“It’s ultimate,” one of the kids replied when Frank Nam asked about a game they were playing.
“Ultimate … what?” Nam asked, confused.
Turns out it was ultimate Frisbee but since Frisbee is a registered trademark in many areas, it is officially known simply as “ultimate” or “ultimate flying disc.” After playing a few games, Nam was hooked.
As its name suggests, ultimate is played using a flying disc and is a mix of soccer and football. It is traditionally done outdoors on a grass field with two teams of 7 players each. There are other versions of the game such as ultimate indoor, beach, and even ice. The field is marked much like a football field with two end zones and a play area in the middle. To score, each team must move the disc, by passing and catching, to their respective end zones.
Growing up in New York, it was an unusual sport for a Korean American kid but that did nothing to deter Nam from pursuing it to the fullest, even starting his own team in high school and playing it throughout his college years at Rutgers.
Now one of Seattle’s most prominent ultimate players and coaching at Franklin High School, Nam said the best thing about ultimate is that for the most part, there are no referees, even at the professional level. Players make their own calls on the rules during games. The “spirit of the game” is often cited as those of sportsmanship, respect, fair play, and having fun.
“It’s a self-officiating sport, which is really neat when kids play,” he continued. “They learn to manage their own conflicts and not rely on some adult who sees them. So the idea that ‘it’s not cheating unless the referee catches you’ is not viable in ultimate.”
Unlike in other sports, kids in ultimate actually admit to committing fouls even when not called, Nam shared.
It is this camaraderie-building quality of ultimate that helped keep a rivalry between two local schools from getting out of hand.
Aki Kurose and Mercer are two middle schools in South Seattle. Due to their close proximity to one another, many students from the schools know each other outside of the classroom and fostered a rivalry that escalated a few years ago into fighting.
Nam recalled an amazing experience where ultimate brought young people together. It happened in his second year coaching at Aki when his team was just getting on its feet while Mercer was already at the top of their game. Kids from Aki made a banner to cheer for their team during matches. Aki did not make the finals but Mercer did and on the day Mercer played, the Aki kids showed up on the sidelines with a second banner. It had “Mercer Mustangs” on it. The Aki kids had come to support their rivals!
“It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” Nam said proudly.
Many students from Aki and Mercer began attending Franklin High School and Nam coached the ultimate team there to the championship last season. He and another coach promised to get a tattoo if the team won. Needless to say, Nam is “inked.”
Nam is especially enthusiastic to see the sport flourish in South Seattle because of the diversity it brings to the game.
“Ultimate has been big for a while but the schools that have been really good have been private schools,” he explained. “It’s very homogenous with mostly white boys and girls in upper middle class families playing.”
Nam attributed the success and popularity of ultimate to its low cost and accessibility and said that is particularly important in an area where many kids are from low-income families.
“It’s cheaper than most sports,” he said. “You just need some grass, some cones, cleats and a $6 Frisbee.”
There is still work to be done, however. Currently, ultimate is considered a club sport. Nam, along with others, are meeting with the head of the Seattle Public School’s Athletics Department to try and establish ultimate as an officially sanctioned sport in order to receive funding.
“My kids practice five days a week,” he argued. “They work really hard and play really hard. It’s as much a sport as any other.”
It is hard to argue against the ultimate sport.
How you can get started with ultimate:
• Check out the nonprofit website: www.DiscNW.org, where there are leagues for adults and youth of all levels year-round.
•Visit www.USAultimate.org for a list of “Ultimate in 10 Simple Rules” and start playing with your friends!
• Come cheer for the Franklin High School girls’ ultimate team who often play at the Van Asselt field.