A teammate once asked me what I would do if I could travel back in time, and without hesitation I said I would go back to relive my first college ultimate practice. I remember seeing the puzzled look on my friend’s face, wondering why I would trade an amazing opportunity to see the historic wonders of the world for such an ordinary day, but for me the answer was obvious: I wanted to go back so I could start my ultimate career over with all of the learned skills and knowledge I have now. Walking onto that field, as my present-self, would change everything.
I remember that first practice, in the fall of 2004, like it was yesterday. I stayed up late the night before, nervous about not knowing what to expect and obsessively trying to plan out every possible detail so I could fit in with the rest of the team, having been drawn to ultimate because my boyfriend played in high school. I didn’t own a single pair of athletic shorts, so instead I wore a pair of boy’s zip off cargo pants. I had recently purchased my first pair of cleats and desperately felt the need to keep them clean, so I carried them around in their original cardboard box and tissue paper. To my teammates, I probably looked like a complete mess. But for me, that day was the start of something great.
My first year of college, like for most of my teammates and girls I have coached, saw the largest improvement: going from not knowing anything, barely being able to throw a disc 10 yards, to running handler cuts, hucking wildly, and playing zone defense. It might have been messy, even reckless at times, but it was visible improvement nonetheless. After that first college season I knew I couldn’t spend the next three months apart from ultimate, so I signed up for the local league in my hometown. From there, I met college players from around the tri-state area who thought it would be fun to get together and form a club team. Our motto was “mediocrity” and we baked muffins for every tournament, but it gave me the opportunity to play against great club players and learn from my mistakes.
Year after year, for the next three years, I did the same thing: a season of college, a season of league and club. With each year I focused on becoming a better player: stop dropping discs, throw more consistent throws, keep up on defense. I invested in a copy of Ultimate Tactics and Techniques to try and learn more behind the strategy of the game, watched live coverage of College Nationals to see what other teams did well, and asked veteran players more questions about ultimate than they probably wanted to be asked.
Then in 2007 I packed my things and moved 2,400 miles to Tucson for graduate school. Just like my very first college practice, I remember my first time playing with the women’s college team like it was yesterday. I stayed up late the night before, nervous about how I would fit in with girls who won Sectionals every year (something my college team never did). This time, I did have a pair of athletic shorts and far too many jerseys to choose from, and my cleats were already ripped and torn from overuse during the summer.
Moving to a new community exposed me to a completely different side of ultimate. Expectations were greater, conditioning was mandatory, and flying to tournaments was normal. I still had the same yearly schedule as before: a college season followed immediately by a club season followed immediately by a college season, but it felt different. I remember while at a practice during my first season with Barrio, I watched one of our handlers sprint hard up the line and turn immediately back to receive an easy dump. I stared at him and thought “is that how hard you have to cut as a handler?” It was as if someone had suddenly turned on a light switch in my head: there are still things about this game that have never occurred to me before. It was like I fell in love with the sport all over again.
The night before I flew out to San Francisco for the Women’s Mixer I was nervous about how I would play and what to expect. I made sure to pack clothes for every possible type of weather, having learned a valuable lesson about planning ahead after playing a tournament with only shorts and a cotton t-shirt during a hail storm. Despite my slight nervousness, I felt incredibly excited about the new things I was about to learn from the Bay Area ultimate community. After our four hour practice, I immediately started sketching out new drills, techniques, and strategies to bring back with me to share with my friends in Tucson. Because even after all my years of experience, by simply changing my environment I am able to find those “ah-ha” moments about this game that never occurred to me before. I can’t wait to go back again to Fury’s first closed tryout to see what more I can learn.
Nine years ago, despite understanding very little about the sport, I knew I would be playing ultimate for a long time. There was something about throwing around a flat plastic disc with a group of people that made me happy. But it wasn’t just the spirited and fun attitude of my teammates that got me interested, it was also the competitiveness, the complex strategy, and the drive to win that made me stay. During college, I learned how to play with my teammates, but it was branching out and joining various leagues, club teams, and clinics that taught me how to become a better player.
If I could go back in time to my first college practice with the knowledge I have now, it probably would change everything. As much as I wish it were possible, maybe there’s a point to having learned this way. Perhaps the way we learn, struggle through, and succeed in this sport is by assuming we know little and searching new places for more.