Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession and My Wild Youth

When you hear the word frisbee, you might think of afternoons at the park throwing a disc leisurely between friends, or even for your dog to catch. It evokes thoughts of whimsical pursuits, like hula-hooping.  It’s a problem that has plagued the very serious sport of Ultimate Frisbee for years, since its inception in the late 1960s. The sport actually dropped the word Frisbee and now just goes by Ultimate.

Author David Gessner first discovered ultimate Frisbee as a college freshman in Harvard in 1979 and he writes about his experience with the sport in his new book Ultimate Glory, Frisbee, Obsession and My Wild Youth.

Gessner says that Ultimate has been characterized as frisbee football, but he say’s that’s not a true comparison.  “The disc travels only through the air, once you catch it you can’t run. So it’s a game of movement and speed, kind of like soccer as far as running, and you’re driving toward a goal line, but you don’t run across the goal line, the disc flies across and is caught on the other side. The second the disc is blocked or turned over, it goes the other direction. And what makes it really fun and what attracted me and so many others, is the fact that the disc hovers. So you could be running deep after a disc and it looks like there’s no way you can catch, and it kind of waits for you out there. And then you dive through the air and grab it. Or, you go up high and it sits up there high and hovers and you go catch it. You know there’s Pro-Ultimate now, but I’d be thrilled to see LeBron James go up and catch one at 12 feet.”

Ultimate Glory is also the coming of age story of David Gessner who discovered Ultimate Frisbee in his first week at Harvard. “I wasn’t just trying to excel at one ridiculous thing, but at two possibly three. I was a political cartoonist at   Harvard and my big hit cartoon was a picture of Reagan urinating on an unemployed man in  the gutter, called the Trickle Down Theory, so there was that. Then I was trying to write a novel, and I was a real perfectionist, so I took a long time starting. So there was that, and then I was playing Ultimate. So I had three strikes against me…if I talked to a businessman at a party and he said “you know, what do you do?” I couldn’t really say “I play frisbee”, I couldn’t say I’m a writer, because I hadn’t published..although I got a few cartoons published…so I feel like one of the themes of the book is building muscles of non-conformity.”

While Gessner’s classmates at Harvard were graduating and becoming millionaire investment bankers, he devoted himself to Ultimate, eschewing the dominate “greed is good” mantra of the Reagan era.

“Reagan looms large for a few reasons, for one, I’m drawing him constantly for the Harvard Crimson and I’m getting obsessed with my drawing: the pompadour, the lopsided grin, the wattle – his neck was all turkeyish – so I’m drawing Reagan. On the other hand, I start college in ’79, so I’m coming in in the age of Reagan. And I’m watching the Wall Street mentality, greed is good, take over my roommates and a lot of the Harvard crew. But it’s also weirdly affecting Ultimate, because Ultimate’s been, if not hippy…people played barefoot…there was a certain grooviness to it, but with Reagan’s ascension you see points taking over and grooviness going away and it’s when teams start to train, when teams take advantage of what’s called the spirit of the game, we made our own calls in the early days, so suddenly you’ve got these cut throat teams taking over, so there’s that.  But only relatively cut throat because it’s still Ultimate.”

There are now professional leagues of Ultimate players and it is being considered as an Olympic sport.  Gessner says that it is incredibly popular in Boulder. “It’s huge. They have the grass roots Ultimate here. They have tournaments here. It used to be July 4th was one of the biggest tournaments – as good as nationals…people would come from all over (to Boulder.) You sit down 6 people at a bar in Boulder, and probably one of them is an Ultimate player, at least plays in a corporate league.”


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David Gessner will speak about his new book Ultimate Glory, Frisbee, Obsession and my Wild Youth at the Boulder Bookstore Tuesday June 20th at 7.30pm. He’ll be at the Tattered Cover on Colfax in Denver Wednesday June 21st at 7pm and on Thursday, June 22nd, at 6pm he’ll be at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins.

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