Not just for hippies anymore
Durango catches spirit of Ultimate Frisbee

Joel Kraus rushes to pass the disc at a Durango pick-up game last week. Ultimate games meet every Tuesday and Thursday at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. All comers are welcome to participate in the 6 p.m. matches./Photo by Brandon Mathis

by Brandon Mathis

Trent Simmons is running all over the place. Literally. He’s been in Fort Collins, Seattle, Boulder, Flagstaff and Lake Tahoe, and that was just July. One of the world’s only professional Ultimate Frisbee tournament directors, Simmons still finds time to play the sport he promotes and loves – Ultimate – twice a week in Durango.

“I got addicted to this sport,” said Simmons. When you look at his playing schedule, it shows. According to Simmons, he plays 25 tournaments each year.

Ultimate Frisbee, now in its 40th year of being formally recognized as a sport, is a game of endurance, stamina, quickness and fun. Played on a large field with opposing end zones, it brings soccer, football and basketball to mind, and incorporates certain elements of each, but with a flying disc in place of a ball. “It combines the pure athleticism of basketball, with the finesse of soccer, and can require the toughness of football or rugby,” Simmons said. “It’s the things that you can do with a Frisbee that make it a more exciting game.”

Watching a few local Durango games, one might agree. The feats of speed and agility on the field are impressive, and players, guys and gals alike, 12 to 55 are working hard for the fun of it. At a glance, Ultimate calls on running, jumping, sliding, pivoting and constant changing of direction. Because of the nature of the disc, it’s harder to predict its movements. “Two players might sprint as fast as they can, then once they get to it, it changes directions and they are jumping or even laying out for it,” said Simmons. “Rarely does a game end without some kind of spectacular catch.”

As the story goes, Ultimate got its start when some creative teens in New Jersey began establishing rules to a new kind of disc game they were goofing around with in between accelerated classes. What they came up with soon spread like wildfire. After graduating high school, the developers of the game went off to various colleges, bringing with them their counterculture disc sport and teaching it to others, and so on. Today, Ultimate is played worldwide and is part of the International World Games, a quadrennial competition featuring sports not included in the Olympics, such as water skiing, squash and bowling. There have been no fewer than 11 updated editions of rules, but local pick-up players often modify the rules to better fit things like weather or number of players. However, one thing about Ultimate that stays in place is what is called the “Spirit of the Game."

Ultimate is self-officiating: there are no referees to call an infraction, even at the highest levels of the sport. “If you feel like you’ve had a foul, then you call it,” said Simmons. “It’s also great youth sport. You have to learn how to get along.”

This underground kind of sportsmanship is gaining momentum, and is being used across the globe to help young people overcome cultural differences. The Ultimate Peace Project, an Ultimate youth camp based in Israel, not only teaches young people how to play the game, but how to apply that “Spirit of the Game” across cultural barriers and to life in general.

Locally, the annual Labor Day Weekend Ska Hat tournament brings some of the nation’s top players to Durango, from Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Seattle, Minnesota and Kansas. One of the largest Ultimate tournaments in the country, The Ska Hat format is designed to create teams that learn to improve collectively. Players register as individuals and teams are formed based on skills. The tournament has been around for about 15 years and is one of the more popular Ultimate Hats in the region, said longtime local player Blair Ruder. “It draws a good number of people, and a good number of them women,” she said. Ruder noted that playing Ultimate, really, is about having fun. “Some of us have played for years and others have just started, but in Durango, it’s a really special community because no one is concerned about that. We all just play and hang out.” Costumes are common at tournament events, and Durangoans are known for clever themes. “It’s hard not to have fun when you’re wearing crazy clothes,” said Simmons.

The cross section of players on a weekday pick-up game supports that. Mountain bikes line the fence at the field. Kayaks sit on roof racks. Seasoned players tutor first timers, and there are lots of smiles. “You’ve got college kids, river rats, ski bums, doctors, attorneys. Durango is represented,” said Simmons. The age range of Durango Ultimate players is just as diverse, with fathers and sons playing in the same game. David Kirkpatrick said he’s been playing since college, and, at 48, he is not the oldest on the field. He also said that he still finds the “Spirit of the Game” appealing. “It’s one of the best things about the sport.”

While Simmons said he enjoys just playing Ultimate, he stays busy promoting tournaments, building leagues and keeping the Durango games going. “I do all I can, getting teams registered, finding a field space, working on getting sponsors.” And he added that there is some terrific support in Colorado. “Ska Brewing has been great in supporting Durango Ultimate as long as it has been around.” He says that he’s working on new events in Las Vegas and New Orleans, and as far away as the East Coast.

In the end, everyone – from players to spectators – seems to get drawn in by the sport’s explosive energy. Fort Lewis College student Joel Kraus has a background in team sports and said that Ultimate is incredible, for the Spirit of the Game and just the pure fun of it. “I’ve been an athlete all my life, and this sport brings it all together for me,” said Kraus. “It all starts with the disc.” •

The Ska Brewing Durango Hat meets at the Riverview Sports Complex on Sept. 4 - 5. Games begin at 11 a.m. and continue throughout each of the days. Ska Brewing will host an after-party on the evening of Sept. 4 at the world headquarters. Registration is open at