My name is Tommy Paley, and I have been playing ultimate for 28 years. I am also a writer. After a significant amount of time trying to figure out how to combine these two skills, I settled on writing a series of stories about my life as an ultimate player which, if all goes well, will also be turned into a groundbreaking psychedelic rock opera entitled Tommy (unless someone has beat me to that already).
It was late Spring in 1989. Flowers were blooming, love was in the air for the local birds and bees, and I had just turned 18 and was finally on the cusp of graduating. However, there was one major thing missing from my to-do list at this point in my life: one glaring thing, in fact. Despite loving sports, I had never played on a sports team. I followed almost every sport as if my own existence depended on them (maybe they didn’t, but was I going to take that chance?). It had always been my dream to be a star on a team with the bleachers full of adoring fans cheering for me. I spent hours in the backyard completely dominating my solo version of tennis-ball-against-the-aging- wooden-fence baseball and as well as being a virtuoso at one man balloon basketball in the rec room. Unfortunately, I lacked what in reality is commonly known as “skill” and thus never made a team.
Not that I hadn’t tried.
If they gave awards for trying, I still wouldn’t win one, but I’d be close. There were numerous failures and shortcomings that I don’t have the room to adequately give justice to here (but am happy to send interested parties the entire DVD collection). I remember going out for the basketball team in grade 9 after a summer of watching Bird, Magic and Isiah on TV and believing that my time brazenly and aggressively dunking on the kiddie hoop in the lane was all the prep I needed. Sadly and unfairly, I was wrong. Instead of walking around the halls full of pride after making the team, I came away psychologically and metaphysically knocked down as I had to finally confront that I didn’t have what it took. Turns out that I couldn’t dribble well enough to be a guard, wasn’t tall enough to be a forward, and couldn’t shoot well enough to be on the team at all, but I could be a manager if I didn’t find that too insulting, which I didn’t… until now. I was an amazing grade 9 basketball team manager, by the way, years ahead of my time.
I also considered volleyball (too short), soccer (hilariously uncoordinated with my feet) and rugby (scared of everyone and everything hitting me). It wasn’t that I was unathletic: I played competitive racquetball, squash, and tennis as a teen, but unfortunately, no school team sport worked for me. My parents consoled me perfectly with well-meaning clichés such as “keep your chin up”, “don’t take it on the chin” and other chin-related expressions that were meant to motivate and inspire me, which they did, while also making me fairly self-conscious about my chin. And then, just when I was ready to give up all hope, I found ultimate. Looking back on things, it must have been destiny or fate or a result of singing “Maybe” from the musical Annie constantly while growing up.
Growing up, I loved throwing discs. My parents always brought a disc with them whenever we went to a park, and they were good at chucking it to each other and then turning to me and smiling in a perfect mix of taunting and love that only they could master. All throughout my youth, I vividly recall being in awe of how they would effortlessly wing this colorful plastic disc to each other at a good distance without it wobbling or hitting the ground. I would just lay there, under the big ol’ oak tree, reading Nancy Drew and eating sugar-free snacks, wishing that I could throw like them. Occasionally I would be permitted to join in and I clearly stood out as “NOT A THROWER!” (why my mom had to continually, and quite viciously call that out each time I was about to throw, was beyond me) as my discs posed immediate health hazards to all humans and animals nearby.
For much of grade 12, my friends and I spent our lunch hours walking outside, eating lunch and throwing discs, usually in that order. It came as quite a shock one day when they cornered me and asked me if I wanted to come out that evening to play on their team. I instantly said “sure” a little too loudly and enthusiastically for the librarian’s taste, before inquiring exactly what kind of “team” this was and whether I’d need to be vaccinated beforehand, which, for me, was a deal breaker. I found out that my friends had been leading a secret, double life for years now. In addition to walking outside, eating lunch, and throwing discs, they were also playing ultimate on Wednesdays as well, a fact they had neglected to tell me until now.
Why they wanted me, a guy who couldn’t hit the side of a barn, even when provided with a barn ahead of time to practice with, was beyond me. Maybe they had done their research and realized that I was the missing piece of the puzzle for their team, or, conversely, they were fresh out of options and were so incredibly desperate that I was their final hope. Either way, I was just excited to have been invited to join the team (though I swear I heard the cackling of laughter in the background on the phone when they hung up).
I remember my first game well.
It was a Wednesday evening in 1989 at the idyllic Jericho Beach Park in Vancouver, with the coastal mountains looming in the distance, and that ever-present and beautiful aroma of the woods after a rain permeating the air. The grass was still damp as I dropped my bike on the sideline and ran over to join my team, just hoping that this wasn’t all part of an elaborate hoax. The previous summer, the team had been called The Pink Lungs, but with many lineup changes, the new team was called Hat Head (we all wore hats…on our heads) and eventually we morphed into Bandana Republic (we all wore bandanas while also feeling strongly that supreme power should be held by the people and their elected representatives, if you are into that sort of thing, which we were). I jogged around in my running shoes warming up, trying to ignore how damp my socks were already getting while also attempting to look like I had some idea of what I was doing.
To get ready for the game, our side performed a detailed routine of ritualistic stretching. Then we started a “simple” throwing drill, where my discs went everywhere but their intended targets. One friend came over and seemed to be threatening me not to screw up the game, though in retrospect, he was probably just struggling with seasonal allergies. I was mostly hoping that I would escape – body, glasses and psyche fully intact (or least no less intact than when I started) and that they would want me to come back next week if, for nothing else, than as some comic relief.
My heart was pumping a mile a minute and my head was spinning, as they had been since I woke up that morning, what with the excitement and anticipation I felt. As I looked across the field, I noticed that the other team had matching shirts, which seemed to either be their attempt to intimidate us (it was working) and/or encourage us to buy or invest heavily in Adidas (also working!) In my shaky-at-best memory, they were tall, lean and spectacularly tanned. It seemed totally unfair that our ragtag bunch of pseudo-athletes, who could have easily been mistaken for a youth community theatre troupe, had to go up against these veritable Olympians.
In my paranoia, I was sure that the other team, who were for all intents and purposes, sharks had already sensed my blood in the water and were plotting and scheming to expose the imposter (me) on their way to total domination. As I stood there, literally shaking in my boots and looking for the nearest washroom, I was completely consumed with not being the primary reason that we lost. I remember, in my panicked moments before the game, hearing these strange terms thrown at me, like “the force”, “the stack”, “hucks”, “striking”, and “macroeconomics”, while I employed the time-honored strategy of smiling and nodding to give the illusion that I had any idea what they were talking about.
The game began.
To say that I had dreamt of this moment ever since I was a child would be completely inaccurate. No, I had only dreamt of this moment since a couple days before when I was invited to play. In my dream, I was the star. Small in stature, but huge on the field as I made awe-inducing play after awe-inducing play: a series of incredible dives for discs, amazing and improbable leaps into the sky to grab flying discs that were seemingly out of my reach, and a game-saving play for the ages that was commemorated by a local artist who used watercolors on canvas. Alas, my reality never lives up to the expectations of my rather unrealistic dreams.
We started on defense.
I was told to do “whatever it took” not to let that guy standing across the field from me to score. Thankfully, for all present, I was and am a pacifist. I learned quickly that not wanting your mark to score wasn’t enough and you had to actually do something about it as he was unlikely to listen to your fancy reasoning.
The game went by in a blur. I spent the evening huffing and puffing, trying not to run into people, and standing around waving and calling for the disc. I slipped and fell constantly all over the place (remember: running shoes on damp grass) and I did not complete one pass or catch one disc. Aside from that, it was an unqualified success: I was thrown to a few times, partially out of pity and also sympathy, which are really hard to tell apart while playing a sport for the first time.
Despite losing and not really getting involved, I was in love, even though I was a bit scared and had no idea what exactly I was getting into, (which was, sadly, eerily similar to many of my first human relationships). In my short experience, I felt something deep inside me that ended up being heartburn, but underneath that I also felt something else, a stronger feeling, like I had finally found my game, my people, my home. If I were a stronger, less-in-touch-with-his-emotions man, I wouldn’t have cried.
Though I had only played one game, I knew that ultimate was for me. I had finally found my team sport.
Stayed tuned for Part 2: Learning the Game