In Ultimate Frisbee, there are no referees. Players rely instead on the “Spirit of the Game,” a sportsmanship-based system of admitting one’s own fouls.
While critics say this quirk limits the growth of the sport, players embrace it as just another aspect of a game that lies happily outside the mainstream.
“The people that play Ultimate are unique ““ they’re very, very athletic nerds,” said Sabrina Fong, co-captain of the Bruin Ladies Ultimate team. “Some people come for the competition, but some people just come for the culture ““ it’s just more goofy than mainstream sports.”
But this laid-back attitude doesn’t hinder the competitiveness of the Bruin squad, which departs for the national championships in Boulder, Colo. today.
After narrowly missing a bid to nationals last year, the players are eager to redeem themselves this year as they face off against the nation’s top 20 teams.
The UCLA women’s team, despite being a relatively new team, has made appearances at three of the last four championships.
Co-captain Kelly Wiese said that the team’s success is drawn from its variety of players with diverse athletic backgrounds, including volleyball, lacrosse and water polo.
Players say the similarities Ultimate shares with many other sports are part of its appeal, drawing in experienced athletes eager for a change.
“The transition (I made) from basketball to ultimate was pretty easy,” Wiese said. “There’s a lot of jumping and the same type of pivoting. But it helps that no one has ever played before, so we all start from square one in terms of learning the sport.”
Key to this rapid learning curve are nonstop two-hour practices which focus alternately on conditioning and game situations. Although members bemoan the rigors of these workouts, they are also quick to concede they may have made all the difference in their chances at nationals.
“We have a really, really well-conditioned bunch this year,” Fong said. “Our strategy is geared towards being just really athletic and having a few good throwers. We’ve been focusing a lot on running and on “˜Hail Mary’ kind of passes.”
This newfound focus on athleticism was essential in the Bruins’ last-minute win against rival UC Santa Barbara, where they qualified for the national tournament.
“That was one of the most exciting games all season,” Wiese said. “We scored four last-minute points to qualify for nationals, and it was one of the most intense games of Ultimate I’ve ever played.”
With the hard work behind them for the moment, the Bruin Ladies brought an extra dose of spirit to their last practice of the season on Monday. Players took to the practice field in skirts and dresses to work on last-minute adjustments.
And when the team arrives at Colorado today, players say the silliness of Ultimate culture will balance out the tournament’s inherent competitiveness.
“We don’t have scrimmages or games really, we just go to tournaments,” Fong said. “Because of this setup … when you go to tournaments, it’s like a weekend-long party where you happen to be playing a ridiculous endurance sport.”
Among the relative newcomers at this tournament will be coach Caitlin Rugg, a first-year medical student who just finished five years with the Stanford Ultimate team.
After hearing about the position through friends involved in the sport, she has committed herself to the team despite the major time commitments of medical school and residency.
“I know I won’t be able to coach after next year once I’m in rotations, and I don’t know too many residents that stay involved,” she said.
But as she watches her team in its final practice before nationals, adorned in a bright gold skirt and blue sequined hat, she admits she cannot imagine a life without Ultimate.
“I won’t write off coming back to coach after rotations,” she said with a smile. “I really can’t get away from this sport. It’s my life. I’m loving it.”