Ultimate Appeal

Sportsmanship and respect for fellow players rule a game that demands plenty of athleticism

Wherever life took him, Josh Twilley managed to find a sense of home and community on a grassy field with a plastic disc.

Between college in Philly, grad school in Connecticut, career stops in New York and D.C., “One way I always got involved in the community was through Ultimate,” Twilley says. “Wherever I lived, I always could find someone that I could relate to.”

Playing Ultimate—Ultimate Frisbee—enabled Twilley to connect with people in a new city, either through casual pick-up games or through more organized leagues. But when he moved back to Delaware in 2004, he found a surprising dearth of organized Ultimate activity. The nearest league operated out of Philadelphia—the well-established Philadelphia Area Disc Alliance. But he sensed that there was a critical mass of experienced and potential players in and around Wilmington—enough, he thought, to form a new league.

So he formed one.

Working with his connections in Philly, who provided logistical guidance through issues like insurance and online registration, Twilley launched a marketing campaign to attract players, and secured game sites. Finally, in the spring of 2008, he unveiled Delaware Ultimate at Wilmington’s Rockford Park.

In its first season, Delaware Ultimate had 38 players, enough to field four teams. That grew to six teams the following year, and then eight. Today Twilley, who is 39, estimates that 150-200 participants play in an average season. They come from around the region, including parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the Delaware beaches.

The nonprofit organization runs year-round leagues from Alapocas Run State Park (plus a winter league at the Delaware Sportsplex in Newark) that include men’s, women’s and co-ed seasons. The meager $25 registration fee covers a t-shirt and a Delaware Ultimate-emblazoned disc. It’s a tiny investment for a game participants say finely balances fun and athleticism; a seriously tough sport that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Alex Grintsvayg and Kristen Frentzel fight for the disc during a game. (Photo by Matt Jones)
Alex Grintsvayg and Kristen Frentzel fight for the disc during a game.

For the uninitiated, Ultimate might resemble a non-contact amalgam of soccer and football, where seven-player teams advance down a 70-yard field toward an end zone while tossing a disc to one another. A player must stop running while in possession of the disc, but may pivot and pass to any of the other receivers on the field. Breakneck transitions from offense to defense, and players “laying out,” or diving through the air to catch or defend a throw, are Ultimate hallmarks.

Like soccer, there are rarely breaks in the action, so Ultimate players are constantly in motion, whether they’re on offense or defense. Each thrower has only 10 seconds to release the disc to a teammate, as defenders attempt to block or intercept any pass. If a pass falls incomplete, is intercepted, or caught out of bounds, the opposing team immediately gains possession. Between ample bursts of sprinting, diving and throwing, Ultimate can be aerobically demanding. “We think of something like kickball as an excuse to kick the ball around,” Twilley says. “But there’s a lot of athleticism involved in Ultimate on the level of soccer.”

Most important, Ultimate is governed by the “Spirit of the Game,” an abstract ideal of sportsmanship and respect for fellow players. Ultimate games are self-officiated, and players are responsible for calling any infractions or resolving disputes.

“Different sports attract different types of people,” Twilley says. “There may be rugby types, or baseball types, and Ultimate has a type. It’s somebody who is attracted to the idea of the spirit. We’re here to have fun and play the game, and that’s the kind of community that I like.”

Besides fostering camaraderie and enhancing the game’s social component, the Spirit of the Game also helps usher beginners into the sport. In the Delaware league, teams are assembled by a group of captains, and always have a mix of experienced and inexperienced players. During game breaks, strategies and rules are discussed for newbies. “We actively help new players,” Twilley says. “We try to be very open and noncompetitive, although we do get competitive. We really want to help people along, and retain people as much as possible.”

Andrew Wisor of Wilmington joined the Delaware Ultimate league having only some cursory experience in pick-up games. A former high school athlete, he’d grown weary of the intensity and mean-spiritedness that uber-competitive team sports sometimes generate.

“On our soccer team there was a guy who was getting red cards every game, and we’d have to sit there and wait for him to throw his temper tantrum while he was getting thrown out,” says Wisor, 29. “I thought this had gotten a little too competitive for my tastes.
“With Ultimate, the spirit of the game is part of the rules. I don’t know how it just seems to happen, but it’s kind of amazing. People who have never played before, they just have a sense of sportsmanship.”

Keala TeKolste defends against Arwin Thomasson. Players must keep the disc moving. (Photo by Matt Jones)
Keala TeKolste defends against Arwin Thomasson. Players must keep the disc moving.

Wisor stuck with the Delaware league, and eventually supplemented his love of the sport by forming a Delaware-based travel team and organizing regional tournaments at Alapocas. Most of his friends, he says, are people he’s met through playing. “In the beginning, I wasn’t aware of what an Ultimate league could mean,” he says. “I was looking at it from a fresh perspective of having fun, getting exercise, and meeting new people. It was great for me.”

Ultimate traces its roots to Columbia High School in Maplewood, N. J., where students invented the game in 1967. Columbia alumni took the game with them to college, and Ultimate germinated throughout the region. Its anti-establishment Spirit of the Game ethos resonated with counterculture movements of the era.
Stephen “Sven” Peterson was a student at the University of Delaware in 1975 when he first noticed a banner hanging near the Harrington dormitories that read, “Learn How to Throw a Frisbee.”

“That day changed my life,” he says. “I took to it right away. It was, ‘Oh my god, this is so fun.’”

Peterson captained the first-ever team at UD, and after college he embarked on a long playing career with club teams and tournament teams. By the 1990s, UD had developed an official club team, and Peterson was its coach. While Ultimate remained popular on Delaware’s campus, it was largely contained there.

“I played all over the world, at the highest levels, and in world championships,” Peterson says. “But when I came back to Delaware, there was nothing there. Maybe there were some pickup games, but nothing you could sustain.”

Peterson, like many local players, had to drive up to Philadelphia to join a league, so when Twilley approached him with the idea of forming a league in Delaware, “I was just thrilled,” he says. “We’d started some concept of a league before, but there just weren’t enough consistent players, and the UD team was dominating their area and age group. There was a big void. I applaud Josh for recognizing it.”

At 57, Peterson is the elder statesman of the Delaware Ultimate scene. He’s appeared in Ultimate National Championships in every decade since the 1970s, and for the fledgling Delaware Ultimate league he acted as a coach and captain as well as a counselor and guru, offering support and encouragement on top of tactics and instruction.

“By that time I’d been through 30-some years of Ultimate, and almost everybody there was in their first few years,” he says. “So I like to think I provided a lot of the spirit, and I’m very proud that the spirit of Ultimate is imbued in this league.”

For more info, or to become involved, visit www.delawareultimate.com.