If you play competitive ultimate in Seattle, chances are Khalif El-salaam has made you look bad. This young up-and-comer possesses amazing athleticism and a fierce drive. The list of players that have been skyed by Khalif is long and distinguished. Khalif is a shining example of the fantastic youth ultimate program in Seattle.
Starting ultimate in middle school, he’s benefited from great youth programs and coaches, winning championships at every level he’s competed at. After starting play at Mercer Middle School, he and the Mustangs claimed 6 city championships and twice won Spring Reign, the largest youth tournament in the world. In high school, Khalif excelled at Northwest High School, one of the best youth teams in the nation. Throughout high school, Khalif developed under coaches like former Sockeye player Ryan Winkleman and super-star Miranda Roth on the youth team Seattle Fryz. With experience on YCC and Youth Worlds teams, Khalif has shined on every stage.
This summer, Khalif played on an all-star youth team that won the World Junior Ultimate Championship. At Potlatch, he joined the Rise Up all-star team in the showcase game against Australia. This club season, he has brought his athletic defense and amazing hops to Seattle’s Voodoo. When he’s not busy having people misspell his name, Khalif also coaches a local youth team himself. As Khalif’s youth career ends and college career with the Washington Sundodgers begins, we caught up with him to talk about how he got his start in ultimate, his heroes in the sport, and reflecting on his gold medal finish at in Dublin this summer.
Ben Beehner: First off, congratulations on your recent gold medal finish at Youth Worlds in Dublin. How did this year’s team play together? What was your experience like in Dublin?
Khalif: Our team this year, like most worlds teams, was a team of all-stars. Our coaches had to spend the first three days of training camp teaching us to go from a team of all-stars to an all-star team. This meant teaching us to cut unselfishly and take the right decision instead of trying to make the big play.
Our team came together on the field after we learned more about each other off the field. Hanging out, cracking jokes, and finding out how each of us enjoyed playing the game really translated to our on field play. Once we were able to figure each other out, we knew how to play together and how to play USA ultimate. And like Ben Van Heuvelen said, USA ultimate doesn’t lose.
Ben: You’ve played in the Youth Club Championships in the mixed division for four years now. What is your impression of the national youth scene in ultimate? What teams or regions have you seen improve over these four years?
Khalif: From what I can tell, the West Coast dominates in the girls division no doubt, especially from the Pacific Northwest. We are deeper and more athletic than any other team out there. For boys, it’s a battle. I have never played open but from what I can gather, all the boys teams, both on the east and west coast, have a certain drive to be the best. And no matter how many years in a row you have won, or who is on your roster, if you don’t consistently work to be the best, there is going to be someone out there working harder who will beat you. Over my four years I have seen teams win and lose when they should have lost or won, just because there was another team that worked harder than them or they beat a team that they worked harder than. When it comes down to it, it’s all about the grind to be the best as a team, not individuals.
Ben: How did you get started in ultimate? What is it like growing up playing ultimate in a city like Seattle?
Khalif: I started playing ultimate in the 6th grade at Mercer Middle School. My coach Sam Terry always knew when to bother me into signing up for the team and I finally went out there and loved it.
Playing with Northwest helped me get better, thanks to my coaches Alex Wells and Reid Koss. With Northwest, I won three state championships and a Westerns championship.
Playing ultimate here in Seattle made it way easier for me to be enveloped in the sport. With all the tournaments held and all the youth support there is, it was so easy looking forward to picking up a disc everyday and playing in Spring Reign and all that good stuff. I do admit the wind and rain make it a little frustrating at times.
Ben: Who are your heroes in Ultimate? Who do you strive to be like?
Khalif: My male hero is definitely Ben Wiggins. He has been who I strive to be. Not in a physical way but in a mental way. He’s played in the highest level of competition. He is a handler and since I’m not a handler, I feel like those abilities are something I don’t strive for. But I do strive to think like him. He is the smartest ultimate player I know in the way that he understands the game and is able to process and give out that information to teammates and students like me.
He has won world championships, which always makes someone that much cooler. And anyone who is as athletic as him but can still dominate has to be on another level intellectually. I mean he is athletic, but he is no big time threat…you know what I mean, no meanness intended.
My female role model is Miranda Roth. She, like Ben, is very well-known as a smart mind and an amazing player. The same reasons [for Ben] apply with Miranda, but somewhat in a different way. Miranda worked hard to get where she was. And not just “go to the track, take some days to throw with a buddy.” No, she worked HARD. She grinded to get where she is and would put her body on the line every game for her teammates. Not only that, but she is able to inspire me to never give up on myself or my team, no matter what is happening. Miranda took me when I was just a small, fast middle-schooler and turned me into the defensive pit bull I am today. Anyone can coach a kid, but not many can take a kid, put him on the right path, and watch him succeed with the ideas and ways you instilled in him.
Ben: How have you been involved yourself in developing the sport of Ultimate?
Khalif: Just how I was helped when I was a kid: by coaching. I got my first real coaching job last spring coaching a brand new program at St. Joseph Middle School. It was those kids’ first time playing ultimate, and I knew it was my job to make the sport come off as fun and competitive. With a group of like 15-20 we were able to teach them basic throwing, defense, offense, and zone. We made it to the finals of the C division. We lost, but come on, it was our first year! I know that those kids are looking for more next year and they are going to bring their friends and we are going to have a bigger team. Then BOOM, we got kids wanting to play ultimate when they go to high school and college and beyond. Keep the train rolling baby.
Ben: This fall, you begin your college career at University of Washington. What are goals for playing ultimate in college and beyond?
Khalif: For college ultimate, I am super excited to raise my levels of play. I have hit the peak in every division I have played in, winning championships in middle and high school. But a college national championship is the real deal. I don’t know how much my work ethic is going to have to rise to get to the level of my teammates and opponents, but I am sure of that fact I am ready for any challenge that is put in front of me.
My goals for the rest of my career are first to not get injured. I see all these great ultimate careers being ended because of injury. It’s terrible to see that, having to deal with doing an extra 30 minutes of warming up because of bad hamstrings or a pulled something. I want to be at 100% and if that means always cooling down, or morning stretching to keep the body loose, then fine.
My actual ultimate goals are to make Sockeye this next coming year. That is because I have an ultimate goal of winning WUCC in 2016 with Sockeye. Other than that, I just want to be a powerhouse. I want to be scouted by other teams, I want to be known in the ultimate community, and all this without being an unspirited player. I hope that people will like being around me and playing me on the field because I challenge them. I just want to continue to rise.
Feature photo courtesy of Dennis Marsh.