Ultimate uprising: The sport with Olympic aspirations

Ultimate uprising: The sport with Olympic aspirations

'Ultimate will continue to grow. And soon, a critical mass of players will usher the sport into an era of global popularity.'

By Kevin Underhill for CBC Sports
August 14, 2019

I remember the moment.

I screamed, “Lloyd!” as I dashed to the endzone. My teammate, Mark Lloyd, saw me striking deep and threw a beautiful flat throw that floated out in front of me. I tracked the disc to the back of the endzone as I sprinted and lunged forward to catch it, making sure my trailing foot touched down in-bounds before my momentum carried me out.

The moment was the bronze medal winning catch against Team Australia at the 2017 World Games in Wroclaw, Poland.

Rewind to 2008 at the World Ultimate Championships in my hometown of Vancouver. I had recently turned 18 and I was volunteering at the event, filling up water coolers, collecting field cones and cleaning up garbage. At the end of each day, once we had completed our closing tasks, other volunteers and I would throw the disc around.

Underhill with teammate Tim Tsang with their bronze medals won at the 2017 World Games. (Photo provided by Kevin Underhill) Underhill with teammate Tim Tsang with their bronze medals won at the 2017 World Games. (Photo provided by Kevin Underhill)

I vividly remember jumping for discs and landing with my trailing foot just tapping in-bounds before falling out-of-bounds. Night after night I would “toe the line” until dew formed on the grass, and the sun went down. Each morning I would be back, wide-eyed and watching the world’s best ultimate players compete on the very same fields.

I was discovering a passion for the game. Still a teenager, I was picturing myself in a Team Canada jersey as we ran around on the wet grass throwing the disc in the dark. But I never envisioned that ten years later I would be “toeing the line” for the winning catch in a medal-match at the World Games, wearing that red and white uniform.

Back to that moment in 2017. After I made the catch, my defender, who had been hot in pursuit during the play, said to me, “I’m not sure you were in. Are you sure?”

I remained calm despite the cold rush of adrenaline that was coursing through me. I told my defender, “I’m sure I got my toe down in-bounds.” I was pointing to the spot on the grass where I was certain my cleat had contacted the ground. He responded by saying he wanted to check with the game advisor for her perspective.

Watch Canada's full 2017 World Games bronze-medal match against Australia

Self-officiating the game

If you are unfamiliar with Ultimate, it’s important to know the sport is largely self-officiated. The players do their best to follow the rules and are expected to call violations on each other throughout the game when the rules are not upheld. In international competition, even at the highest level, the game remains self-officiated.

In major international tournaments, like the World Games, game advisors are assigned as officials that watch and follow the play, similar to how referees would in other sports. The major difference is game advisors, unlike referees, are passive until asked by the players for their perspective or a rules clarification.

When my Australian opponent asked the game advisor for her perspective (as he was entitled to do), I felt the world stop for a moment. Doubt crept in. Could I be wrong? Was I out of bounds? She told us what she saw — she said my foot was in-bounds when I made the catch. My opponent accepted the game advisor’s perspective, we looked at each other, shook hands in agreement and the celebration began.

In what sport does the final play of a podium game on the world’s biggest stage get determined by a discussion between two opponents? I’ll admit, it does sound crazy, but it is part of what makes Ultimate so unique.

And yet the self-officiating aspect of ultimate has long been cited as the reason why the sport is ‘never going to be in the Olympics’ or why ‘professional Ultimate will never work without referees.’ Whether that viewpoint is right or wrong, Ultimate will continue to grow. And soon, a critical mass of players, builders and supporters will usher the sport into an era of global popularity.

With 40,000 players in Canada, Ultimate is listed as one of our fastest growing team sports. For many, this means recreational summer league or indoor 5 on 5 during the chilly winter months. For the select few, it means countless hours at team practices, in the gym and on the track. It means self-funded flights to tournaments all over the world. It means dedication and sacrifice. It means time devoted to maintaining physical and mental health. It can also mean trips to the emergency room, weeks on crutches or in slings and hours and days of recovery.


Life lessons baked into the sport

I’d be lying if I said Ultimate was perfect. The sport has plenty of challenges, just like every athletic community. I see people that cheat the system. I see players who take advantage of the rules. I know I’m guilty of mistakes along the way as well.

But I also see an extraordinary number of positive outcomes. I see young athletes learning how to respectfully handle disagreements, rather than letting a third party always decide what’s right and what’s wrong. I see coaches and captains learning how to lead by example. And I see an accessible sport continuing to grow in cities and countries around the world. I’m not saying that our sport occupies ethical high-ground because we self-regulate. I come from a multi-sport background and I love and appreciate all sports.

But Ultimate is different.

Team Canada celebrates their 2017 World Games bronze medal win in Wroclaw, Poland. (Photo provided by Kevin Underhill) Team Canada celebrates their 2017 World Games bronze medal win in Wroclaw, Poland. (Photo provided by Kevin Underhill)

Different gets noticed. The International Olympic Committee is looking to add sports that are youth-focused, that promote an even gender balance and that align with the values and spirit of the Olympian ideal. At the Olympic level — as it is in the World Games — the game would be played co-ed, it would be self-officiated, and it would be awesome. I won’t say Ultimate will be rocketing to the top of the Olympic program anytime soon, but it will get there. Likely after I’ve hung up the cleats for good.

The game disc from that 2017 World Game medal match hangs on my bedroom wall alongside a Canadian flag and the medal we earned. This is a reminder of our team achievement and also of that moment when the game was on the line and the result was decided by two fierce and competitive equals. That is my definition of ‘spirit of the game.’ The disc on my wall serves as a reminder that the system and the spirit of the game can work at the highest level. As Ultimate grows across Canada and the world, I intend to promote and defend that spirit within the forum of elite athletic competition. It is what makes Ultimate special, and it is what made my moment in 2017 so moving. I ask all athletes and Ultimate supporters in Canada to fight for this, for the sport we love.

Large images provided by Kevin Underhill, by Tino Tran

The Kevin Underhill edition

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: Recent favourites: The Name of the Wind & No Country for Old Men.

Q: Must-listen podcast? 
A: Hardcore History.

Q: Best advice you've ever received?
A: Use qualities of your role models to guide you to discovering your own identity. Be yourself and no one else.

Q: What word or phrase do you over use? 
A: Awesome.

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: I would love to be able to sing well and I would love to be bilingual.

Q: What's something no one would guess about you? 
A: If I could move anywhere in the world, it would be Bern, Switzerland. Cheese, Chocolate and good people!

Q: What scares you? 
A: Concussions.

Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the 6 people you'd invite?
A: Brooke Henderson, Trevor Linden, Barack Obama, J.K. Rowling, Mark Knopfler, Christine Sinclair.

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: Athlete retirement videos.

Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: Gold medal at the 2020 World Ultimate Championships in the Netherlands..

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