With the moon shining off the Bay of Bengal, under the weak stream of street lights, shoddy man-powered ferris wheels whirr and spin, bells ring, children laugh and squeal, and discs fly. Free-for-all pick up games run along-side the teenager ultimate programs, beach goers lay wherever they stop, street kids sneak off with the cones to use for sandcastles and the Chennai contingent of the Under 23 India mixed team find space amidst the chaos to complete their throwing sets.
This is the home of ultimate in Chennai, India. Pick up games are constantly stopped with requests of “Boss. Boss, can you please walk around the cones? Madam?” There are constant requests for discs and cones to be returned after being taken by children, or confiscated after hitting a fellow beach goer. Some days we can number close to a hundred with various games and training sessions. Still, we’re outnumbered by everyone else who’s hanging out on Elliot’s Beach.
This has been ultimate for me for the past five months. Almost every night runs the same since the first night that Dan and I arrived. I thought I knew what ultimate was. What it is and can be, but India keeps redefining it. Redefining Spirit. Raising the bar, making it better.
The older kids greet me with “Va mamey.” “Sup dude?” The younger ones, mostly my students, run in for high fives, squeal and laugh, yelling “akka, akka, akka.” Sister. No matter the greeting, it’s always accompanied by huge smiles.
Here, I work with an NGO called Pudiyador- ”New Beginnings.” I teach English and ultimate. Ultimate is a part of the curriculum where we use the values of conflict resolution, gender equality and respect for others, to teach kids about life. Dan is here to coach ultimate in each of the cities, but more so, to be the head coach of the first National team to compete at the World Under 23 Championships.
In our first week in India we travelled to Ahmedabad to complete the selections for the U23 team. The first rounds of selections had been done before we arrived and there were still 120 boys and 25 girls to chosen from.
Athletes posed in front of a whiteboard with their name scrawled on it, wearing a paper bib with playing number just to distinguish themselves. Four players were registered as Siva- just Siva. Last names aren’t commonplace, and quite a number were missing birthdates. More than a few held no birth certificate to prove (or know) their birthday, but were confident they were under 23. The final round of selections were held in Chennai, where we were only just able to secure fields the day prior. We had lucked out – they even had a smattering of grass among the red dirt.
It was from this that India’s first National team, with no bias towards caste, wealth, background, religion, gender or language was formed. Selectors chose a team based on spirit and skill alone. As a result, the team speaks three different languages and over 70% of our players are from underprivileged backgrounds. Among the team are players who have been to college or are still in college, and are the first in their family to take on further study.
You can meet the team here:
But it’s not their college education, their English skills, their parent’s jobs, nor where they live, that the kids define themselves by. It’s ultimate. They’ve gained perspective on their culture and lives through ultimate. They know that on the field, women hold just as much importance as men, so why not off it? They show respect for hard play and even more so for good spirit. It’s through Ultimate that many of these kids were able to to travel outside of their home city. Tournaments in Bangalore, Ahmadabad, Delhi, Chennai, Auroville– all financed by professionals in club teams– make them a part of a much larger community than they had previously known. Travelling to play against people from all over India — adults, other kids, expats, college students, professionals and corporates alike — means people hold them in higher regard back in their communities.
Now they have been selected to play for India and the most commonly used word I’ve heard to describe the achievement is “proud.” Proud to be among the chosen players from Ultimate communities where the youth have an almost single-minded love for the game. Proud parents, who ring relatives in their home villages to let everyone know their child has made the team. Proud club teams, that pledge to help get them to London, any way that they can. And just as proud are the coaches and leaders who have seen these players develop and become brilliant young adults, on field and off. All proud of the changes they have made in their life, proud of the way ultimate and India’s Ultimate Community, have brought them to this point. And everyone is beyond excited to see what’s next.
Over the last four months, I have seen the 24 players selected in the squad train with intensity. At the first training camp, with the help of Australian Ultimate players, we ensured each player had a pair of cleats. Although second hand, the players were all so appreciative and astounded by the generosity that the Australian Ultimate community had shown in donating and a few games of rock, paper, scissors were played to vie off for the newer pairs. New discs were given to those who didn’t own one and within two weeks looked like discs normally relegated to late night disc golf or presents for the dog, but were still carried around with that new disc tenderness.
Fast forward three months and Rahul has worn the studs off his cleats while training at our local grounds. I’ve never seen that happen to a pair of cleats before. Muthu fills the two hours per day he has spare, between juggling two jobs and family responsibilities, with training. Udaya, one of the assistant coaches, wakes and sends whatsapps to everyone as alarms for training. Sabine travels almost 2 hours by bus to get to the beach so she can throw. Dan has been working hard designing regimes for players that have no access to weights or even a hard ground free from multiple games of cricket to run sprints on, as well as travelling all over India running clinics to raise money.
Then there’s the squad of managers who have been tirelessly organising everything from birth certificates and passports to socks – everything that we will need to get the team to the World Championships in London, including what spices we need to pack in our carry on.
Perhaps our biggest hurdle though, was getting the rupees needed to get the team across to compete. From emails to Bollywood stars begging for retweets, to dinners with members of Parliament and meetings with corporates, we tried it all. Our online campaign provided the motivation we needed to keep the search for sponsorship going. India, Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, United States and Singapore Ultimate Players, coming together to show their support for India Ultimate and the U23 Team, provided fuel for the fire. Currently, our online campaign has raised over 17 lakh — over $26,000 USD. Offline, our sponsors have matched this amount which means 24 young athletes will realise the opportunity of a lifetime, representing their country in a sport that defines them.
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