The 'ultimate' hi-flying sport

— image credit:
Her teammates get it. Her sister gets it. Her husband definitely gets it.

But for Jessica Thoms, it took a couple of years before her parents really understood ultimate Frisbee.

"At first, when I started playing, they thought, 'Good, you're out getting exercise.'" But then we started going out of town to tournaments ... and not visiting them."

It took a trip to Florida to see Thoms and her sister Trish play in the Ultimate Player's Association national club championship before it clicked for their folks.

"It was the first time they'd seen us play," Thoms recalled. "They were just floored with what we could do. In school, I was a swimmer. They'd never seen me run and jump."

Thoms and her husband, Curt Haugen, Midwest transplants who have lived in Sequim for two years, enjoy and excel at ultimate Frisbee, one of America's top-growing sports.

Never heard of it? Understandable, in that it's not a prime time, ESPN standard.

But Thoms says the sport has a culture and a community of diehards that would impress even the most skeptical sports fan.

Although it's been around since the 1970s, ultimate Frisbee didn't take off until the past decade or so. According to the annual Sports and Fitness Participation Report survey, about 895,000 Americans responded that they play ultimate Frisbee "frequently" - 25 or more times in the last year. That's a 5.5-percent jump from 2007 and 8.6-percent jump from 2006.

Not just a sport for the college-age crowd, ultimate Frisbee has Masters divisions beginning at age 30 for women and age 32 for men.

More than a dozen communities across the state boast club teams, including Bellingham (, Bothell, Fort Lewis, Longview, Olympia, South Seattle and Tacoma ( on the west side, Ellensburg and Yakima in the state's center and Pullman, Spokane and Tri Cities ( on the east side.

"We try to pick up with any teams we can," Thoms says, even if it means lots of travel time."
The Frisbee phenomenon even has hit the peninsula. Port Angeles has pickup games starting in the spring, played at the upper field next to the high school track on Tuesday evenings.

Port Townsend also has pickup games. This year-round group plays at Blue Heron Middle School (3939 San Juan Ave.) at 2 p.m. on Sundays.

"It's a great place for people who've never played to learn," says Thoms, who stretches her Frisbee legs with the P.T. group since her "home team" is 1,500 miles away.

'It became our way of life'
For Thoms, ultimate Frisbee was a way of getting to know her future husband.

"I was taking interest in him and decided to take an interest in Frisbee," Thoms says. "He taught me how to throw."

The two Minnesota college students played once a week or so until they started picking up more games near Carlton College, a school Thoms calls a "hotbed" of the game.

"People go (to school) there to play ultimate Frisbee," she says. "We started playing four, five times a day. It just became our way of life."

The couple moved in and out of the Frisbee ranks, from intramural games to club and league play.

In 2002, Thoms tried out and qualified for a women's team that made it to a national event, one held in Sarasota, Fla., each year. The couple joined a mixed-gender club team the next year and qualified for nationals again.

But when it came to furthering their education, Thoms and Haugen made a move to Portland - and their ultimate Frisbee play slowed. That level of activity didn't exactly resurrect itself when the couple moved to the Olympic Peninsula, but Thoms has found certain nearby regions (Seattle, Bellingham) are quite accommodating of ultimate Frisbee play.

"It's a whole 'ultimate' community," Thoms says. "Most of my friends are from ultimate Frisbee. I have friends that don't play. They know if there's a tourney and wedding that (same) weekend, it's going to be a tough decision."

After Thoms tried out and got cut from a top women's club team, she got an invite in 2008 to be a "traveling" player for a team in Arizona. Some teams, such as the Arizona-based Barrio team, have players across the country who will play in the occasional tournament during the regular season and then join teammates as they proceed through sectional, regional and national tourneys.

"It's kind of unusual," Thoms says. "I told them it sounds great because I don't have any options up here."

Thoms made the cut with Barrio, and Thoms' sister Trish, a Wyoming resident, also made the team.

In most cases, Thoms says, traveling players are superstars or played on the team in the past. "We ended up just being a really good fit for the team," she says. "We're not superstars but we definitely contribute."

Last year, Barrio tied for seventh at nationals.

In 2009, the Thoms sisters helped Barrio score a sixth-place finish at nationals. While the top four teams there earn an automatic berth in the once-every-four-years world championships in Prague next July, the U.S. traditionally sends seven or eight teams. The Thoms sisters - and Haugen, their biggest fan - are hoping for an invite.

A fast-paced game
In a typical ultimate Frisbee game, teams can have seven players to a side. In standard coed play, teams have either gender combination of three and four.

Games usually are played to 15 points and last about 90 minutes, with a  halftime.

At the club level, players typically specialize into offensive or defensive roles. Trish Thoms is an "offensive cutter" while Jessica is a "defensive handler."

Players can't run with the disc; instead, they move possession downfield by throwing to teammates, who have three steps to stop after they catch the Frisbee. As a player pivots on one foot, the disc is thrown with a forehand or backhand, and defenders try to force a "side" - make a player throw one way or another.

While "handlers" often move the disc side-to-side, "cutters" race downfield looking to advance the disc toward the goal. A point is scored when a teammate catches the disc in an end zone, much like football.

Thoms says good ultimate Frisbee players have to be good athletes on the field and good sports when dealing with others.

"They have to be fast (and) have some field awareness, so if people have played soccer or football, that's helpful ... and have a really good attitude," she says. We don't have referees making calls. It's up to players to referee their own games. There's a lot of emphasis on good sportsmanship and no cheating. I love that about this sport."

10 simple rules for playing Ultimate Frisbee
1 — The field: A rectangular shape with end zones at each end. A regulation field is 70 yards by 40 yards, with end zones 25 yards deep.
2 — Initiate play: Each point begins with both teams lining up on the front of their respective end zone line. The defense throws (“pulls”) the disc to the offense. A regulation game has seven players per team.
3 — Scoring: Each time the offense completes a pass in the defense’s end zone, the offense scores a point. Play is initiated after each score.
4 — Movement of the disc: The disc may be advanced in any direction by completing a pass to a teammate. Players may not run with the disc. The person with the disc (“thrower”) has 10 seconds to throw the disc.
5 — Change of possession: When a pass is not completed (e.g. out of bounds, drop, block, interception), the defense immediately takes possession of the disc and becomes the offense.
6 — Substitutions: Players not in the game may replace players in the game after a score and during an injury timeout.
7 — Non-contact: No physical contact is allowed between players. Picks and screens also are prohibited. A foul occurs when contact is made.
8 — Fouls: When a player initiates contact on another player, a foul occurs. When a foul disrupts possession, the play resumes as if the possession was retained. If the player committing the foul disagrees with the foul call, the play is redone.
9 — Self-officiating: Players are responsible for their own foul and line calls. Players resolve their own disputes.
10 — Spirit of the game: Ultimate stresses sportsmanship and fair play. Competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of respect between players, adherence to the rules, and the basic joy of play.
— From Ultimate Players Association

Reach Michael Dashiell at

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 20
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates