On the Sunday night after Labor Day 2011, Seattle Sockeye and a few players from Showdown are on the roof of a Santa Cruz vacation rental, music blaring, drinks in hand. The guys are dressed—or more accurately undressed—as lifeguards, complete with Baywatch-red shorts, aviator sunglasses and whistles. Showdown is in all white. A Fish dances on the plastic skylight above the bathroom, daring it to hold his weight. A disc flies off the edge of the roof. Somehow everyone ends up in the tiny kitchen, lights flickering, LMFAO playing on the portable stereo. A jug of vodka goes around followed by a chant: “Bomaye! Bomaye!” a reference to the Rumble in the Jungle, when Zairians chanted, “Ali, bomaye!”—meaning, “Ali, kill him!”—as the champion swaggered toward the ring. Someone tips the jug back. A cheer goes up. They are one drink closer to killing the bottle.
In late March of 2011, I asked Sockeye if I could follow the team for an entire season with the aim of writing magazine articles, newspaper stories, and eventually a book. I had never met the captains and had hardly even seen Sockeye play, not only because I was an outsider to elite ultimate, but because I had spent more than seven years on the east coast. All I knew about Sockeye was that they were winners, and that they had a good chance of winning a USA Ultimate title.
I think the captains, especially Skip Sewell, thought I was crazy or naïve to expect ultimate journalism to break through into the wider world. Sports Illustrated published an article about some crazy new sport called ultimate Frisbee in 1971, the Wall Street Journal’s Ross Kerber wrote about ultimate players losing their tempers, and we’ve all seen the local TV news story where a reporter laces up her pearly white running shoes and heads out for a lesson on how to throw a “friz-bee,” but there wasn’t much out there that looked at the sport the way a journalist or literary writer might. Ultimate needed a Bill Simmons or Roger Angell, and I thought, Why not me?
It took months for the players to come around, and I don’t think they ever got over their skepticism about my project. That I was some random guy nobody knew was probably reason enough, but they were also self-conscious about an outsider studying the team. They thought of themselves as a bunch of “idiots” who liked to quote videos and make penis jokes. They were used to people assuming that whatever disc sport they played must include dogs or is some alternative form of golf.
As it turns out, their skepticism was more justified than my optimism. Editors took my calls and emails, but mostly to explain why their publications shouldn’t care about ultimate. Add to that the fact that I lived three hours away from Seattle and it began to seem as though I was an “idiot” too.
But the more time I spent with Sockeye, the more the team impressed me. It had complex structures to manage team functions. Its players invented new drills, new junk defenses, even a new offense called the “flex stack.” Anyone on the team—especially captains Mike Caldwell, Ray Illian, Tyler Kinley, and Sewell—could talk for hours about team strategy and techniques for winning one-on-one matchups. If Sockeye was made up of idiots, they were idiot savants.
So how did 2011 end so badly for Sockeye? A few writers have attempted to answer that question. Lou Burruss’ immediate post-regionals reaction pointed at team identity and player substitution as a problem. A blog post by Alex Davis of Furious George mentions that the Monkey built its 2011 roster with Sockeye in mind, although he doesn’t get into the details of what strengths and weaknesses Furious addressed. Over the next four installments, I’ll look back at Sockeye’s 2011 season and talk about the team’s approach to the game, focusing on how the organizational structures Sockeye has built and the team’s mental approach have helped it build a winning tradition. I’ll also examine how those same approaches may have contributed to the struggles of Sockeye 2011.
Feature photo by John King