A Farewell to Ultimate

by | March 7, 2016, 7:30am 0

I could never have told my 14-year-old self I was going to retire in my prime. I was too busy falling in love with ultimate — practicing my layout form onto the couch late at night, throwing hucks alone during winter break, and committing to two-a-day practices: in the afternoons with my high school team and in the evenings at Las Positas College.

I could never have told my 18-year-old self I was going to retire in my prime. How could I crush the dreams of that incoming freshman at UC Davis, aspiring to recreate Joe Kershner’s legacy at University of Arizona for himself? Like Kershner, I also started my college career after a U-19 Junior World Championship and received my region’s Freshman of the Year award. I could not break the news to that college kid who wanted to build his team’s winning culture and qualify for the program’s first Nationals appearance in school history.

Last of all, I certainly could not have told my 23-year-old self I was cutting my career short. I was a bright-eyed D-line handler that just completed a grueling two month long tryout process with Revolver. I received the phone call from Coach Dutchy telling me I had made the team. After years of fantasizing about playing on Jam and Revolver, my dreams of playing elite club ultimate had finally come true.

My 2012 season began as it does for most rookies on a defending national championship team: on the bench. I showed promise and played well until September, when an injury hampered the rest of my season. I went into Nationals out of shape and mentally unprepared for big game moments. I didn’t play a point in our finals loss to Doublewide.

The 2013 season was a wreck. The MLU had come to town, but I opted out of of playing Dogfish with the rest of my teammates because I was figuring out how to be an adult in San Francisco. I joined a startup as a UI/UX designer and averaged 60 hours a week at work while trying to fit in time to do workouts. The time never seemed to materialize and, although I made Revolver again, I had underestimated how hard elite club ultimate actually was when I was not physically prepared to grind with the best.

That year we beat Sockeye in the finals. Coach Mike Payne got me in for a few points, but I felt like I squandered a season of ultimate and, more importantly, a year of my life. It wasn’t enough to just be on Revolver. I felt that I needed to earn the right to celebrate with the rest of the team.

After finals that evening, feeling introverted, I left the tournament party early to plan how I was going to become a contributing member of Revolver in 2014. No more than two weeks after flying home from Dallas, I hired a strength and conditioning trainer at my gym and began working out 5–6 days a week. The AUDL made their debut in the Bay Area that winter, so I signed with the Flamethrowers to get plenty of reps to come into 2014 Revolver tryouts prepared and sharp.

Despite all of my off-season training, tryouts were nerve wracking. After a lackluster 2013 season, I had to fight to earn my spot. Though I made the team, I had performance anxiety before every practice weekend and tournament. I was uncertain if I was improving quickly enough, and struggled to truly feel part of the team. Every month, I checked in with Coach Mike to discuss what I should be focusing on to continue to improve. He never doubted my work ethic and assured me that I was on the right path.

My hard work paid off at Nationals, when I saw a fair amount of play time in pool play and the championship bracket. In the quarterfinals of the Club Championships, I was a part of the D-team that earned Revolver five breaks against GOAT’s O-line. But it wasn’t enough. I watched my team, knuckle by knuckle, slowly lose grasp of a win. After the game, I crumbled to the turf next to my best friend, Revolver trainer Molica Anderson, pressing my weight against her and crying into her arms.

I wrapped up 2014 held together by tape and glue, riding a mental and physical roller coaster that peaked at tryouts, Worlds, and Nationals. Though my growth as an ultimate player was extremely personal, I didn’t expect to be so devastated to have come up short at Nationals.

The following off-season was approached with increased vigor. I had found the recipe for success in 2014 season, but now I wanted to win a championship. This time I did more gym sessions than track workouts, focusing on my vertical jump and game related explosive movements, making me quicker and stronger than ever. The last season’s experience had boosted my confidence, as well as my team’s confidence in me.

In 2015, I re-signed with the Flamethrowers and stepped into a bigger role with a revamped roster. On the club side of my season, I finished the Pro Flight Finale with five assists, three blocks, and two turnovers. Most importantly, I played in two universe points that weekend, one of them in the semifinals against Truck Stop. My part-time matchup that game was Alan Kolick.

Nationals was a pipe dream. Revolver’s defensive handlers were incredibly sharp and stingy with the disc. Collectively, our D-line resets —  Patrick Baylis, Jordan Marcy, and I —  only had two turnovers during Nationals. I tallied two goals, six assists, zero turnovers, and a gold medal. Mike played me in big points, I had great chemistry with any D-line variation, and I finally felt like I earned my team’s respect.

Fast-forward to this off-season. I’m now 27. I should have 4-5 productive years left in my career, arguably 5-6 as a handler. During these theoretical years I could win USA Ultimate and AUDL championships and receive more recognition on a national scale for improving my game to an elite level.

But that won’t be my story.

After my rookie season on Revolver, Robbie Cahill indefinitely retired. His farewell email to the team read:  “I spent all of my 20s playing for Revolver.”

I remember freezing after reading those lines, repeating them over and over in my head. Robbie spent nearly every weekend between April and October practicing or playing a tournament for 10 years. All of his potentially adventurous and dynamic years of his life were consumed by ultimate.

Though I loved my team and the sport, in my heart of hearts, I didn’t want that for myself.

It wasn’t until last year that I strongly pursued other passions outside of ultimate. Alongside training November through March, I took improv classes and committed a majority of my evenings to doing digital illustration and web design. Though putting more on my plate was overwhelming, I felt stimulated and fulfilled.

When the season finally started, ultimate forced me to put my passion projects and personal growth on the back burner, but doing so felt wrong. It upset me that I lost all of my free time and latent feelings of “life after ultimate” started to bubble up. I became more attracted to becoming a bigger contributor in the design community and pushing my personal limits with other hobbies.

After Revolver won a National Championship last year, I made a point to embrace as many of my teammates as I could and exchanged compliments over our play and hard work throughout the season. After Revolver took our photo in front of the podium. I promptly had a teammate take a photo with me and my Davis boys – Ashlin Joye, Elijah Kerns, Nathan White, and Marcelo Sanchez. Unbeknownst to any of my teammates, it was the last time we would be on the field together.

At the hotel later that night, I had a fulfilling conversation with Coach Mike. Our chat reminded me of a conversation we had before Southwest Regionals in 2013 where he told me:

“You will find your spot in our system if you continue to polish and simplify your game.”

In 2015, the rhetoric was different. Mike said:

“You figured it out! The team loves you and respects your work ethic and your contributions on the field. This group is young and still so hungry, and you’re going to be a big part of our success in the future.”

After Nationals, I had planned a trip to the Northeast to relax, watch the leaves turn, and ultimately decide if I really wanted to retire. After a lot of reflecting, I decided to announce my retirement after the Revolver banquet in December.

The night after the banquet, I wrote a thoughtful letter addressed to Revolver, the Flamethrowers owners, my favorite college teammates, and friends outside of the game. The whole process was brisk and therapeutic, until I was about to click “Send”. I stalled by proofreading for a fifth and final time.

Though I was overwhelmed, I was certain that I made the right decision. I kept three years of my 20s and have started applying the Revolver tenets of Intensity, Humility, and Discipline to other aspects of my life. I feel confident that my high demand spots will be filled by the right players on both the Flamethrowers and Revolver and am excited to watch both teams mature from afar.

My free time is now spent designing, illustrating, and attending events that showcase Bay Area’s creative communities. Outside of design, I’m enjoying my important relationships outside of the ultimate community. I started a weekly swing dancing class in early March and look forward to new opportunities to diversify my interests.

After announcing my retirement, I received many amazing emails from my teammates of present and past. Ironically, the only one who asked me to reconsider lacing my cleats back up was Robbie Cahill, who sent an email reminding me that I was at my peak and should consider coming back for 1-2 more years.

I’m lucky enough to have received everything I could ask for out of the game. I humbly thank all of the amazing mentors, peers, and characters that I met in this incredible community.

Farewell ultimate, it’s been an amazing ride.

Neil Gardner - UltiPhotos.com

Photos by William Brotman and Neil Gardner – UltiPhotos.com

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