By Alexandra Erath, A16
The Tufts Women's Ultimate Frisbee A-Team at the USA Ultimate College National Championship May, 2014. The women's team finished within the top ten teams in the country the past three years.
The Tufts Women's Ultimate Frisbee A-Team huddles after taking first place in the New England region for the fourth year in a row, earning them a bid to the USA Ultimate College National Championship.
The Tufts Emen 2014 team.
Tufts senior Hannah Garfield, E14, throws a pass during pre-quarters against Carleton College at the USA Ultimate College National Championships.
Carter Thallon, A15, playing against the University of Michigan Magnum at USA Ultimate College National Championships. (Photo: Diane Etzwiler)
The word "Frisbee" brings to mind lazy days on the beach or afternoons bonding with your dog. But to the more than one hundred men and women of Tufts Ultimate Frisbee teams — part of the increasing number of Frisbee players at college campuses across the country — Ultimate Frisbee is an exciting, challenging, and competitive sport.
Ultimate Frisbee came to Tufts in the early 1970s, and since then both the men's (Elephant Men, or Emen) and the women's (Elephant Women, or Ewo) teams have enjoyed high levels of competition and success. The Emen, who tied for ninth place at the USA Ultimate National Tournament ("Nationals") in Cincinnati this May, have competed in the tournament four out of the last six years, peaking in 2012 with a fifth-place finish. Similarly, the Ewo have advanced to the national tournament for the last four years, placing in the top ten for the last three years.
Since its inception in 1968 at a New Jersey high school, there are more than 5 million Ultimate players in the United States today. In an Ultimate game, players toss the Frisbee to team members to advance down the field, and score points by catching passes in the other team's end zone. After catching the Frisbee, players cannot move their feet except to pivot or hold the Frisbee for more than ten seconds. Turnovers (a change of possession) occur when the Frisbee is intercepted, deflected, blocked, or thrown out-of-bounds.
To the uninitiated, a Frisbee player's conversation might seem just as garbled as dropping in on an upper-level language class. You might hear players speaking of "pulls," (long throws), "Callahan goals," (scoring a point by intercepting a pass in the end zone your team is defending), or, in a particularly exciting game, a "Greatest" (when a player jumps from within bounds to catch a pass out-of-bounds, and then throws it back into play before his feet touch the ground).
Hannah Garfield, one of the senior captains of the Tufts women's team, describes the Ultimate Frisbee community as "very tight," a characteristic she says is true of Frisbee teams nationwide and across the world. Garfield, who has played for high school and other teams, has found there's one degree of separation between any two Ultimate players. "You can go anywhere in the world looking for food, advice, a job, and you'll find the Ultimate culture," explains Garfield.
The student-athletes of the Tufts Ultimate Frisbee teams are often competing against teams from much larger schools. Yet, says Tufts Assistant Athletics Director Branwen Smith-King, the Tufts Ultimate Frisbee program has a long tradition of success. "They want to build and improve," says Smith-King, "not to just make it to the highest level, but to have some great results and to really compete."
Repeated successes require a high level of commitment from the players. The official Ultimate season takes place in the spring, but both the Emen and Ewo hold informal captains' practices in the fall to teach new players and train together as an entire program. The captains select the A and B teams in the late fall (in the Emen's case, the C team as well), and the season begins in the spring term. The Emen hold biweekly three-hour practices (with an additional weekend practice for the A-team), along with a mandatory track workout and individual conditioning. Likewise, the Ewo's A-team practices twice a week for three hours and also attends one track workout and two weight-lifting sessions per week.
With such a demanding schedule, what draws these students to the sport? "I think the number one reason to play, for me, is the Ultimate community," says Garfield. "It's more than just the team and the sport," she adds. "It's the people I go to dinner with, and see on the weekends, and get a study room in Tisch with." Carter Thallon, A15, an Emen captain from the 2013-14 season, feels similarly. "Going to Nationals was awesome," he says, "but this team was so close that my favorite memories from the season were just those times when we were all able to hang out, like when we all got Chipotle and then watched Frozen together after winning a tournament."
Some students, like Thallon, come to Tufts already knowing they want to play Ultimate. "Students who play seriously in high school will normally contact college Ultimate teams to learn about the program or visit a practice," says Garfield. Although academics are a strong factor in many players' decisions to attend Tufts, a consistent Nationals-level Ultimate program is a draw. "The good Frisbee team is an added bonus," Thallon explains. Players newer to the sport are also encouraged to join the teams, and the additional B and C teams were created to accommodate the surging level of interest in Ultimate campus.
In the regular season, the Ewo and Emen compete mainly against nearby schools, including Harvard, M.I.T., and Northeastern, but attend one out-of-region tournament as well. Team members believe traveling is necessary to compete against the best teams and to gain valuable experience playing at a high level before Nationals: this past year, the Ewo played at a tournament in Seattle and the Emen competed in Florida. Both teams have multiple coaches (the Ewo, 2, and the Emen, 5), but as a club rather than varsity sport, the players take on many of the organizational tasks, such as practice times and tournament travel, as well as promotional work for the team.
In the next few years, where do the Emen and Ewo see Tufts' Ultimate program headed? "I would love to see us continue to grow in size and in strength," says Thallon. "Going back to Nationals is always great as well!" Garfield says she would like to keep up the high level at which the team has been competing but most importantly, hopes awareness of the Ultimate program at Tufts continues to grow. "That means more kids seeing us play, supporting us on campus, or even coming out to tryouts," she explains.
Smith-King believes both the men's and women's Ultimate Frisbee teams are well poised for another several years of tremendous success and Nationals appearances. "That's my instinct for them, and that's my impression of how committed they are, both individually and as a team," she says. Garfield, who graduated this past May, couldn't agree more. "The team's come a long way in the four years I've been at Tufts," she says, "and I think they'll just get better with time."