Ultimate Frisbee: How Playing a Sport Shaped My College Experience

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Playing in the first tournament of the school year at Grinnell College (now as a junior).
Playing in the first tournament of the school year at Grinnell College (now as a junior).

Our contributor Astrella Sjarfi never thought that doing a sport and joining a university team sport would shape her college experience. Astrella—who had never heard of Frisbee before coming to the US—later found out that she fell in love with this sport. When she first arrived at Washington University in St. Louis as a freshman almost three years ago, she was the only undergraduate student from Indonesia, so it was not really easy to adapt to a new environment and to get new friends. Joining a university team sport has helped her to survive in the first few months of her college life. She even got a chance to travel across the Midwest when her team participated in the tournament.

 

If you had told me in high school that I’d be playing a sport in college, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me that the sport involves chasing plastic discs and traveling across the Midwest, I would’ve really thought you were making things up.

When I first arrived at Washington University in St. Louis as a freshman almost three years ago, I had one major fear. I had the homesickness and the language all figured out, but my introverted self who went to the same school from 1st to 12th grade, had no idea how I would make friends who would stick with me all four years. I soon realized that my two roommates and I weren’t going to be best friends despite seeing each other every single day. I was the only Indonesian undergraduate I knew of. There was no PERMIAS. I used to joke that I was PERMIAS.

They often say that college will be the best four years of your life. Even now I still don’t know if this is true, but I did know that I didn’t want it to be the most miserable four years of my life. So I went to the activities fair, where hundreds of the university’s clubs were promoting themselves, with a plan: sign up for all the clubs that mildly interested me, attend their info session, and then decide if it was for me. Maybe, this is where I’ll find my lifelong friends, I thought.

“Do you want to sign up for women’s Ultimate?” an overly enthusiastic girl in a team jersey appeared out of nowhere. At this point, I was overwhelmed with all the information the clubs were giving me. I was mildly interested and didn’t want to decline her, so I signed up for their mailing list despite knowing almost nothing about the sport.

I soon found out that Ultimate (also known as Ultimate Frisbee) is very much a team sport the way basketball, football and soccer are, and is not just a game of two people throwing a disc back and forth. In fact, it is a mix of those three sports. There is running, offense, defense and endurance, but what differentiates it from other sports is that it is self-officiated. There are no referees in the game. Instead, players call their own fouls and discuss the outcomes, making it an approachable sport. The objective is for a team to catch the disc in the end zone to score, but every time a disc touches the ground or is intercepted mid-air, a change of possession occurs.

I had never heard of the sport before coming to the US. Even the average American knows very little about the sport. It isn’t an Olympic sport, nor is it played in the college varsity level. But it was that very air of mystery surrounding the sport and its culture that intrigued me.

Scoring a point in the freezing cold! Everyone had at least 4 layers on in this picture.

Scoring a point in the freezing cold! Everyone had at least 4 layers on in this picture.

Just two weeks and four practices later, I was in rural Iowa, at an ultimate tournament hosted by Grinnell College, playing against other college teams. The five-hour drive there was filled with singalongs and stories and miles and miles of cornfields, with people who were all still strangers to me. It was technically still summer and the heat was unforgiving. We spent breaks between games napping on soccer fields underneath some shade, and eating bagels and bananas. During the games, there were a lot of yelling and cheering on your teammates and your pump-up buddy (an upperclassman who becomes your mentor for the weekend). Of course, these tournaments also included a team dinner with forty people, and hotel rooms cramped with six girls in each room.

I only caught the disc five times throughout that first weekend. I felt like I was bringing the whole team down and still had so much to learn about the sport, including how to properly throw a disc, but everyone was so friendly and supportive of one another, regardless of their ultimate skills, that I knew I wanted to continue doing this throughout my college years. Also, what better way to explore the Midwest and make new friends than to road trip to neighboring states to play a sport we grew to love, all paid for by the school?

Only two months into freshman year, I was attending every practice on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, even making the 25-minute trek to South Campus with friends and getting dinner together afterwards. Practice itself was only two hours, but with the travel time, dinner and shower after, it took up a total of four hours of my night, leaving me little time to complete whatever homework was due the following day. And yet it was always the one thing I looked forward to each week, no matter how overwhelmed I was with school.

I went from not knowing what I would do on the weekends to always having something planned—usually a party or a potluck with my teammates, reminding me that I’ll always have a home away from home. I went from not knowing any faces while walking through campus to always having someone to say hi to.

The annual team apple picking trip at Eckert’s in Illinois.
The annual team apple picking trip at Eckert’s in Illinois.

At an early Thanksgiving potluck organized by the team captains, a senior asked me if I was going to be in town for Thanksgiving (the equivalent to Lebaran or Natalan in Indonesia.) There were only three international students on the team. Knowing we wouldn’t have family to go home to, she invited us over to her apartment for a proper Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and stuffing. While I was in fact going to my aunt’s house in Boston for Thanksgiving, the invitation reminded me just how quickly I was welcomed into this entirely American tradition.

As a current junior, I can safely say that signing up for a sports club on a whim was one best decisions (or risks) I’ve taken in college. A lot of my firsts happened because of Ultimate, and most of them aren’t even sports related. I played in my first ultimate tournament, but I also went apple picking, pumpkin carving, hiking, visited Iowa, Indiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Illinois, went on a Slip ‘n Slide, played Cards Against Humanity, ran for fundraising chair in the team elections, made college-long (and hopefully lifelong!) friends, all for the very first time.

A typical view from tournament road trips. The Midwest is very flat & always cloudy.
A typical view from tournament road trips. The Midwest is very flat & always cloudy.

Now I cannot imagine my college experience any other way.

 

*All photos provided by the writer.