Is Frisbee the Ultimate New Sport?

Photograph By
Cory F. Royster

Keeping his eye on the disc, a Thurgood Marshall defender knocks down a pass intended for a Wilson receiver

In the same historic week as the DC sports trifecta – when both the Capitals and Wizards won road playoff games on the same April night that the Nationals won at home – the first-ever DCSAA High School Ultimate State Championship Tournament took place at Kelly Miller Middle School in Hillbrook in northeast DC. That’s “ultimate,” as in “ultimate Frisbee.”

But don’t call it Frisbee. Don’t even call the Frisbee a Frisbee. The game is just called ultimate, and the Frisbee is called a disc. 

“It’s all new to me,” said John Webster, the first-ever DCSAA ultimate czar. “Some of the coaches in DC wanted to put together a tournament to find the best team in DC, so this is what we came up with.”

Wilson High School won the eight-team tournament by beating The Field School 11-5 in the final, despite playing the tournament with only five players on the field due to not having two girls to complete a regular seven-player co-ed team under the DCSAA tournament rules. The other schools participating were Edmund Burke, Georgetown Day, Maret, School Without Walls, Thurgood Marshall, and Washington Latin.

Currently, nine DC high schools field teams, with Sidwell Friends being the only school that didn’t participate in the state tournament. The ultimate season runs from February until May.

Logistically, ultimate is a pretty simple game. “It’s hard to get a place to play with enough field space,” Webster acknowledged, “but aside from that, there’s no equipment really needed. You need a disc, your cones, and you’re good.”

“It’s a fun, low-key, easy-to-get-into game,” explained Field School co-captain Carl Johnson. “You might think you’re bad at the beginning, but once you get into it, once you go to five or six practices, you’re just like everyone else. No one’s born to throw a Frisbee.”

There were no referees at the DCSAA tournament, and there are generally no referees in ultimate. Instead, players govern themselves according to the “spirit of the game,” explained tournament director and 41-year ultimate player John Capozzi.

“It’s not about referees and cheating. It’s really about learning ethics and how to make it work.”

Strategically though, ultimate is more complicated than even its local regulators expected it to be.

“It’s way more technical than I thought at the beginning,” said Webster. “Strategy, plays, I hear them calling ‘man’ and ‘zone’, and to see them actually putting on different defensive plays and offensive plays, it’s interesting.”

“It’s just fun. They just love to throw that disc,” said Dan Radack, whose sons Jake and Sam play for Wilson. “It’s like an excellent combination of a little bit of football, a little bit of soccer, even some basketball, and so it’s a great, in theory, non-contact sport.”

If that makes ultimate sound like a real sport, well, that’s because it is. There are not one, but two professional ultimate teams in the District of Columbia alone. The DC Current, the reigning champions of Major League Ultimate, play at Catholic University, and the DC Breeze of the American Ultimate Disc League play at Gallaudet University. 

There’s also a thriving local ultimate community and a Washington Area Frisbee Club, founded in 1979. The WAFC sponsors youth, adult, and mixed leagues year-round. The summer recreational league, at which teens with parent permission are welcome to play, runs mid-June to mid-August. Capital Ultimate Camp is offering three weeks of day camp this summer, as well as its first-ever overnight camp.

Capitol Hill junior high and high school kids whose schools don’t yet offer ultimate as an official sport can follow the WAFC recommended strategies for starting a team of their own. 

Wilson co-captain Jake Radack, a junior, explained how he founded the team two years ago: “Got some friends together that played at our middle school, found a coach from our pickup league, and kind of worked with the school to start a club and made it into a real sport.”

It hasn’t been easy though. “We go to a big urban high school, and trying something new is not what a lot of people like to do, especially because it’s not a mainstream sport,” the Wilson co-captain explained. “It’s hard to get people to come out and want to play. But I think if people came out, they’d love it and stick with it. We’re working on it.”

Carl Johnson would make the following pitch to any boys and girls thinking of trying ultimate: “It’s a good way to stay fit, it uses your mind, and it’s a little more fun than running.”

“Getting more people to play is the real goal here,” said Capozzi. “High schools have been playing in Maryland and Virginia for years. That’s why groups like DC Statehood, Stand Up! for Democracy in DC, our shadow representative Franklin Garcia, our shadow senator Paul Strauss, and a group called Ultimate Peace, which promotes peace by getting Palestinian and Israeli youth to play ultimate with each other, were all very interested in sponsoring this tournament: it’s about pride in the city.”

To show your DC sports pride in a historically up-and-coming way, mark your calendar for next year’s DCSAA ultimate state championship, go see the professional teams play, and try anything on the Washington Area Frisbee Club website, wafc.org.

To show your Capitol Hill frisbee pride, join a pick-up game on the mall weekdays at noon, or at the polo field Saturdays at 10 a.m. or Sundays at 2 p.m.

An Edmund Burke School player throws a forehand while a Maret player defends
Woodrow Wilson co-captain and team founder Jake Radack winds up to throw a hammer

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