Contributed by Angela Mallon
The Saturday before the USA Ultimate Club Championships, Mental Toss Flycoons in Missoula rolled out of bed at 4:30am. They pulled on wool pants and sweaters and raincoats, leaving home well before dawn, vaguely taking note of the frost on the grass and steam rising off the Clark Fork River. They were engaging in a ritual – for some the first time, for some the twentieth. They were not recalibrating their internal clocks for the 2-hour time difference in Sarasota. They were not acclimating in preparation for the inevitable sub-tropical heat and humidity. On this day they carried not discs, but firearms, because the Saturday before Nationals is the opening day of hunting season.
There are 3 absolute truths of playing competitive club ultimate in the Big Sky. The first is that almost no one moves here to play this sport. People move here for the mountains. They move here for big powder days and rivers crashing through gorges and close encounters with bull elk and grizzlies on the Crown of the Continent. Those who are fortunate to be natives of the region usually find the sport accidentally, as just another way to play outside, a means of staying fit in the interim between snow and sun. The Flycoon roster doesn’t feature Callahan nominees or USAU college national champions. It is composed of snowboard instructors and former pro mountain bike racers and trail runners. This multi-dimensionality is evident on the fields. MTF is reputed to be one of the fittest teams in the Northwest, conditioned by the anaerobic demands of backcountry descents and hill sprints at high altitudes. Their aggressive defense is characterized by an utter disregard for their own personal safety, mirroring the way they might hurtle around a switchback or through a section of rapids. Against a zone, their handlers play catch and throw with the same leisure that they might on a lazy afternoon camped along a remote lake miles into the wilderness.
Considering their long-term love-affair with the Intermountain West, it follows that the second absolute truth of Big Sky ultimate is that its players love road trips – more than Willie Nelson, more than Sissy Hankshaw, more even than Jack Kerouac. Since it costs $50 just to look at the planes flying over Missoula, let alone board one, the Flycoons drive to nearly all their tournaments, and the distances are Odyssean. They cross the Rockies 20 times between April and September, following the same paths as Lewis and Clark 200 years ago. They witness countless sunsets over silos and sage, skinny dip in clandestine swimming holes in tributaries of the Columbia, and travel with gloves for blackberry picking and binoculars for wildlife watching. They average two hours in the car for every one hour of ultimate they play, challenging the notion that familiarity breeds contempt. Even after 500 miles packed shoulder to shoulder in a Suburban, the Flycoons arrive to tournaments lolling and entangled like coyote pups, ecstatic to be in each other’s company. At Northwest Regionals so eager were they to encourage and celebrate one another that they received a TMF warning for rushing the field too soon after points were scored. If ultimate teams are like family, this team is like an idyllic family vacation, wishing only for a biodiesel-fueled bus so they could conduct their migrations en masse.
The third and most important absolute truth of Big Sky Ultimate is that it’s all about playing mixed; not because mixed is the only game in town, but because it’s the best game in town. The Flycoons aren’t a collection of former Open and Women’s players who retired, worn out and nonchalant, to the co-ed pasture. They are part of a proud heritage extending all the way back to Trigger Hippy, the first Big Sky co-ed team to win a National championship, more than a decade ago (their current roster even features a relic from this era). Flycoon ultimate is egalitarian as the rancher who puts his firstborn to work, irrespective of gender, as soon as he or she is big enough to roll hay bales out of the tractor’s path. Their women learned to keep up with the guys a long time ago, in the hills and on the rivers, and they are as likely to throw a full-field huck around a mark or sky dudes as they are to leave them in their full suspension’s dust. The Flycoons’ strategy plays to the nuances and advantages conferred by a synergy between gutsy, fleet-footed females and men whose hucks have the precision of a well-cast fly and who break marks with the same steadiness as they break trail in three feet of snow. This team makes spectators wonder why other high level competitive sports don’t have co-ed divisions, so artful and effortless is their integration of the talents each gender has to offer.
Come this Thursday, the Mental Toss Flycoons will put their Big Sky religion on display in Sarasota, rolling out of bed at 4:30am mountain time. They will shrug into shorts and jerseys, leaving the house on Siesta Key well before dawn, vaguely noting the fog hovering above the fields and the richness of sea-level oxygen. There are no mountains on the horizon, just endless acres of immaculate, even turf. They dreamt all night of their quarry, dragons and fairytale princesses and meat for the barbeque. They are on the hunt for the second weekend in a row, but at Nationals they aren’t gunning for a trophy elk.