Tuan throws a forehand upfield
In Vietnam, I know “ném đĩa” means “ultimate frisbee”, but I was sitting in a cab in Manila, realizing I hadn’t learned its Tagalog equivalent. The elderly taxi driver—after levying the standard double fare for tourists who do not know the language—asked me what I was doing in Manila. I said “ultimate Frisbee,” which was, unsurprisingly, met with a blank stare. I reached into my bag, pulling out a white plastic disc for him to see. His face lit up in an exclamation, “Oh yes, yes! I know!”
When you take cab rides with garrulous drivers in foreign countries, most of the questions they ask are pretty standard. Where are you from? Do you like Obama? How do you like [country X]? Are you married? Do you like [country Y] girls? However, this cab ride was different. Inching through the snarled Manila traffic, I found myself slowly explaining the rules of ultimate to a man who barely spoke a word of English. Welcome to Manila.
Last weekend I took a break from teaching English in rural south Vietnam to play ultimate at Manila Spirits, one of the largest tournaments in Southeast Asia. This year Spirits had over 1,000 players attending up to three days of ultimate. Friday was a one day tournament, featuring 14 Open and 8 Women’s teams. Saturday and Sunday hosted the more traditional two day mixed tournament, one of several in the fall “season” of Asian ultimate. With 48 squads, Spirits was packed with teams hailing from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, and further afield, to say nothing of the dozens of Filipino teams.
I would be playing both Open and Mixed with VUDOO (Vietnam Ultimate Defense Offense Organization), the organizing body of ultimate in Vietnam. The team was comprised of Vietnamese, expatriates, friends from other countries, and local Filipino pick ups. Two more fully Vietnamese teams, RMIT and Big Eye, were there as well, but VUDOO retains a more diverse composition.
VUDOO Mixed team photo (missing Vu and Jefferson) After my cab ride, I settled into my hotel in Manila just in time to receive several urgent calls from my teammates. Someone missed their flight. I was now as the sole representative and de facto captain of VUDOO Open in Manila. Sweet.
As luck would have it, however, VUDOO’s Women’s team had already covered the fee, leaving me with the responsibilities of listening in on the captain’s meeting and claiming first dibs on the free San Miguel and nachos. Totally qualified for that.
At any club tournament in the world, there is always a top tier. The teams with set rosters, intense and regular practices, and defined goals for the tournament. They are also the ones who will walk away with the victory at the end of the day. China United Ultimate Party, Boracay Dragons, Boracay Ultimate, Pump and Squeeze, Pilipinas Bebots, Fangbianmian, Ninja Cowboy Bear, Great White Buffalo, Mixed Nuts, and Probinsyana all fell into this category.
VU throws a huge huck They are easy to identify. Sometimes it’s the talk around the registration party or in the build-up to the tournament, whispers about how fast and good the Boracay Dragons are. Sometimes it’s the confidence exuding from a team’s players. CUUP’s captain seemed to carry himself with just a bit more swagger than the rest of us. And sometimes it’s simply watching the teams warm up, seeing who gets dedicated, throwing drills, running, team stretches while other teams are still lolling on the sidelines, lazily putting on their cleats.
VUDOO falls on the other end of the spectrum: a pick-up team of individuals affiliated with each other only through the loosest of mutual friendships and an intense love of ultimate. Over the weekend, we would be forged into one team, but at first, we were just a random collection of people.
This in and of itself is not unusual. You find these teams at every tournament. What was unusual for me was our extraordinary geographic diversity. The Thai guy from Chiang Mai; the handful of expats living in Vietnam; the American working in Laos who our captain knows through a mutual friend; a few Filipino players; the bunch of Vietnamese students; The makings of a motley bunch.
At 8 am SLEX, a local Filipino team made for a good opening test; a handful of good players but no depth. After a spirited and tough game, we were past SLEX and loosened up for our second-round game against beach legends Boracay Dragons.
The Dragons are the best team in the Philippines. They train year-round, have incredibly selective tryouts, and are known worldwide for their incredible athleticism and speed. They represented the Philippines at the World Beach Ultimate Championships in 2011, playing the U.S. a tight game in the finals. They are not the tallest team in the world, but growing up on the white powder-fine Visayan sand has made them unbelievably fast.
VUDOO runs down hard on the pull I found myself admiring the Filipino style of ultimate. The Dragons’ play showcased it, and it was repeated later in the tournament by Team Cebu. Unlike U.S. college ultimate, where vertical prowess and jumping over defenders is the focus, the Filipino style is built on optimizing intense speed. While the deep game in the U.S. tends to floating the disc out for the receiver to sky his defender, the Filipinos throw deep without floating the disc at all. Instead, they opt for the style preferred by Japanese, throwing the disc into space and letting their man run onto it.
This strategy fits perfectly with the Dragons preference for never stopping. Ever. They sprint around the field at full throttle the entire time until your vision starts to blur a bit just from tracking your man. When you lose a single step or lapse in concentration, he breaks for the endzone, running onto a disc that is thrown out into a space you have no play on. I’ve seen smaller guys in the U.S. without great vertical ability compensate with quickness and a top gear that defies human biomechanics, but this was the first time I’d played against an entire team built around that physical notion.
The flip side is that a shorter team, even one as fast as the Dragons, is susceptible to deep throws. I’m 6 feet tall, with a decent vertical and a pretty good ability to read the disc. In college, I was pretty good in the air, definitely capable of skying the odd fellow when necessary. But in the Philippines? In the air, only one player I played against was really able to cover me deep. Our captain Vu, a Vietnamese handler from the Ho Chi Minh City area who was one of the original founders of VUDOO, quickly decided upon his preferred offensive scheme. He would just throw huge floaty deep throws that hung in the air for an eternity, leaving me to run under and sky my defender, who despite being faster than me was hampered by being 5’7”. When I was paired with Kyle, a 6’3” former college player from Colorado College, we were almost unbeatable in the air.
However, the Dragons hardly let us put up any deep throws, throwing a relentless zone defense. When they got the disc, they always scored with clinical offense. Final score: 12-1.
An eye-opening difference about playing in Southeast Asia is the diversity of languages. At Manila Spirits, just as at any tournament in the world, there are the moments of re-acquaintance, when one of your teammates runs into her close or distant friend or from some other tournament. They catch up enthusiastically, planning to meet up at the party, trading stories, asking after others, realizing that still other acquaintances are wandering the sidelines.
What was new to me was the vast diversity of languages exchanged when this happens. You could be chatting with your friend on the sideline, then just as you turn away, you hear a girl greet him in enthusiastic Thai. Or Malaysian. Or Tagalog. Or Mandarin. Or Vietnamese. English is certainly the lingua franca of the tournament, but all around you there is an aural barrage of different languages taking place.
We stuck around to watch the final between CUUP, a team of American expats in China, and the Boracay Dragons, soaking up the atmosphere and catching up. Most if not all of the guys on CUUP seemed to have had elite ultimate training in either club or college. I recognized a lot of jerseys, and their whole team played like an American club team. Fast, aggressive and athletically intimidating. The Dragons were fast but CUUP was better, and in the end the Americans prevailed.
In the U.S., I am usually against going to tournament parties. There are games to play the next day, and I’m generally just too tired to make it to the party. But I’ve been living in rural Vietnam for the last three months, so this weekend I decided, “it’s Manila! I have to go for it here.” Besides, I had heard so much about the Manila parties. I had to see if they lived up to the hype.
Lester, one of our Filipino teammates, offered to show a group of the out-of-towners around the local scene before we went to the parties. Lester is one of the original fathers of VUDOO and something like a walking social rolodex of the Filipino ultimate community, so I was definitely excited to chill with him and have him show us around.
With the exception getting myself to and from the fields and airport this was the first time I got to explore Manila. It’s an unfortunate fact that if you go to a city to play a tournament there, you really don’t get much time to explore the city unless you specifically plan out extra days to sightseeing. So I jumped at the opportunity to explore Manila, at least a little bit.
Jefferson catches an in-cut Lester seemed to know or befriend everyone as soon as he walked into a room. Honestly, I think he knows everyone in Manila, and touring around Manila with Lester for two nights made me feel like a celebrity, or at least someone with insider connections. Every place we walked into Lester immediately started greeting friends, and before long we all felt comfortable in a truly unfamiliar city.
Manila is a sprawling, confusing, exciting, strange place. The city is mounds of concrete high rises next to sprawling, pristine shopping malls. Gorgeous constructions of steel and glass standing startlingly close shantytowns. Men selling grilled chicken off hot iron grills in neighborhoods of ramshackle sheds with corrugated iron roofs only a few blocks from upscale restaurants serving expensive meals off covered balconies.
Cabs are not for crowds, and in the Philippines that means Jeepnies, the iconic Filipino method of public transportation. A flatbed pickup truck with a stretched some ten feet further than it should be, and a roof and some seats thrown in for good measure. These cheerful monstrosities are colorfully painted with the routes that they run and other decorative touches.
In Manila, these garishly colored deranged love-children of a pickup truck and a stretch limo careen through the streets at a questionable pace, honking as they pick up anywhere from 10-15 passengers. Even the jeepnies, however, are eventually stymied by Manila’s oppressive traffic, which is unbelievably bad. Think Los Angeles bad, but worse. Taking a taxi four or five kilometers can take half an hour, easily. Our ride back to the hotel later that night, which was supposed to be an hour, ended up taking two.
Filipinos offer a surfeit of excuses for why the traffic is so bad, “It’s rush hour, everyone is heading home,” “It’s lunch time, everyone is going for lunch,” “It’s Friday night, everyone is heading home,” “It’s Saturday, everyone is heading out of the city.” However, my conclusion was that a large force of Manila’s population simply drives around in cars 24/7 for the sole purpose of inconveniencing impatient foreigners who get to their city.
For me, the highlight of the night was Lester taking us to Cable Car, a Filipino beer pong bar. We walk in and are immediately surrounded by Filipino college students, all of whom have clustered around six different beer pong tables, playing with San Miguel light as they shout insults at each other.
It was a strange feeling walking into Cable Car. I’m only six months removed from graduating college and leaving behind the ivory towers of serious intellectual life. Graduating college, of course, also means leaving behind your days of going to frat houses and playing beer pong with your teammates, surrounded by college students, drinking terrible light beer while obnoxious pop music blasts from the speakers.
Now I was on the other side of the world, thousands of miles from Chicago. I had been teaching English in Vietnam for 3 months, displacing my entire life, learning a new language and immersing myself in an environment that was so alien to me. I was in Manila for a weekend. A city I had never been in before, with people I had only just met early that day. And where did I find myself? Playing beer pong with my teammates, surrounded by college students, drinking terrible light beer while obnoxious pop music blasts from the speakers. I guess some things never change.
Next morning waking up was a bit difficult, not going to lie. Still, I managed to drag myself out of bed and get onto the tournament bus in time.
Saturday we would be playing Mixed. Our team was entirely changed from Friday, not only because of the addition of girls. Of the guys, only Vu, Felipe, Kyle, Rain, Christian and myself would be playing with VUDOO for mixed. The Vietnamese students were playing with their own teams, Ekk was playing with the Dragons and the Filipino dudes all picked up with their local teams.
Because tournaments in Asia are also destination weekends, we had no trouble recruiting another wave of imports. There were two Malaysian girls, another pair of Americans from Laos, a huge bunch of Filipino guys, another Thai guy, and two American expats living in China.
Unusually for a pick-up team, it became very clear at a certain point that VUDOO Mixed had a real identity. It was approximately: We play hard, we support each other, we play with good spirit and we never give up. We may not always win, but we always play hard and we always have fun. Don’t know exactly how we developed this identity, but it was a good feeling.
First game was against Weekend Karma, a team that we blew out of the water pretty quickly, a good game to get new players used to working with each other and working out the kinks. VUDOO, 11-2
Second game was against Team Cebu. These guys were the second-best team I played against. SO FAST. Gaah. I’m still having nightmares about trying to cover this 5’3” cutter who just moved like mercury. We fought hard but ended up losing. Team Cebu, 11-6
Third game was a tough one. We were playing Monster, a team that beat VUDOO last year, and I had been hearing about the rematch all tournament. We were really evenly matched, came out trading points, and no one ever really went on a run. It came down to universe point. On offense, I grabbed a big throw over two defenders, then laid out in the endzone only to watch the pass fall out of my reach. Monster would walk the disc down the field and score. Monster, 10-9.
Final game of the day was against Gardeners, a local young Filipino team. They were spirited players and they worked really hard. We made a lot of silly mistakes that they pounced on. Game came down to universe point again, and this time we punched the disc in. VUDOO 10-9
So, VUDOO closed out our day 2-2, with one universe point loss. Again, not a bad day. We headed back to the hotel to shower and recover, then headed out to the Saturday night party.
One of the entertaining things about Manila Spirits is hearing how people joined the team they are playing with. Sometimes it’s straightforward, they are from Singapore so they play with the Singaporean team. But most of the time it’s more complicated than that. Someone lives in Korea but they’re from America, someone else has been working in Thailand but they’re from Australia but they lived in Cambodia for a long time so they’re playing with the Cambodian team.
VUDOO Open team photo The one thing that makes this all work is the incredible inclusiveness and welcoming nature of the Asian ultimate community. New players are eagerly welcomed into the larger community, regardless of who they play for or what country they are from. Hell, I came to this tournament knowing five guys, and I left with at least twenty good friends. I feel like the ultimate community in Southeast Asia is a place where people just invite new players in without hesitation.
Everyone goes to the same set of tournaments, so the same players meet each other over and over again. Eventually it all becomes about playing the same sport, rather than where you live and where you’re from. Teams are nominally from various countries, and they do contain that local core of dedicated players. But really, a tournament like Manila Spirits feels less like expressing national pride and more like celebrating a diverse international community’s love of the game. Players are tied together not by where they’re from, but by their love of ultimate.
The party that night was fantastic. Mayan Apocalypse theme at a huge club, everyone was going crazy. Apparently there were drag queens at some point? I don’t know, didn’t see that. Ended up playing drinking games with the Americans from Shanghai, meeting a bunch of drunk Australians and burning up the dance floor with some guys from Thailand. The mélange atmosphere began to feel normal.
One important lesson I did learn though. No matter where you are from, beware a team that is called the Designated Drinkers. Cultural differences be damned, if someone starts offering you various different multi-colored shots, run, do not walk away.
That night I had so much fun I wasn’t back in bed until 4 am that night and Felipe waking me up 5:45 am was not welcome. Through constant cajoling and a firm resolve, he convinced me to get up, pack, and on the bus.
I got to the fields dehydrated, hungry and incredibly tired, and a first round game against SLEX Mixed looming. I lowered my head to fight the oncoming headache and general exhaustion of too much travel and fun and not enough sleep. I had all but resigned myself to a difficult opening game. It was the best I played all tournament.
I was untouchable that morning. I caught five scores, leapt over defenders with startling regularity, and made a big defensive play in our endzone on the last point of the game. However, it wasn’t enough, and on universe point SLEX ended it: final score 10-9 SLEX.
VUDOO still had two more games, but I unfortunately had to duck out early. The folks at Ben Tre College had insisted that I be back for class on Monday, and since they so generously allowed me to come in the first place I felt that was a reasonable request. Unfortunately, the only flight that got me back in time was a Sunday flight at noon. Boooo.
I had brought all my bags to the field, so I caught a taxi to the airport, sweaty, dehydrated, hungry, and still cleated up. The driver was amused at my appearance, and he asked me what sport I was playing. All of a sudden my ride back to the airport was immediately occupied with another slow, thorough discussion of ultimate. As I entered Ninoy Aquino Airport, I suddenly stopped and started kicking myself. Four days in Manila and I still don’t know how to say “ultimate frisbee” in Tagalog.
I’m back in Vietnam now, slowly crawling through lesson plans like a cab in traffic, explaining in broken Vietnamese to curious locals what I did this weekend. I keep flashing back to the tournament, both the things I did well and what I wish I had done better. I miss my teammates, the tournament parties, wandering around Manila with Lester. I look forward to future tournaments,hoping to add my voice to the sideline Babel of an Asia ultimate tournament. Most of all, I keep remembering one point.
It’s Sunday. Game point. The early morning sun has cooled in the mist swept over the fields. I’m covering a wiry athletic Filipino with long wavy black hair in a headband; he has made several huge plays this game already. He gives up several inches to me, but I’ve already seen how far he can lay out.
A turnover and my man is already sprinting deep.
Head down, I sprint after him as fast as I can, arms and legs pumping desperately to make up lost ground. There is no one deep to help, just him and me. A handler sprints to the disc, throws one fake and puts up a beautiful huck.
It sails smoothly over the players on the sideline, the slight edge on it dropping it back towards the middle of the field. As I look for the disc I can see players on both teams cheering on the sideline, the tall trees on the edge of the perfectly cut grass shielding the fields from the parking lot. There’s another team warming up on the sidelines. They pause for a second to watch the unfolding action.
It’s a gorgeous huck, a perfectly weighted pass that seems simply to flow out of the handler’s motion, effortless. The handler looks like a dancer finishing a graceful motion, not an athlete putting all his muscle into one huge throw. My man only has one step on me, but the pass is beautifully placed to hit him in stride just inside the back of the endzone. It floats just a bit too much.
Managing to make up the lost step, we are sprinting, neck and neck as the disc begins to float down toward chest level in the very back of the endzone. As we charge forward the disc seems to hover in mid-air, frozen in time while we rush forward, as if the disc has decided to wait and see which one of us will triumph.
From the sidelines I can hear the dull roar of the crowd. It builds from mild interest to nervous excitement to edge-of-your-seat anticipation to total exhilaration, from nervously muttering to yourself to screaming at the top of your lungs.
For any ultimate player in the world, whether you speak Mandarin, Tagalog, Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese or English, that roar means only one thing.
I leave my feet the same time my man does, flying forward as we grasp for the disc in the Manila sun.