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Caught up in the game


It looks sort of like soccer played with a disc instead of a ball, but Ultimate Frisbee players say there’s much more to the sport than meets the eye.

“I’ve been playing for 20 years now and I’m still trying to improve every day,” said Cal Woods, a member of the Des Moines Ultimate Frisbee Club.

More than 120 people from Central Iowa participate in the club, which meets at Water Works Park on Sundays for informal pickup games and Wednesdays during the summer for league games. In Ultimate Frisbee, two teams of seven compete by tossing a lightweight disc forward across a 70-yard field to score in the opponent’s end zone.

“The rules and the way you play are easy to pick up on,” Woods said. “The hard part, of course, is developing the skills of throwing the disc.”

Although the Des Moines Ultimate Frisbee Club was not established until about five years ago, many of its members were introduced to the sport several years earlier.

Woods, who works as the news director of KDSM, learned how to play Ultimate in Pella and continued playing when his career took him to Utah, Colorado and Florida. Brian Loynachan started the first team in Pella 26 years ago while working for Pella Corp. as a consultant for window distributors. Pella was also where Andy Goodman was introduced to Ultimate 13 years ago as a student at Central College.

“Once you get the bug for Ultimate, it sticks with you,” said Goodman, a crop insurance administrator for PHI Insurance Services, a subsidiary of Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. He learned to play Ultimate as a workout alternative while running track and cross country during college.

“It’s a fantastic workout,” Goodman said. “I run marathons and longer races like 10ks, and this has helped be a good complement to my training because it offers a speed workout.”

Continuous running keeps the pace of play moving quickly during Ultimate games. Woods said he compares the amount of running in Ultimate to “playing basketball on a 70-yard court.”

“It’s really intensive training to get in shape for Ultimate,” Woods said. “It’s a sport with a lot of athleticism and it helps to be quick on your feet.”

Woods said one thing that sets Ultimate apart from other team sports is that “it’s an equal-opportunity sport.”

“Unlike football, where you have skill players who pass and linemen, who are used for blocking, in this sport, everyone is a potential blocker and thrower,” Woods said. “It really does give everyone an opportunity to be involved in a big way.”

But the most unusual feature of the sport is something written into its rules called “the spirit of the game,” which emphasizes fair play. In Ultimate, there are no referees, so players call their own fouls. Loynachan said this level of responsibility that the players take for their own actions builds sportsmanship and camaraderie.

“In other sports, it’s all about wining, and you do what you can and try not to get caught breaking the rules,” Loynachan said. “But the spirit of the game places responsibility on the players themselves and emphasizes sportsmanship over actual wins.”

But fair play doesn’t mean that athletes aren’t competitive when playing Ultimate.

“It’s actually a rather abusive sport if you play pretty hard,” said Woods, who has incurred a long list of minor injuries, including bruised ribs.

Goodman said the league seems to get more competitive each year. “It’s more competitive now than it used to be because the number of quality players is greater. That makes it fun, and there are probably a lot of us who are fairly competitive by nature anyway, so we prefer for it to be that way.”

In an effort to keep teams equally matched for league games, the Des Moines club assigns each team a combination of experienced players and novices.

“In the summer league, we try not to forget that there are inexperienced players who are there to learn,” Goodman said. “We want to try to get new people involved so they play and carry the sport on.”

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