Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. – Nelson Mandela
For the first time in my life, I had made friends, not because I happened to be born the same year as them because we all saw beauty in the same things; People who thought they would rather play a sport that most people don’t even know exists because they love it. People who do something simply out of pure passion for it, and who do it for themselves.
Sushmita playing with ‘Learning to Fly’, an Ultimate Frisbee team in Bangalore.
It was the summer of 2012. My 12th grade board exams had just gotten over and like most other kids my age, my typical day looked somewhat like this. I’d wake up late, overeat brunch, sit around watching TV or spending hours on the laptop, and then go out with my friends in the evening. And Bangalore being bangalore, we were pretty hard pressed to find activities more exciting than going out drinking.
In school, I’d become friends with a bunch of boys who would come drenched in sweat early in the morning, and not seeming to care about it at all, talking excitedly about “layouts d’s” and “hucks” and “hammers”. They told me I wouldn’t get it. It was Ultimate Frisbee. At first, I thought what sort of pretentious name is “Ultimate”? No other self-respecting sport has such a ridiculous name. Imagine Amazing Cricket, or Fabulous Basketball.
And secondly, frisbee? All I could think of was playing catch with my dog. Or at the very most, throwing a plastic disc with my dad in Cubbon Park. Don’t try and tell me it’s a sport. Football is a sport. Frisbee? You must be joking.
They didn’t bother defending it to me. They’d had that particular conversation too many times with too many clueless people.
One morning, I happened to wake up super early and having nothing else to do, thought I’d go surprise my friends playing at Kanteerava and get some breakfast, later. I landed up there to see about 25 boys and girls, all roughly between 15 and 35, “getting some throws”.
One of my friends saw me and misinterpreted my surprise. He thought I’d come there to play. Before I could say anything, I was dragged over to the unofficial coach, Clifford. In minutes, I was throwing with another girl, and being taught the difference between a forehand and a backhand, between a pivot and a travel. I was still pretty skeptical.
And then the game started. 5 guys and 2 girls lined up on either end of the field, and in no time, had gone from being a bunch of people casually throwing a frisbee around to an intense team playing as hard as they could.
They faked their defenders, beat the man who was marking them, and tore across the field, not in abstract chaos, but in high intensity well planned strategy. They jumped high and caught incredible catches, made throws across half a football fields length with amazing accuracy, and had their team-mates shooting across the pitch to grab those throws within the ‘end-zone’. And it was such an inspiring display of pure athleticism that I couldn’t stop staring.
Two things hit me.
This was the first time I had seen girls and guys play together as a team. In India especially, guys play all the sports, and if they’re lucky, girls will have a division, like in Basketball or Throw ball. Nowhere else do you see an actual “mixed” team, playing equally hard, following the same rules, and bringing a whole new experience in terms of game quality but most importantly, playing together. It gave gender equality a huge boost, and that thrilled me.
Secondly, it was self-refereed. Players called their own violations or fouls. If the person on whom it was called didn’t agree, they simply said “contest” and play resumed from where it was before the foul/violation was called.
It’s not that the rules are made up as the game is played. Ultimate has a very clear and strictly enforced set of rules. It’s just that you are trusted to adhere to the rules by yourself, without needing a third party to enforce it. Players call it the spirit of the Game, and it is the most perfect display of sportsmanship I have ever seen.
Things like this can often backfire. If you told people to fine themselves for riding without helmets, they’d laugh. But what got me hooked to Ultimate, was that there was an implicit trust in every player to maintain your team’s integrity. Making fair calls got you and your team so much more respect than scoring an unfair point ever would. And that was a sentiment that carried through every single practice session, match and tournament.
Stuff like this was what had me go back for the next practice session and then every session after that. And soon, I was another one of those frisbee fanatics, who couldn’t stop gushing about the sport.
Within months, I was closer to those 25 random people I had met in Kanteerava than I was to people I had been friends with for years. My friends now range from architects and graphic designers, to psychologists and sailors in the merchant navy to CEO’s of some of India’s biggest companies to part-time farmers and part-time hackers.
And their faces are often the reason I pull myself out of bed on a cold winter morning and hit the field.
Not only are they a very intelligent, and a fit bunch of people, they’re also some of the nicest I have ever come across. The captain of a team in Chennai, Boon Lay, uses ultimate as an incentive to get the kids to attend school. They’re usually first generation learners, who come from underprivileged backgrounds, and have barely any incentive to go to school and do well. But they are crazy about Ultimate Frisbee and worship “Boon Maama”. The team monitors their academics and the kids work extra hard, because they know that if they study well, Boon Maama will teach them a new throw or a new strategy. And their parents aren’t worried anymore that their little boy is off getting into trouble somewhere. The more they study, the better they get at ultimate, and the greater their chances are of making it to Boon’s coveted team.
Recently, at the Womens National Championships held in Bangalore, the entire ultimate community pitched in to sponsor the girls from Pudiyador, an NGO run by a pillar of Indian ultimate, Manickam Narayanan, to come down from Chennai and play. These are girls who would never usually get a chance to step out of their shells, and interact with new people in a new city but ultimate helped them do that. It gave them the exposure that is so necessary to be able to stand on your own two feet, and the freedom and opportunity to do that while they did something they love.
That’s the sort of love that unites Ultimate Frisbee players from across the world. It’s that instant camaraderie that springs out of sharing something special that can bring kids from NGO’s and international schools together, put them on the same platform and have them leave the best of friends, sipping some elneer outside Kanteerava after another tiring session, knowing that they’ve found something beautiful.
And that’s why I play. Not just for the game, but also for the amazing experiences I have while doing it – at tournaments all over the country, all the interesting people it helps me meet and all the good that I can be a part of , in my own little way. And lastly, but most importantly, because the high that playing Ultimate Frisbee gives me, is pretty damn unbeatable. And the more the number of people that discover this joy, the farther the happiness spreads.
This story is a part of the Spocial Revolution series, a collaboration with SportsKeeda featuring stories of sports as an instrument towards social change and voices from the community on sports as a choice in sustainability.
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