They made it. Ecstatic, David Long walked to the spaghetti social where he would meet up with Rhys Lindmark, who also made the preliminary roster. Inseparable since seventh grade, Long and Lindmark played together throughout high school. As co-captains their senior year, they led their team to a state championship. They both decided to continue their education at Carleton, a top-tier liberal arts college in rural Minnesota that is known for its legacy of competitive ultimate. Making it through the first round of cuts for the Carleton Ultimate Team, Carleton’s elite men’s team, was the next step toward “four more years of greatness,” says Long.
During their first week of fall term in 2009, Long and Lindmark attended the inaugural combined Carleton Ultimate Team (CUT) and Gods of Plastic (GoP) practices, where they were introduced to the distinctions between the teams. “The Combine” began as a way to assuage a long history of inter-team conflict. In the past, players occasionally found that the team they were playing for was not the right fit, and so they switched to the other one instead. These transfers provoked a legacy of “bad blood” between CUT and GoP. As former GoP captain Eric Alexander remembers, the returners felt as though they “owed it to the younger players to give them an accurate picture of what the two teams were from the very beginning, so that they didn’t have to play the guessing games that we had to.”
Long wasn’t sure that he would make the final roster, but he hoped that he and Lindmark would play together on CUT. Since 1990, CUT has qualified for Nationals every year but one. Compared to other top programs – such as the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Oregon – Carleton’s 2,000 person student body leaves CUT with a narrower pool of athletes to draw from, but its renowned legacy attracts top high school players. For Long and Lindmark, this meant that they were vying to make the team alongside Junior Worlds celebrities.
While CUT consistently outranks the Gods of Plastic, Carleton’s alternative men’s ultimate team, GoP has become increasingly competitive in recent years, winning the Division III national title in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Unlike other ultimate programs, the dynamic between CUT and GoP doesn’t resemble an “A” and “B” team hierarchy. In fact, if a player doesn’t make CUT and wants to try out again the following year, it is considered poor form to play for GoP. On the other hand, some players who would be qualified for CUT don’t thrive on such constant intensity, so they choose to play for GoP instead. The differences between the teams can be described as cultural, rather than skill-based.
Former CUT captain Logan Weiss doesn’t think the two teams are all that different: both play ultimate to have fun, but differ in their understandings of what “fun” means. As Weiss explains, “we have no problem with designing physically challenging practices, because we find satisfaction in gritting through discomfort to get to some place of success.” For CUT, success means winning Regionals and advancing to Division I Nationals. Different from the fierce competitiveness that motivates CUT players to achieve a unified goal, “each GoP-per has their own idea about what GoP means to them” says 2011-2012 captain Cory Fauver. For some, GoP is a primary social group; for others it’s an opportunity to play a team sport. During practice, CUT simulates the high-pressure environment they face in tournament settings, while “GoP recognizes the different sources of motivation that work for different people,” says Fauver, “we see our teammates primarily as friends, and then as frisbee players.”
Long briefly considered trying out for GoP, but was confused about what the team wanted. He remembers the GoP captains emphasizing its social aspect, and the tightness of the community. On the other hand, CUT described how their community was built around trust, respect, and hard work; they explained how their social bonds come naturally from a shared work ethic, remembers Long. While Long never doubted his decision to try out for CUT, Lindmark felt differently during those first weeks of fall. In high school, he quit competitive soccer when practices stopped being fun, and the intensity of CUT tryouts prompted feelings of his old soccer days. So as Lindmark walked in to the spaghetti dinner, he had made his decision: “I’m going to play for GoP,” he told player Patrick Roberts, and audaciously asked if he could keep his jersey. Roberts shook his head in disbelief.
Today, the relationship between the teams is one of mutual respect, which allowed Lindmark to transition smoothly from CUT to GoP. However, in the past the dynamic between the teams was staunchly antagonistic. Founded in 1995, GoP’s original mission was to be the “counter-cultural antithesis to CUT,” writes former captain Jacob “BJJ” Greenberg in his telling of the team’s history on its webpage. The tension between the teams sprang from various sources: after not making CUT, disgruntled players would defect to GoP. Or, in 2004 CUT actively recruited GoP-pers to join their ranks. On a more intangible level, CUT’s “fraternity boy” reputation conflicted with GoP’s laid-back attitude. As GoP has transformed into a regional powerhouse and CUT revamped its reputation, the distance between the teams has waned. They even considered merging in 2007.
During their annual showcase scrimmage, CUT and GoP take out any lingering animosity on the field. Fauver describes playing CUT as wildly fun – “it’s like we’re the second graders trying to take on the fourth graders on the playground.” It’s a lose-lose situation for CUT, Fauver claims; when GoP scores, CUT is getting beat by a group of guys wearing Hawaiian shirts – GoP’s trademark “uniforms” – and when CUT gets ahead, they’re still playing a group of guys wearing Hawaiians. Long also describes the annual game as a lose-lose situation, but for different reasons. “We beat them 15-4 every year, then they make fun of us for trying hard. It’s fun to play your friends sometimes, but I’m glad it only happens once a year,” he says. While the idea of “playing your friends” especially resonates for Long and Lindmark, it extends throughout the larger ultimate community. With over 100 ultimate players at Carleton, the teams function as an extensive social network. And the friendships that emerge have bridged the gap between them, transforming resentment into camaraderie.
Still, CUT alumnus Brent “Rex” Nystrom wonders if it’s healthy to have two highly competitive men’s teams on campus. While last year CUT made its sixth consecutive semifinals appearance, placed second in 2010, and won the national title in 2009 and 2011, Nystrom questions the sustainability of that success. Although the teams are growing closer in terms of their levels of play, maybe their distinct cultures are necessary for the Carleton ultimate community. For Long, CUT’s mission gives meaning to his experience: “Never again in my life will I be able to be a part of a group of twenty-two people who are wholly and completely dedicated to being the best team in the nation…I’m a part of something that’s bigger than me and that’s awesome, I don’t know how much I’d get out of that playing for GoP,” he reflects. Lindmark just doesn’t share that goal: “I am the least competitive person I know,” he confesses, “and one of the biggest reasons I play for GoP is for the social group that comes with it.”
Although the relationship between CUT and GoP is idiosyncratic, it embodies the evolution of the sport: CUT’s intensity showcases the ways in which athletes are taking ultimate seriously, whereas GoP’s Hawaiian shirt uniforms stay true to its counter-culture origins. Beyond Carleton, that gap also surfaces when comparing tournaments like Potlatch, which advertises its “potent blend of sun, fun, and ultimate,” to the US Open Championships, which describes itself as “a celebration of Character, Community, and Competition.” It’s clear that different tournaments and teams appeal to different people, but in light of ultimate’s recent professionalization, this question of identity – competitive versus social, institutionalized versus unrecognized – is particularly fraught. However, as the relationship between CUT and GoP suggests, the question isn’t unfamiliar to the ultimate community: can ultimate be taken seriously without compromising the unserious ethos that distinguishes it from other sports?