Ultimate Frisbee: Trinity’s best kept secret?

Aisling Byrne answers all the questions you have about one of Trinity’s less well-known sports clubs

This college year is looking particularly promising for Dublin University Ultimate Frisbee Club (DUUFC). Things kicked-off in early October with the Women’s team winning the first tournament of the year, The Cork Open. This was their first time as finalists at Ireland’s longest running tournament, open to European teams across all divisions. After six tightly fought contests, they battled the Corkonian Rebels for the second time that weekend, beating them 12-9 in the final. This massive win, along with a record number of women attending trainings and having already taken part in two beginner’s tournaments this season, means there are high hopes for women’s indoor intervarsity’s being held in Cork this weekend and Mixed Indoor IVs in Galway the following weekend.

On the men’s side of the team, there are three current Trinity ultimate players and three alumni on the Ireland U24s Men’s squad heading to Perth for 2018 World U24 Championships. From the January 7 – 13 they will be competing with teams from all over the world including USA, Singapore and Great Britain. Not only that, but a further three Trinity men represented Ireland on the U20s Men’s team at the European Youth Ultimate Championships in the Netherlands last Summer. They were undefeated and made their way to the final coming second to Italy.

Since its foundation, Trinity Ultimate Frisbee Club has won six Indoor IVs and six consecutive Women’s Indoor IVs from 2006 to 2012. Last year, Trinity defeated UCC in a grueling match to take victory at Open Indoor IVs and was shortlisted as College of the Year by the Irish Flying Disc Association (IFDA), the national governing body for Disc Sports in Ireland. Evidently, Trinity Ultimate is an extremely successful club. It takes part in more intervarsity tournaments than any other Trinity sports club, seven a year in total, as well as a men’s and women’s annual Colours game. However, the club and the sport itself still seems to fall under the radar of most Trinity students. There is something of a mystery surrounding the players seen throwing and catching a disc around the Physiology Garden in between lectures. Are they just random students happily killing time or are they actually part of that frisbee sport you’ve heard about? With indoor training in the sports hall twice a week and outdoor training in Santry Sports Grounds once a week, it is unlikely that many students will actually see Trinity’s ultimate players in action as they would the rugby teams, for example. So what is ultimate frisbee and why is it Trinity’s best-kept secret?

Ultimate, originally known as ultimate frisbee, is a non-contact team sport played with a disc. Types of throws include a forehand (commonly known as a flick), backhand and various over-head throws, including a “hammer” or “scoober”. Points are scored by passing the disc to a teammate in the opposing end zone. It is a game of offence and defence with possession and direction of play switching over after every point scored or with a turnover, interception or incomplete pass. A fundamental rule is that no steps can be taken with the disc in hand, making ultimate a pivot sport and essentially a game of throwing and catching. Teams employ many different offensive and defensive strategies, each with distinct goals in mind, the most basic being to create open space on the field in which a pass can be completed. Positions are assigned to the players based on their specific strengths, whether that’s throwing or receiving. There are three different divisions for players: women’s, mixed gender and open. Open is literally “open to all players”, although most teams are male dominated. Ultimate, perhaps surprisingly to those who have never seen it played, is a highly athletic sport. The physicality involved is evidenced by the level of injuries associated with it. Last year Trinity players experienced two torn knee ligaments and a spiral-fractured femur as a result of playing on the women’s team alone. The intensity of the game can be described through the typical layout of a IVs event. Last year at Women’s Outdoor IV, hosted by UCD, each team played six demanding one-hour long games in the one-day competition.

Ultimate was founded by a group of students in Columbia High School in New Jersey in 1960s. The first world championship was held in 1983 in Goteborg Sweden and the event is now held every four years. The game made it’s way to Trinity in 1996, making DUUFC the oldest ultimate club in Ireland. In terms of Irish university ultimate, there are 7 IV events every year: Women’s, Mixed and Open being played Indoors and Outdoors and then an extra competition for new players. On an international level Ultimate is played on grass and on beach. Within Ireland and other European countries, all-weather indoor ultimate is played for half of the year.

Another element of the game is the reliance on fair play and good sportsmanship by all of its players, as matches are self-officiated. The absence of referees ensures that all players learn and abide by the rules of the game, call their own fouls and dispute a foul call between themselves if there is genuine opposition to a call. This mentality is referred to as the “Spirit of the Game”, and according to World Flying Disc Association, the governing body for the sport of ultimate, “highly competitive play is encouraged but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play.”

This “Spirit” is particular to Ultimate and is what distinguishes it from all other sports. It is a prime example of putting responsibility on players to ensure that the team that wins the game is most deserving, without taking away from the athleticism and competition. Teams are awarded Spirit scores by their opponents at the end of every game to highlight any issues a team may be having and to reinforce self-officiating. Spirit also means each player has two roles to play, making sure to call fouls as they happen while also trying to score points. Of course, to a non-ultimate player looking in, the system may seem too far-fetched from the normal operation of sport. There has been much debate regarding the current system within the ultimate community around the world. Although Spirit may be ideal at university level, with an increase in competitiveness at larger tournaments, the lack of players’ integrity and teams taking advantage of the system in an attempt at winning can easily spoil a game. There is also the issue of spirit with the growth of the sport. The International Olympic Committee recognized Ultimate in 2015 and it could one day become an Olympic sport. But does this pillar of ultimate need to change to increase interest and professionalism when on the world stage? Some moves in this direction have been made with the addition of official observers at world championships and US nationals who act as mediators for disputes on the field to keep the game in flow. You could argue, however, that the whole concept of spirit completely embodies the Olympic ideal. Ultimate would potentially be the only team sport fully representing the Olympic ethos.

Trinity Ultimate engages fully with the spirit aspect of the sport and even elected a Spirit Officer to their committee for the first time this year. It gives the club a distinctive character that  is interesting enough to retain Fresher sign-ups but is also a reason why people fully commit to the sport. Not only does it ensure that beginners understand the rules of the game early on, but it puts a level of accountability on other more experienced players. At Trinity Ultimate, all players are expected to help in developing newer members while also being responsible for their own progression. This transcends the entire atmosphere surrounding the club. There is always a genuinely warm, friendly, welcoming tone to training sessions and club events. There is a balance of competitive play and socializing that Trinity Ultimate effortlessly provides. Socials can range from a quiet movie night after training to notorious fancy-dress house parties that go on until early morning. The inclusivity and care that the club has for its players was obvious this past mental health week. In conjunction with the SU, Trinity Ultimate held two events and released a Snapchat and Instagram story campaign highlighting the issues of mental health in sport and encouraging other college teams to speak to their members about it.

Ultimate frisbee being “unknown” doesn’t make it any less of a skillful and competitive sport. If anything it makes it more so. Each player taking part is contributing to its advancement and striving towards recognition from official sporting bodies with limited resources and a relatively small Irish ultimate community. With the possibility of a very successful year for DUUFC and the progression of Ireland’s national teams, ultimate might not be a secret for much longer.