Ultimate Frisbee Connects International, American Students

20 May 2023

On an April evening in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, members of the Carolina Flyers are playing a fast-paced practice game. The Flyers are a men's professional Ultimate frisbee team.

Their opponent is Darkside, the University of North Carolina (UNC) men's team. And the students are playing very well against the professionals.

One of the players for Darkside is Lucien Noël, a student from Australia studying abroad this year at UNC. Back home, he had seen video of Darkside and liked the team's fast way of playing. So, when he learned his Australian university had an exchange program with UNC, he was excited to come to the U.S. and get a chance to join the team.

Jayden Feagans of the University of North Carolina's Darkside ultimate frisbee team makes a catch between two members of the Carolina Flyers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Thursday April 13, 2023 (VOA Photo/Andrew Smith)
Jayden Feagans of the University of North Carolina's Darkside ultimate frisbee team makes a catch between two members of the Carolina Flyers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Thursday April 13, 2023 (VOA Photo/Andrew Smith)

Half-way through the game, Noël makes a diving left-handed catch to keep the frisbee disc in Darkside's hands. When Darkside scores a point seconds later, teammates run onto the field in loud celebration.

Darkside has won the last two intercollegiate national championships. The team hopes to make it three in a row later this year.

On the other side of the country, the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) is home to another top university team. That team is called Blacktide.

Daniel Hwang is one of the Blacktide players. Growing up, Hwang lived in four countries: South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and China. He started playing Ultimate in middle school in Shanghai. Watching videos of U.S.-based teams increased his interest in the sport.

"I was intrigued by Ulti culture in the U.S," Hwang said. Ulti is short for Ultimate.

A growing international sport

According to the organization USA Ultimate, the sport is played in over 80 countries by an estimated seven million people.

Unlike most sports, Ultimate does not use officials to make rulings on the field. Instead, players promise to obey the rules and try to make fair decisions about rule violations during play. Players call this the Spirit of the Game.

An official Ultimate field is 100 meters long and 37 meters wide. Each team has seven players on the field, and they must run quickly during points. Teams get points by catching a pass in the opponent's end zone.

Deep connections with American students

Both Hwang and Noël say that playing Ultimate has given them something more than fun and exercise. It has also helped them form close connections with American students.

Noël currently lives with five other players on the UNC team.

"It's like the most together form of Ultimate frisbee there is. That goes beyond training and playing with the team."

Noël also talked about the importance of spending time with team members outside of practice. He said spending time with the players outside of practice helps create "very, very special bonds."

Eugenia Chow agrees. The third-year student from Hong Kong plays on the UNC women's team, Pleiades. Like the UNC men's team, Pleiades is ranked number one in the country.

Chow said being on the team helps her connect with people. And joining a team has helped her feel open to other experiences as well.

"[It] comes with this immediate community wherever you go," she said. She added, "I think that attitude kind of trickles into other experiences as an international student...of just having the mindset going in and wanting to try new things."

Hwang, at UCSB, thinks international students who play Ultimate are more likely to be involved with American students and their culture.

Hwang lives in an apartment, but he often spends time at the house of several teammates who live together.

"The housemates, they always say ‘the doors are wide open'," he said.

Hwang added that he did not want to be isolated the way some international students are. To be isolated means to be separated from others.

"I really didn't want myself to be just like stuck in an apartment, just studying, because that's kind of like all these international students are doing. They're just like in their rooms, simply just studying, and then every now and then, maybe play games, like video games."

University players usually spend six to eight hours each week training. Many teams also play five to seven weekend competitions in the spring and three to five competitions in the autumn.

At competitions, teams usually play four games on Saturday and three on Sunday. To deal with the physical demands, teams often have up to 28 players.

Because there are no referees on the field, intercollegiate Ultimate is not governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Schools do not provide sports scholarships, or money, for Ultimate players. Each player pays a yearly fee to help pay for the costs of clothes, equipment and travel.

Love of school and sport

Under the lights, the UNC team has won the first three of the short practice games against the Flyers. Before the evening's final game, the Flyer's coach tells his players that Darkside has played faster and with more energy than they have. He tells his team to match the students' intensity.

The professional players win the last mini-game 5 to 3. But it is clear the UNC players loved every minute of the action.

Back in California, Hwang said he is happy he gets a chance to study computer science and also play Ultimate.

"I have my academic life, but. . . I flip this switch where I have all this freedom and . . .being so open to opportunities and being able to do so many different things, with so many different types of people, is just awesome," he said.

I'm Andrew Smith. And I'm Jill Robbins.

Andrew Smith wrote this story for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

evening -n. the part of the day from near sunset to when people typically go to sleep at night

pace -n. the speed at which something happens

practice -n. repetition or training to maintain or improve skill at something

disc -n. a flat, circular and solid object

be intrigued by -v.(passive) to be very interested in or curious about something

bond -n. a strong connection

trickle -v. to flow or enter gradually into

coach -n. a leader or trainer of a team

academic -adj. relating to school and studies

flip this switch -v. (idiomatic) to quickly change from one activity to another

opportunity -n. a situation in which it is possible for you to do something that you want to do