nasty back injury in July and could not run again until September. I wasn’t certain until mid-October that I’d be able to play this tournament.

When I shared that we played, a dear friend asked,

“What is an ultimate tournament?”

To which another friend responded “That’s a beautiful question!”

I talk about ultimate a lot. I enthuse, rave, and gush. Sometimes, for variety, I effervesce.

I really love ultimate.

Of the myriad ways God has blessed me, discovering this goofy-named sport–in which two teams throw a piece of plastic up and down a field and run after it like maniacs–ranks in my Top Ten. I know that sounds like hyperbole. I am married to Kim and we have four incredible, mostly grown children, so the Top Five are automatically filled…and I stand by my statement. The number of close relationships, the physical and mental health benefits, the unique and irreplaceable community, the sheer gladness, joy, and even ecstasy that playing ultimate has brought me–perhaps “effervesce” doesn’t cover it.

We stayed with friends in the Tri-Cities, Dave and Sharon, whom I have known for twenty yearrs. I know them because we were ultimate teammates ten-plus years ago. They are both “retired,” always an elusive term in ultimate. These friends supported our work in Nicaragua for the entire time we lived there. When I wrote them a few days before the tournament and asked if they could host me and Corin, they immediately wrote back “Yes!” I know, I’m simply describing wonderful people–wonderful people I know because I play this sport and dwell in this community. I could describe two hundred, possibly five hundred others. I’ve played ultimate for a long time now.

To no one’s surprise, I digress.

Ultimate is a sport played on a 90-yard field in which two teams compete in attempting to complete passes to teammates that result in catching the disc in a rectangular goal. An ultimate tournament is a one- or two-day gathering of ultimate teams competing against one another. Tournament games are typically played until one team reaches thirteen goals or for an hour and a half, whichever comes first. If in my waxing eloquent, I haven’t given a clear enough explanation, scroll to the end for “Ultimate in Ten Simple Rules.”*

Thirty-four teams competed in Hanford Howl 2021, so roughly 34×20=680 players. The Howl is a costume tournament in which teams choose a theme for their costumes and play in costume (to a lesser or greater extent–some much greater). Our team was “Alice in Wenatcheeland.” This tournament begins with a “Parade of Nations,” in which each team displays their theme and costume by promenading past everyone else. Picture everyone cheering and hollering for everyone else in 38 degree weather before any of the games start.

Then we played ultimate. Each team played four games on Saturday and two to four games on Sunday, depending on how well they fared. The average ultimate player runs about a 5K per game, though that distance is a bit lower for a more recreational tournament (and if you play fewer points, obviously). Since much of ultimate is either running hard or all-out sprinting, it still seems pretty far. Ultimate is exhausting if you play hard. Every tournament I have at least one point during which I think, “Why is this what I do for fun?”

A Halloween party tournament is not an average ultimate tournament. Most ultimate tournaments do not involve guarding someone wearing a full horse costume (head included) or plastic armor complete with longsword. Hanford Howl is not the elite level of ultimate competition. But oh, my gosh, it’s fun! At the end of each game teams each team introduces mini-games based on their theme. Alice in Wenatcheeland had four players competing in a mini-croquet game encircled by all the other players from both teams throwing various colored discs to one another with intermittent shouts of “Off with their heads!” If you were holding–or about to receive–a disc of the wrong color, your head was lopped off, which meant you were out of the game. Yes, like musical chairs, but with discs, costumes, laughter, and throwing discs over costumed people playing croquet.

Corin played great! He was the four of hearts. I’m pretty sure he was the youngest player at the tourney. A couple highlights:

  • A pass to him floated over his head, he turned and ran up the sideline and laid out (dove) to catch it. The crowd–okay, the team–went wild.
  • In the first game Sunday morning, he caught the final score, which happened to be an upside-down throw called a “hammer.”**
  • In the last “official” game he was playing defense and he full-out sprinted across the end zone and dove to try to block the throw.***

I could see Corin’s confidence growing from the first game to the last. It’s not easy to put yourself in for points when you’re the youngest player by far. The team did a tremendous job of encouraging him and helping him feel that he belonged. Ultimate community, especially at the recreational level, is wonderfully inclusive. On our way home, Corin told me, “I’d like to play more points next time.” God bless all his Alice teammates!

I haven’t come close to capturing the experience of an ultimate tournament: the team coming together, meeting people and becoming instant friends because of this mutual love for a silly sport, the Saturday night party (definitely someone else’s blog post to write), the Y in the road Sunday afternoon where you either keep winning and somehow find more and run faster or don’t win and that next game takes on a much more…revelrous spirit. In fact, Spirit of the Game (“rule 10”) is what makes ultimate ultimate and qualitatively different from any other sport I’ve played.

I’m 53 and Corin is 14. I’m profoundly grateful that I’ve gotten to play ultimate with all my kids. Some of them were indulging their father more than others. I’m a bit of an older dad and a “veteran” ultimate player now–I notice that my glory years get more glorious as they recede–and I’ve committed to staying active. The competitive fire has been running on pilot light for a while now. Last night Corin asked, “You know what tomorrow is?”

“Uh, ultimate?” [Tuesday-Thursday is our Wenatchee pickup game.)

“Finally! We get to play again tomorrow! It’s been five days!”

My friend The Swede, one of the (few) players at HH ’21 older than I, told me “You don’t stop playing because you get old; you get old because you stop playing.”

I need to stay young a bit longer.

*https://usaultimate.org/rules/10-simple-rules/ (see below)

**When I would throw a hammer to Kim back in the days we would play catch, she would step back and watch indignantly whiile it hit the ground. She’s quite good at catching the disc but she has no interest in trying to catch those.

***I was trying to get an action shot for Kim and took several of him running back and forth guarding his person–then forgot taking pictures when the throw came and Corin laid out! Dad first, ultimate player/captain second, photographer…many steps below that. We needed ou there, Will VZ!

Ultimate in 10 Simple Rules

The Field

A rectangular shape with end zones at each end. A regulation field is 70 yards long by 40 yards wide, with end zones 20 yards deep.2

Starting Play

Each point begins with both teams lining up on the front of opposite end zone lines. The defense throws (“pulls”) the disc to the offense. A regulation game has seven players per team.3

Scoring

Each time the offense catches a pass in the defense’s end zone, the offense scores a point. The teams switch direction after every goal, and the next point begins with a new pull by the team that just scored.4

Movement of the Disc

The disc may be advanced in any direction by completing a pass to a teammate. Players may not run with the disc. The person with the disc (“thrower”) has ten seconds to throw the disc. The defender guarding the thrower (“marker”) counts out the stall count.5

Change of Possession

When a pass is not completed (e.g. out of bounds, drop, block, interception, stalled), the defense immediately takes possession of the disc and becomes the offense.6

Substitutions

Players not in the game may replace players in the game after a score and during an injury timeout.7

Non-Contact

Players must attempt to avoid physical contact during play. Picks and screens are also prohibited.8

Fouls

When a player initiates contact that affects the play, a foul occurs. When a foul causes a player to lose possession, the play resumes as if the possession was retained. If the player that the foul was called against disagrees with the foul call, the play is redone.9

Self-Officiating

Players are responsible for their own foul and line calls. Players resolve their own disputes.10

Spirit of the Game

The foundation of the rules in ultimate is Spirit of the Game, which places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of respect between players, adherence to the rules, and the basic joy of play.

One thought on “What Is an Ultimate Tournament?

  1. Sherry Dearborn

    Thanks for the rules and explanation of ultimate. I have imagined a frisbee type game but now I get the excitement.
    Nice to hear from you again!

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