I wake up before everyone and slip out of the hotel into the dark. As I walk toward the beach under the glow of the street lamps, the Palm Bay is absolutely silent. Tonight, when all but two are done, this road will be alive and screaming with drunk frisbee players finally free to cut loose after their months of abnegation. But right now, it’s silent. The Gulf water is surprisingly cool. I swim back and forth parallel to the beach and my body starts to open up and let go. Every year this gets harder and harder and it takes more and more work just to be ready to warm up. I try to think about this and not think about sharks. I think about sharks.
Now I’m in the back seat of the car, listening to this year’s music. I like this year’s music, which is a good thing because we’d listen to it even if I didn’t, just because that’s what you do. But I like it, so I sing quietly to myself. Clark is empty this morning and the expanse of it is staggering. You could easily fit a field crossways to the road between the strip mall on the left and the strip mall on the right. Thursday’s and Friday’s commuters are still abed and we fly down this asphalt prairie toward I-75. We see carloads of other players; there’s Ozone and there’s some Madison guys and the DC guys. We wave to Ozone, but there’s too much on the line now with the other Open teams, so unlike the friendliness of the early days, we studiously ignore each other.
The field is buried in mist when we get there and we pile out quietly. Our tracks linger in the grass, crossing this way and that, each leading invisibly to its own field and pair of teams. These misty mornings are one of my very favorite things about Nationals and I am glad today is one of them. I greet my teammates as they filter in. Just a word and a touch; we know what is coming. We’ve stumbled and now we sit here getting ready for quarterfinals against another juggernaut. Semifinals is the distinction that separates contenders from the rest and while there would be disappointment in losing at that stage, there is no shame. Losing in quarters will be shameful. I know the team we are playing; they feel the same way. One of us will be done in a few hours.
We begin the warm up with my body and my mind on autopilot. I know my body will get warm. I know I will be focused. The ritual will take care of that. Trusting in the preparation, I pull a bit of myself back and away to do damage assessment. The aching ribs, the whiplash and the hotness in my wrist can all be ignored. They are just the price of playing defense and in a way I welcome them as signs of a job well done. I’m worried about my ankles, but they feel alright, so I put them aside and focus on the real problem. There’s a little burr in my hamstring that won’t disappear and won’t let go. It’s small, but it’s not firing at all. So my warm up becomes a process of finding out what I can and can’t do; how I will work around this unusable piece of muscle. There’s a real risk of serious injury, so if this were any other day I wouldn’t play. It isn’t any other day. All through this personal work I am checking in with the other defenders. I take the measure of yesterday’s injuries. We’re banged up, but everyone is going to play. Good. I spend a minute talking with a teammate who is struggling and try to assess his mental state. Hard to tell. We’ll have to wait and see if he can play his way out. My throws are ready. They’re not great, so this won’t be a wondrous day with the disc, but they’re enough on that I’m not going to turn it over.
Sometime during our preparations, the sun came out and burned off the mist. We never really dried out, though, we just transitioned from damp to sweaty without noticing. Some of my teammates are changing into dry socks and some are having a last minute snack. Some of the defenders take a moment to talk over match-ups, but there’s not much to say. We’ve already gone over this last night. Into the final huddle. The captains say the things I knew they were going to say. We cheer. We are starting on offense, but that’s no big deal. They’ll score and I’ll play. Here we go.