Why would a middle-aged man run as fast as he can and fling himself headfirst across a grassy field with an arm outstretched like Superman trying to intercept a flying object — knowing full well that he'll feel the repercussions of the ensuing crash landing for the next week?
It's obvious: Because his teammates are counting on him. Because they will say "Yessss! You are the man!" if he makes the catch.
Because running and throwing and jumping make him feel as if he's 10 years old.
Because he's playing Ultimate.
Ultimate (shortened from its original Ultimate Frisbee) is a team sport with a flying disk, played on a football-sized field, that borrows from football, rugby and soccer. Its rules are simple: Players may advance the disk down field only by passing to reach the end zone for a score; players must stop where they catch the disk and pass it within seven seconds. Since the disk-holder can't run with it, teammates must keep moving every which way, jockeying for catches and throws and switching from offense to defense.
I knew this would be a monster workout. But within 20 seconds of kickoff, my lungs were heaving from sprinting. Within 20 minutes, my shirt was soaked through. Unable to keep up with my inner 10-year-old, I had to calm down, compose myself and listen to my captain, Mark Sisson, a muscular diet-book author and owner of the MarksDailyApple.com health site. He's been organizing Ultimate games on Sundays at a Malibu elementary school field for 12 years; players range from their teens to 60s.
"Not so hyper," he counseled. "Slow down and be more aware of your teammates."
The team focus leads to lots of high-fives, "Great pass, man!" exhortations and "Sorry for the wimpy throw" laments.
It's also helped make Ultimate one of the world's hottest-growing sports — even on the verge of being included in the Olympics.
Invented in 1967 by some New Jersey teenagers who took it with them to Yale and Princeton and watched it grow into a club sport played in 800 colleges and by an estimated 5 million-plus people in the U.S., Ultimate has spawned 13 world championships, a TV deal on ESPN3 and two domestic pro leagues, the 29-city American Ultimate Disc League and the 8-team Major League Ultimate.
In August came the news that set the Ultimate world on fire: The sport was recognized as a potential Olympic sport by the International Olympic Committee, making it eligible for IOC funding and inclusion in the Games. "We're shooting for the 2024 Games," says Andy Lee, spokesman for USA Ultimate.
No matter the level of play, several size and skill advantages become apparent in Ultimate. Being 5-foot-9 on a good day, I was outleaped and denied several scores by 6-foot-tall opponents during our games. That's why most "cutters" (the four or five players who do most of the catching in the pros) are around 6-foot-3, according to Husayn Carnegie, star of the L.A. Aviators pro team. "We're the fastest and tallest leapers on the field," he says. He's only 6-foot but is known for his exceptional leaping.
A pro team's best two or three throwers, known as "handlers" in Ultimate, are as accurate as point guards in basketball and typically possess a wide array of throws, including several varieties of forehand, upside down and the standard cross-body backhand. Although a dead-eye backhander honed by years of frisbee playing while growing up, I saw the disadvantage of being a one-trick pony when a defender blocked several of my throws. It'd be wise to working on my forehands if I want to keep playing.
And I do. Ultimate pickup games for men and women can be found in most cities. Online, l found a Sunday pickup game about a mile from my Orange County home. But I haven't played yet because I'm still healing.
"You'll feel it tomorrow," my Malibu brotherhood had warned when our two-hour play ended that day. About 30 minutes into the drive home, my left shoulder, the one I crash-landed on making Superman catches, began to throb and hasn't stopped. I'm still limping from a pulled left calf muscle, stabbing pains and swelling in my left big toe and ball-of-the-foot, and aching feet and hamstrings.
But no big deal.
The feeling of a perfect throw, a well-timed leaping grab, and teammates' cheers is beyond exhilaration. It's way beyond cycling or swimming or even tennis. It's a primal ritual of joyous brotherhood, the reason why childhood sports memories are so enduring, why Ultimate makes you feel as if you're 10.
For information on finding your own game of Ultimate