Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Ultimate in the land of tacos, banda, and tequila

by | October 19, 2011, 4:00am 0

Traveling in camioneta with my new friends from Malaki.

It’s 6:00, and I’m sitting in the back of a Mexican pickup truck with five other Ultimate players I met ten minutes ago, in a city I arrived in two hours ago. This rapidly-growing city of 800,000 residents is Querétaro, about two and a half hours from Mexico City, and the young mixed team which has graciously offered to let me train with them is Malaki. 20 minutes earlier, I had been in my hostel looking for anything Ultimate-related in Querétaro when I stumbled on their Facebook page. The latest post on the page announced a practice: “5:50 plaza de toros!” I looked at my watch: 5:34. Hijo de puta! I jumped up, put my shorts on, grabbed my disc and ran to the city bus, which dropped me off just in time at Plaza de Toros. Once there, I quickly looked around for anyone who might look like an Ultimate player. Suddenly, I heard shouts from the distance. The Malaki players had spotted me twirling my disc. I quickly performed the international “Yes, I play Ultimate too” sign: furiously waving my disc in the air and yelling. I ran over, we excitedly exchanged names, and now, ten minutes later, we’re flying down the highway to practice, the warm wind whipping into my face from the back of the truck.

Malaki (Nahautl for “disc”) practices in Piramides, a suburb about 10 minutes outside of Querétaro. The fields belong to a local farmer who charges teams 20 pesos ($1.80) per player for daily use. As we warm up, cows graze on the field next to us, their presence providing our stretching session with an authentic rural aroma. Torruco, the Malaki captain, leads us in warmups. He first learned of Ultimate from his brother Victor Alejandro, who brought it back from Germany, where he did a Masters degree. Upon his return to Mexico, the two brothers joined an existing team in Querétaro. A year and a half ago, they split and formed Malaki, recruiting local preparatoria (high school) students and friends to form the rest of the team. Of the players at practice, almost all of them have come from the prepa outreach that Malaki does.

I had expected the need to adjust to the Mexican style of practice, but to my surprise, Malaki runs the same drills familiar to me from my time playing in the Northwest United States. I soon find out why: Whitman College standout Jeremy Norden is in the country putting on Ultimate clinics. One of the Malaki players, Patty Suarez, was at his women’s clinic last weekend and brought the drills and strategy she learned back to Malaki. Norden’s Next Level men’s clinic is being put on this weekend in Mexico City, but not all of the Malaki men can go. Nationals is in two weeks, and many players don’t have the funds to pay both the 400 peso clinic ($35) fee and the ~350 peso ($28) Nationals fee. They’ll have to settle for information passed down from their more veteran players in the week between the clinic and Nationals. Since I have to go to Mexico City anyway for my flight back to Seattle, I decide to join four other Malaki players at the two-day clinic.

Ready for the 5:30 AM bus ride to Mexico City.

Bringing top talent to teach in Mexico is a group effort. One of the organizers of the Next Level clinics is Vanessa Rincones, a Venezualan who’s been living in Mexico since the late 90s. Vanessa has witnessed the growth of Mexican ultimate since the very beginning; when she arrived, there wasn’t a single team in all of Mexico. Her passion, she explains, is to grow the sport in any way possible, and she works tirelessly through her organization, JUF (Juega Ultimate Frisbee), to give Mexico any fuel it needs to develop the sport in this land of 107 million. JUF has been inviting players from around the world to share their knowledge in various weekend Ultimate camps. The clinic I’m at is being put on by Jeremy Norden and Manny Chanoine from Canadian mixed champions Team Fisher Price.

A 5:30 autobús trip, Mexico City metro navigation, and taxi ride later, the boys from Malaki and I arrive at the clinic. The location is beautiful: soft, spongy, well-maintained grass fields that are on a slightly elevated plateau, providing us with a 360 degree view of the most populated city in the world, framed by the staggering peaks of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. Behind the fields is a gigantic muddy salt marsh, the remnants of the once second-biggest lake in the world, Lake Texcoco. The discs flying through the air against this picturesque natural background almost seem like an anachronism. The other players in the camp file in, excitedly greeting each other al estilo méxicano (handshake, slide, fistbump). With teams in only 6 or 7 cities, the Ultimate community in this country is still small; everyone knows each other so well it almost seems they are teammates. With five different teams, Querétaro is somewhat of an Ultimate mecca for it’s size. The other mecca is Mexico City itself, home of the 4-time national champions Fenix UNAM.

About 35 players have signed up for the camp; most are captains or long-standing players that will bring the knowledge they learn here back to their squad in preparation for Nationals in two weeks. The players range from 16 year old Rodrigo Ocaña of Malaki, with 7 months of experience, to the 34 year old grizzled handler Chino Ramírez of FEMEDIVO, with 7 years of experience. The boys wear jerseys from their favorite USAU club teams, like Revolver and Chain, and when I tell them I’m from Seattle, their eyes light up in recognition. As in most countries, the most popular team in Mexico is Seattle Sockeye. Malaki’s Torruco sports Sockeye shorts and a jersey emblazoned with his name, which he had shipped from their website as a birthday present to himself.

Jeremy and Manny teaching zone defense

The clinic begins. Each skill is taught in a logical sequence: First, the players circle up to watch a theoretical explanation using discs and cones to represent players. Then, the theory is drilled in small groups, with an instructor assigned to each group to help out with questions. Finally, everyone comes together for a controlled scrimmage, which the instructors periodically stop to reinforce concepts. Jeremy and Manny speak fluent Spanglish, switching rapidly between the two languages when teaching. Manny explains the zone to man transition: “Por eso es mejor llamarlo antes, porque muchas veces rompen y ya… ‘ay!’ Tenemos que… like, ‘shit!’ You have to go to man. So this person has to anticipate and see how the disc is moving. If it’s going back and forth, back and forth, great, keep [the zone]. They’ll drop it.” The players nod in acknowledgement. Manny and Jeremy have run 8 clinics in 8 days, gaining more experience with each one, and it shows. The clinic runs as smooth as butter, and by the end, I’m surprised at how much we have covered.

Post-clinic gathering

At night, we go out for tacos, followed by a gathering at one of the player’s apartments. The party quickly turns into everyone sitting around a table, drinking Indio and telling jokes in Spanish, each one dirtier than the last. The players are expert joke tellers, adding voices and sounds for effect, and even though the Mexican slang peppered throughout makes it hard to understand everything, I find myself cracking up, privately reflecting in wonderment at how a chance Facebook search took my vacation on a four-day Ultimate bender. Afterwards, we cram 12 people with sleeping bags into the cramped residence. I’m reminded of my first college tournament, OFUDG, in 2005, stuffing our entire team into a one-bedroom apartment in Eugene, Oregon.

After four disc-packed days in Mexico, one thing becomes clear: we may not share the same culture, traditions or even the same native language, but our love for this beautiful sport brings us closer together than any other bond possibly could. Mexico may not have as much Ultimate tradition as the United States, but it’s teams have the heart and the talent to be contenders in the international scene. With the Next Level clinics continuing throughout the next two months, Mexican players will have the chance to build on institutional knowledge from the top players from North America, passing it on to their teammates and to the youth players coming out of prepa. With Sockeye running clinics in Russia, Colombia, and the Domican Republic, we can only hope that the torch will be passed to other top USAU club teams. The international exchange of ideas and the chance to grow the sport is too valuable to pass up.

If you are interested in coming to Mexico to assist with Ultimate clinics, please contact Vanessa Rincones at contacto@juegaultimatefrisbee.com.

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