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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Ultimate frisbee: Savouring a Texan memory

As the Indian women's team crowdsources funds for the World Championship, this writer recalls a personal highlight from the sport

The man who invited me was a colleague from work, John H. He cut a slim, athletic figure, so in merely looking at him, I knew he would run circles around me in any sport we chose to play together. But still, a crisp Saturday morning flipping a dinner-plate sized plastic disc around? This was too tempting to pass up.

Ultimate frisbee, of course. I had flung the things about plenty of times. Especially on American campuses, it’s almost a given that you will get pulled into a frisbee session at some point.

I always felt slightly inadequate with my efforts, though. While others used a slick flick of the wrist to propel the disc through the air—smooth, rock-steady in flight—my wrist flick only caused it to wobble alarmingly and veer to one side or the other. So, in this game where I would have to pass the frisbee to my teammates, I could only foresee trouble.

“Never mind!" said John. “All fine! Just be there."

“There" turned out to be a field just walking distance from my Dallas apartment. The next Saturday, I arrived at the appointed hour to find four slim, athletic figures—John one of them—limbering up, jogging in place, that sort of thing. They were serious about this session, I realized, as I mimicked their movements. When our numbers had swollen to 10, John said, “Shall we?"

(Forever a man of minimum words, John.)

We split into two teams, John leading mine. I knew the basic idea of the game: the team holding the frisbee must advance it up the field by passing from teammate to teammate, trying to keep it out of the clutches of the other team. You score by getting the disc into the “end zone" at the other end of the field. In its essence, the game is like American football.

John pulled our team into a huddle, introduced me to his pals, and spelled out my role: “You are my long receiver," he said. He wanted me to run far up the field, cutting left or right to get myself free, then turn around to grab the frisbee he would have sent sailing towards me.

Of course, if I was not already in the end zone when I caught it, I had then to pass it to another teammate. But John wanted me to make the long initial gain. And I knew why, too. I was just a little taller than most of the other players, so John thought he could count on me to leap higher than the defenders, to catch the frisbee. If I managed to get sufficiently far ahead, my poor throwing abilities would not matter as much.

As far as I could tell, this was the sum total of John’s strategy for the game.

When we got started playing, I was quickly winded. Ultimate frisbee is a swift, fluid sport, with action seemingly happening all over the field. John fancied his ability to launch long passes, but those were the ones more easily intercepted by our opponents. When that happened, we all had to promptly rush in the other direction, trying to defend their attempts to reach our end zone.

Especially in that first session, I felt like a headless chicken, running here and there with little purpose, waving my arms frantically to show I was free. John tried often enough to get the frisbee to me, but in my attempts to jump for it, I was clumsier than he had bargained for. The few times I did catch the thing, I had trouble passing it ahead to a teammate, because I couldn’t throw it smoothly and accurately enough.

But John kept the faith, and I learned quickly. By the second and third sessions, I knew how to position myself better for his passes, time my leaps so that my height counted for something. We began connecting on at least a few long passes in each game.

And one ecstatic time, I ran right into the end zone with a defender on my heels, we both turned and there was the frisbee, sailing straight at us on a wing and prayer from John, and the defender leaped for it and I leaped for it and if I was behind him, I also rose higher than he did, and I snared it right above his head and outstretched arms, his despairing fingers suddenly clutching at nothing.

It was like poetry, it was like magic, a moment I still remember and savour. John charged over and lifted me off the ground in a bear hug and all seemed right with the world and this quicksilver game.

Fond memories, all, that came flooding back this week. That’s because I just heard of the first Indian women’s ultimate frisbee team. These 20 young women want to represent the country at the World Championship in London in June. As these things go, resources are scarce and so they are crowdsourcing funds for the trip. There’s a video that shows them training hard, speaking of their dreams with a beguiling spirit.

Not having followed how the sport has evolved in the years since John sent those soaring discs my way, I didn’t even know there was a World Championship, or even that the game is actually played professionally in some parts of the world. Nor do I know how good these Indian women are in comparison to the competition that awaits in London.

But I do know this: going there can only make them better. What’s more, perhaps they will then inspire more of us to take to this free-spirited sport. Perhaps you will then taste that unbridled thrill that I once did: running, turning and leaping for a frisbee that, with pinpoint timing and accuracy, has arrived right there, right then, for you.

Read about the Indian women’s team’s plans and appeal here.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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