July 02, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Disc Dreams 

An international flying disc championship comes to Richmond, with hopes for the Olympics in the future.

click to enlarge James Wiseman does a freestyle trick during a 2019 Virginia State Tournament in Fredericksburg.

Peter McElhinney

James Wiseman does a freestyle trick during a 2019 Virginia State Tournament in Fredericksburg.

"When a ball dreams," the old sticker says, "it dreams it's a Frisbee."

And when a Frisbee dreams, it dreams that it is a baseball, or football, or soccer ball, or any of the other balls at the heart of more well-heeled sports.

Today disc sports remain an outsider pursuit even as they edge toward the perimeter of the mainstream with recognition by the International Olympic Committee and inclusion in its sanctioned events.

The downside is that there is little fame or fortune at stake. The upside is that it is one of the last pure sports, passionately pursued by a multigenerational, international cadre of gifted athletes competing in events crafted in living history around a swarm of use-engineered descendants of a mid-20th-century novelty toy.

More than a hundred elite competitors from three continents will converge on Richmond for the World Flying Disc Federation World Overall Championships, July 8 through 13. Attracting the tournament, which has not been held in the U.S. since 2011, is a coup for the 44-year-old RVA Frisbee scene, the Virginia Tourism Board and especially lead organizer Jack Cooksey.

click to enlarge Scott Holter throws a disc toward a basket in a game of disc golf during the Virginia State Tournament held in Fredericksburg in April. - LARRY SCHINDELL
  • Larry Schindell
  • Scott Holter throws a disc toward a basket in a game of disc golf during the Virginia State Tournament held in Fredericksburg in April.

A 12-year-old Cooksey went with his older brother to the founding of the Richmond Frisbee Disc Club at the downtown YMCA in 1978. In the early days, he played with Flite, the city's first competitive Ultimate Frisbee team, ultimately recognizing the limitations of competing as a young teen against 20-something adults.

"I could throw far," Cooksey says. "That made me gravitate to the individual, track and field events."

He qualified for the world championships at 15, set the distance record for 16 and younger and went on to win about 40 power throwing titles since. He still holds at least one world record.

click to enlarge A lead organizer and coach, Richmonder Jack Cooksey does a maneuver in Forest Hill Park. A world record holder, Cooksey has been playing and promoting the sport since the late 1970s in Richmond. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A lead organizer and coach, Richmonder Jack Cooksey does a maneuver in Forest Hill Park. A world record holder, Cooksey has been playing and promoting the sport since the late 1970s in Richmond.

In those early years, Richmond became a hub for mid-Atlantic Ultimate, for nearly a decade hosting the first round of the national championship series for teams from Virginia, Washington, Maryland and North Carolina. That gradually developed into a strong summer league program.

"Started very modestly," Cooksey says, "with just a couple of pickup teams. Now there are anywhere from six to eight teams with as many as 200 to 300 players trying to get in. You can't just show up and play anymore. There are captains and a draft system."

Even so, it is a varied group. "There are veteran players out to relive their old glories. And then you have elite players who just want to get a couple of additional hours on the field also playing for a competitive team," he explains.

Also, there are travel teams competing in multiple tournaments leading to the late summer championship series.

"We have an impressively strong women's team called Rebellion," Cooksey says, adding that he is a coach for the men's team. "The men's team, which has been alive in some iteration for the past 20 years, is called Floodwall."

Richmond also has a popular disc golf scene with pole-hole courses in North Side at Bryan Park, in the East End at Dorey Park, West End at the University of Richmond, in Shockoe Bottom at Gilly's Creek, and a nine-hole course at Dunncroft/Castle Point Park near Innsbrook.

There are also ad hoc, informal courses, with trees, benches or other objects as the targets, at Maymont, the Carillon and any other places adopted by creative players.

There is a homemade aspect to disc sports. All the games were developed and subsequently evangelized by players, some of whom are still active. Each of the events in the federation's World Overall Championships requires highly tuned control of specific aspects of disc flight.

Unlike a ball, where aerodynamics is a relatively minor component of overall trajectory, frisbees — to use the uncapitalized colloquial term — interact with the air in ways that radically affect their path. This is especially true in golf, where players have a backpack full of discs engineered with sharp edges to cut through the air, and profiles designed to stay stable or bend right or left in flight based on their direction of spin.

click to enlarge Frisbee Rob McLeod is a motivational speaker and ambassador for the sport, with six Guinness World records and 12 World Championships in Frisbee. - RICK LEBEAU PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Rick Lebeau Photography
  • Frisbee Rob McLeod is a motivational speaker and ambassador for the sport, with six Guinness World records and 12 World Championships in Frisbee.

Where once there was only the toy company Wham-O, now there are a growing number of specialized disc manufacturers, including Innova Disc Golf, Discraft Discs and MVP Disc Sports. There are discs designed to roll long distances and others crafted to bounce off the ground or stay in flight for a very long time.

"It all comes down to conditions on the day of the competition," says Frisbee Rob McLeod, the defending champion in the distance and self-caught flight, both of which require the ability to keep a disc aloft. "It all depends on learning how to read the wind, whether it is a stiff breeze or dead calm."

McLeod is one of a handful of people who make a living in the sport, in his case as a motivational speaker at schools across his native Canada and the United States. His exhortations to keep trying are punctuated by trick shots, like precisely sinking a disc through a basketball net from the far side of the court. It's a great niche: Kids love it. He burnishes his brand by being best, making him one of the few competitors with anything at stake in Richmond. He's driving 40 hours from Calgary to compete.

click to enlarge Freestyle competitor Juliana Korver - PETER MCELHINNEY
  • Peter McElhinney
  • Freestyle competitor Juliana Korver

Hawaii resident Lori Daniels is coming even farther, but for her, it is more of a homecoming. She started playing as a freshman at the University of Mary Washington in 1981 and is a four-time world title holder in freestyle.

"I do pretty well individually, but I excel when I have a partner, in freestyle or [double disc court]," she says, noting that winning isn't the only draw. "As we get older, it becomes much more about camaraderie and collaboration, seeing the people we play with and play against."

Dieter Johansson is the national manager for the Swedish team, at 21 players the largest non-U.S. contingent. They are bringing some highly competitive overall players, including top women's competitor Niloofar "Nilo" Mossavar Rahmani.

"I would be amazed if someone beat her," Johansson says.

In the open division, Anton Kapplan and Jonas Karlsson are top overall threats. There is also a 17-year-old distance and double disc court phenom who is making his first international appearance. Unlike the U.S., where people are on their own, the Swedish team gets support from a national federation that is providing partial funding to cover travel and expenses.

The tournament events stretch over six days, starting Monday, July 8, and ending with a family-oriented finale at Virginia Commonwealth University on July 14.

"It's a logistical nightmare, a lot of orchestration and a bird's nest tangle of considerations," Cooksey says. "It would be ideal to have one big sprawling sports complex, but the seven events are so different from each other we have to move all over Richmond." [See sidebar for a complete list of events and times]

click to enlarge Freestyle competitor Todd Brodeur - PETER MCELHINNEY
  • Peter McElhinney
  • Freestyle competitor Todd Brodeur

For example, Thursday starts at Forest Hill Park with the discathon finals then moves to Huguenot Park for the preliminary rounds of double disc court in the afternoon, with the finals Friday morning. "This is one of the premier events of the tournament," Cooksey says. "It's like doubles tennis or beach volleyball, but with two 'balls' in play at the same time." Friday afternoon sees the freestyle prelims at the university's Cary Street Field, the site of the rest of the competition.

Saturday is the showcase day, with a full roster of events at VCU. Events include the finals of accuracy, a youth Ultimate exhibition game and demonstrations of other events. There will be giveaways for families and the chance to interact and throw with the competitors. In the afternoon are the freestyle finals, the marquee spectator event, spotlighting some of the best players in the world.

At the end the points will be tallied, and the overall champions will be crowned. But while coming in first is great, and competition is a motivator, the heart of disc sports always has an ideal called the spirit of the game. How you played is, in the end, more important than the result.

"That is the first rule on the WFDF rulebook, the most important of everything," Johansson says. "In these games, it is often hard to judge. It is up to the players. There may be a [referee] at the finals, but they only take part if the players do not agree. It teaches you to be honest and kind. Like in life, if you behave like that, it helps you."

It's an alien concept in a lot of sports, where so much is at stake and no quarter given, where an uncalled foul can be a game-winning play.

Among the elite players, this idealistic ethos creates a strong sense of community.

"We are such a small group," Daniels says. "We all know each other and have such deep friendships. That's the draw that keeps us traveling all over the world. None of us is getting paid to do this. It's the love of the game."

The rejection of competition may be one of the things that keep disc sports on the fringes. Then again, it also lacks other standard Olympic attributes, such as the deep history of discus or Greco-Roman wrestling, the community infrastructure support of swimming, track or soccer, the spectacular risks of the half pipe.

Nor does it have the profitable business models of skiing and biking. Perhaps most significantly, it lacks the focus on photogenic youth and beauty of ice skating, where a 20-something is an aging veteran.

Disc sports have real grizzled icons. Cooksey, Johansson and Daniels are in their 50s, and they aren't the oldest competitors. It would be a bit like baseball if Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were still in the game.

"It tends to be an older community," says McLeod, a younger player who was recruited onto the competitive scene by Cooksey. "We need to get more kids into it. A lot of people have been around since the [1980s competitions at the] Rose Bowl."

click to enlarge Lori Daniels, who got into the sport as a freshman at the University of Mary Washington, is a four-time world title holder in freestyle. She’s coming to Richmond from Hawaii for the event. - PETER MCELHINNEY
  • Peter McElhinney
  • Lori Daniels, who got into the sport as a freshman at the University of Mary Washington, is a four-time world title holder in freestyle. She’s coming to Richmond from Hawaii for the event.

It's not all people who remember the '80s. There are only a handful of competitors in the youth division, but two came from as far away as Taipei, Taiwan. And McLeod's inspirational evangelism for the sport plays out regularly in front of gyms full of cheering schoolchildren.

Cooksey compares it to jazz, where the giants of the past still take the stage with up-and-coming players. It is an apt comparison since it generally takes newcomers a long time to match the hard-won if generously shared skills of their mentors.

Daniels calls it "the aloha spirit," using the deeper meaning of the hello-goodbye Hawaiian word that translates to "the presence of divine breath." Over the past several competitions, she's rented houses with her ohana — another apt Hawaiian word that roughly means extended family. Every tournament there are new ohana members, and, once in, everyone gets invited back.

The federation's Overall Championships are an invitation for Richmond to join the Frisbee family. There will be an opportunity to see exactly how good you can get if you devote endless hours to mastering the behavior of 100 to 200 grams of molded plastic.

In a cycle or two, they may finally be in the Olympics. Freestyle is going to be in the IOC-sanctioned Urban Games in Budapest this year.  The most realistic option for Ultimate's inclusion in the summer games is probably 2028 in Los Angeles, two four-year cycles away. The 2020 games in Tokyo are already set, and if disc sports are in Paris in 2024 they will probably be as a demonstration, not a medaled event.  It is likely to be a slightly altered version of the game, six-player mixed teams rather than the standard seven. If so, it will be the first full coed field sport.

Whatever the future holds, this is a rare opportunity to see one of the last of the wild sports in its quirky, hyperfriendly, natural habitat.

When disc sports are in the Olympics, they won't be in Richmond.

The World Championship Events

The seven-event competition is like a track and field heptathlon.

The top objective is to score enough points in each to win the overall championship, but no single player is likely to dominate in more than one or two events. For anyone unfamiliar with the varieties of disc sports, which is to say nearly everyone, here is an introduction.— Peter McElhinney

Distance has a simple object. Just throw the distance with the speed and angle to carry it as far as possible. But at the level of the world championships, there is a lot of technique involved, including an understanding of how the disc will move through the air on a given day. The current record is 338 meters, more than 1,000 feet. That throw was on the high desert with a stiff tailwind, conditions that are unlikely this time of year in Richmond. [Place and time: Monday, July 8, at Richmond Striker Fields].

Freestyle is the "hot dog" sport, a continuous, acrobatic flow of up-close magic. The tricks involve acrobatic moves, tosses and leaping catches that end with the disc spinning on a fingertip. It's played in pairs, alternating individual moves with choreographed joint tricks. While the main focus is on the actual event, there is plenty of recombinant playing outside of competition as well. Jamming with other players is a family bonding ritual. [Friday, July 12, prelims, Saturday, July 13, finals, both at VCU's Cary Street Field]

Accuracy is just throwing a disc through a hole in a frame from a variety of distances and angles. Each player makes five throws from one of seven positions. It is more difficult than it seems. The world record, according to tournament organizer Cooksey, is 28 out of 35 throws. [Tuesday afternoon, July 9, at Huguenot Park]

Discathon is a combination of slalom and footrace. The disc must past through a kilometer-long sequence of gates. Competitors can take any line as long as they throw from where their last discs landed. It's intense and results in some very dramatic final seconds. (Tuesday morning, July 9, preliminaries, and Thursday morning, July 11, finals in Forest Hill Park)

Disc Golf is the most familiar, accessible and popular disc sport and the one with the largest menageries of discs from which to choose. The best path to the chain and basket "pole holes" are seldom direct, requiring throws that curve either left or right. But, despite strategically placed trees, a bit of thick rough and a couple of water hazards, the course is relatively open, which makes sense for an overall tournament, which is not going to attract highly specialized professional players at the height of the paid competitive season. That said, the level of play is going to be significantly higher than anything seen in Richmond. [Wednesday, July 10, all day at Bryan Park]

Double Disc Court is the disc version of tennis doubles — albeit if that sport involved two balls at once and the object was for one team to avoid contact with both at the same time. It's one of the quirkiest and most challenging of disc sports, and the standard strategy is to throw one high and to float and burn the other in at the last second. The combination of last-minute deflection and fast catch-release combinations make it one of the most watchable events. [Thursday afternoon, July 11, prelims, Friday, July 12, finals, both at Huguenot Park]

Self-Caught Flight is the disc as a boomerang. It is thrown high and into the wind in a way that it will float back to earth at a one-hand catchable distance. As played at the WFDF Overalls, it is a combination of two events. Maximum time aloft is scored based on timing. Throw, run and catch gives additional points for distance, five and a half yards of running adds seconds to the time score. Each player gets five throws, with only the best counting. [Monday, July 8, at Richmond Striker Fields]

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