Octavia Payne

DC Ultimate Star on the Rise

Photo: Steve Helvin

On Sunday, Oct. 20, Octavia Payne and DC Scandal, the region’s top women’s ultimate Frisbee team, won the USA Ultimate Club Championships in Frisco, Tex. Scandal beat San Francisco Fury, a seven-time defending champion, in the title game – the first time that a team not from Boston, San Francisco, or Seattle has won a women’s championship since 1989. The next morning Payne, an account executive at Edelman Public Relations, flew to Denver for a client training session. Despite being less than a full day removed from winning a national championship, it was just another Monday at work. “Twelve hours [before],” says Payne, “I’m on top of the world. “On the biggest stage of my sport, I made this great achievement. Now I’m just working at some event. Nobody knows why I have scabs all over my arms. They just think I get rough on the weekends.”

Created in New Jersey in the late 60s, ultimate is a lot more than rowdy weekends. Played with a flying disc, the game combines the non-stop movement of soccer, the individual match-ups and technical skill of basketball, and the end zone scoring of football. Opposing teams field seven players at a time, and teams like Scandal compete at grueling tournaments that run from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association estimates about five million people in the United States play ultimate – more than lacrosse and rugby combined.

Known as “Opi” to the nickname-loving ultimate community, Payne is the face of a new wave of players – high school varsity studs and Division 1-caliber athletes – taking up the game. Standing 5’6” with a frame that is slim but strong, powerful but nimble, the Baltimore native featuresblazing speed and pinpoint long throws that make her one of the best women’s players in the world. The scabs come from her high-flying layouts to save possession or block opponents from scoring. In addition to captaining Scandal,this July Payne was one of 13 players to represent the United States and win gold at the World Games, a 2,800-athlete competition overseen by the Olympic Committee in Cali, Colombia.

Despite her achievements, the anonymityPayne felt in Denver is commonplace for ultimate players. With very few exceptions ultimate has no college scholarships, sponsorships are marginal, and the only reward for the endless weekend practices, nights on the track, and hours in the weight room that a high-level season demands is personal satisfaction. Payne and the rest of the National Team fundraised their way to Colombia, and Scandal players themselves foot the bill for the cost of a season (which included travelling to seven tournaments).

Still, Payne says there’s no question that it’s all worth it. She had never used a passport before going to Colombia, and that’s not to mention domestic travel to California, Colorado, Boston, North Carolina, and Texas, all done this year alone and all to play or practice ultimate. As the coach of George Washington University’s women’s team, a position she volunteers for, Payne is revered as an expert, which she says has made her more assertive and improved her public speaking ability. And back when she was looking for her first job out of college, her initiative with running Scandal’s Facebook and Twitter accounts prompted a teammate to recommend her to a colleague at Edelman.

Above all Payne values ultimate for the camaraderie. While playing for the National Team, Payne formed a particularly close bond with Sarah Griffith, a player from Seattle. The duo quickly learned the best ways to encourage each another at practice and enjoy low-key relaxation together between games. The relationship is one in a long line of examples of friendships that started with a shared love for the game. “Only [Sarah] and I will understand the connection that we made in a matter of six months,” says Payne. “These people, I’ll be friends with for life.”

On top of coaching a college team, Payne frequently helps run local youth clinics and participates in Washington Area Frisbee League games.She points to ultimate’s low barriers to entry –to play, all you need is a field and a disc – as reason to use the sport for youth development. “It’s very welcoming,” she says, “very accessible, very flexible.” And though she’s only 24, Payne is acclimating to the view that her status as a minority – she’s half black, half Japanese, and has a long-term girlfriend – makes her a role model. “I’m a recognizable player by virtue of the way I look,” she says, “so I might have an automatic foot in the door. [A friend] asked me to come by his school with my medal and talk to his kids about being healthy and exercising and how it can lead to really good things, which I thought was really cool.”

Before she left for the World Games, Payne’s co-workers made her a poster to wish her good luck. When she came back there was a gold-medal-shaped cupcake waiting on her desk, and after Scandal’s win her office organized a viewing party to re-watch the championship game. “I think inevitably, if you’re as into ultimate as I am, that bleeds through your immediate circle and into the people you interact with everyday,” she says. “My co-workers are happy for me”

Payne says their understanding is aided by ultimate’s recent push toward mainstream relevance. DC is home to two semi-professional teams, the DC Current, part of Major League Ultimate, and the DC Breeze of the American Ultimate Disc League, both of which are running unprecedented social media campaigns. The Washington Post, City Paper, and DCisthave all recently run stories about the sport. In May ESPN began broadcasting major USA Ultimate events, and in September Time magazine ran a feature about ultimate that included a full-page photo of Payne diving to catch a disc. Most recently, on Dec. 3, the DC City Council passed a ceremonial resolution honoring Scandal’s championship.National exposure and recognition from a government as big as DC’s feels like a pretty big deal for a sport that, throughout its existence, has struggled to achieve even blip status on pop culture’s radar.

“Time,” says Payne, “is something that at face value doesn’t need a lot of explaining. [Passing] the resolution is similar: the city recognized our achievement. You don’t have to explain much about why that’s noteworthy.”