SOUTH KINGSTOWN — The sport is right at home on a college campus, but ultimate has long since outgrown its roots on the quad.
At the University of Rhode Island this past weekend, nearly every patch of grass was home to the high-flying action of the USA Ultimate U.S. Open Championship. Thirty-four of the best teams in the world converged on Kingston for the four-day event, playing on 17 fields and attending convention sessions on campus. Champions were crowned in three divisions Monday at Meade Stadium, with an ESPN online audience watching.
Ultimate – formerly known as ultimate Frisbee – has come a long way, and URI was happy to get in on the fun by welcoming in one of the sport’s biggest events.
“We’re booming,” said USA Ultimate CEO Tom Crawford.
The boom includes an estimated 7 million people in 80 countries who play the sport. The Unites States Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee recently gave official recognition, putting it on track to become an Olympic sport in the future.
USA Ultimate, based in Colorado Springs, is the national governing body for the sport in the United States, overseeing everything from championships to tournaments to youth programs for learning the game. The U.S. Open and accompanying convention have been held since 2012 as a showcase for teams from around the world and as a kind of hub for the sport. Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Raleigh and Colorado Springs served as previous hosts.
With plenty of space and meeting facilities to offer, URI was a good fit. Its location was a selling point, too – New England has long been a hotbed for the sport – and Crawford, a native of Cranston, was excited to bring the event to his home state.
“It’s a thrill,” he said. “New England is a hotbed for ultimate and we’ve really been wanting to get an event here.”
Crawford and his staff watched as the event took flight Friday. Cars lined Plains Road, license plates from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and Quebec. Teams took to the fields for games all day in the men’s, women’s and mixed divisions.
On one field, a men’s team from Philadelphia squared off against a club from Cajica, Colombia. Brute Squad – a women’s team from Boston that would go on to win the championship – was posting its second straight win to start pool play. Ironsides – another Boston squad that’s a powerhouse in the men’s division – was in the midst of a rally from a 5-3 deficit for a 14-7 win.
On every field, highlight-reel plays were a constant. Ultimate features teams of seven trying to move a flying disc down the field to the end zone. Players cannot take steps once they catch the disc and are defended closely. Quick throws and athletic catches ensue. There are no officials – players make their own calls as part of the spirit of the game.
“It’s the coolest sport I’ve ever seen and it has baked into it all the things you would put in a sport if you wanted it to really be impactful and change people’s lives,” Crawford said.
For the players traveling to URI, ultimate is certainly a big part of life. While recreation leagues remain popular, club teams are at an entirely different level. Several Ironsides team members also play for the semi-professional Boston Whitecaps in Major League Ultimate.
Practices for the club team are held twice a week, with team workouts and individual training mixed in.
“We practice every weekend, about four hours Saturday and Sunday,” said Ironsides captain Alex Simmons. “We’ll do a team workout Wednesday and each player is responsible for their own weight training. So it’s four or five days.”
Players all have college experience and several have been playing since childhood. Whether it’s love of the game, camaraderie or a competitive fire, they stick with it.
“For me, having something to strive for at an elite level means a lot to me,” said Will Neff, an Ironsides captain. “It’s more than a hobby. It’s more than a pastime. It’s really something I feel very proud of. And the other thing is just the camaraderie and the friendships. Winning a championship at this level is extremely hard. That challenge and that battle really bring a group of guys together more than anything I’ve experienced in my life.”
The sport has a way of drawing people in, Crawford said. It happened to him, after all.
A veteran of sports management and business, he was working in New York when his niece, Kerry, encouraged him to get involved with USA Ultimate. He joined the staff in 2009.
“She’s an ultimate fanatic and her husband is an ultimate fanatic. I was in New York building two businesses, having a great time and doing really well,” Crawford said. “My niece called me and said, ‘Uncle Tommy,’ you’ve got to go do this. I’m thinking ‘Ultimate Frisbee?’ But when I checked it out, I fell in love with it. I realized I really did want to do this.”
Crawford had never played, but gave it a try when he got the job. Learning from his staff, he was on the winning team in the first game he played and hasn’t played since. He likes to joke that he’s undefeated.
The work of Crawford and his staff off the field in recent years has helped raise the profile of ultimate, culminating with the Olympic recognition.
“We were just recognized by the International Olympic Committee, so we’re on the bench to get on the Olympic program soon,” Crawford said.
And USA Ultimate hopes the boom continues. Friday, amid the high-level games, flying discs were a little more wobbly as more than 60 children participated in a learn-to-play clinic.
“This is the future. This is something we’re very excited about,” Crawford said. “It’s fun to see all these great teams playing, but seeing these kids playing for the first time, I get chills.”