Ozone Pilots: The Alternative Athletic World of Ultimate

Stall! Crash! Up! Broken! Turn! Ultimate’s language is a staccato code, designed to convey information in a single breath. In a sport where players don’t stop running until a change of possession or a score, extra breaths are hard to come by.

The Ozone Pilots, Boston University’s Ultimate team, practice on BU’s Nickerson Field. Head-high snowdrifts ring the field, but the artificial turf is green and clean. The air is icy; the wind gusts at 15 miles per hour.

The white plastic discs, Ultimate’s “ball,” absorb the cold and transmit it with every throw and catch. The players wear hoodies, track pants, thermal long-sleeves, stocking caps, and sometimes gloves.

The team warms up with synchronized stretches, then moves to drills. First, each player practices “break throws,” passes that fly to the side of the field blocked off by the closely guarding defender.

Then, they practice “zone” defense, in which three to four defenders surround the player with the disc, while the remaining players cut off up-field or overhead throws.

After two hours of drills, it’s time to play. Dark shirts vs. light shirts.

Ultimate uses approximately 70 percent of a football field. It’s a seven-on-seven sport, where teams score by passing a 175-gram disc to players in an end zone without it touching the ground or getting intercepted. When a player catches the disk, he or she must stop running after a few steps. Players can still pivot, as in basketball, but that’s all. The games are self-officiated – no refs. At the regional and national levels, “designated observers” settle disputes.

Game play is fast, fusing football’s straight sprints with basketball’s circulations. When an offense is really in synch, the passing is almost non-stop. As one player is about to catch the disc and turn, a teammate is already in mid-sprint to catch the throw.

When the teams play “zone,” more useful in windy conditions because players can’t throw the disc deep, the action is slower, more controlled, more lateral. The disc sails back and forth between three primary players, called handlers, as they wait for their teammates – the “wings” along the sidelines and the “poppers” in the middle – to find openings.

The early drills pay dividends. One drill practiced the inside-out forehand throw, risky because its close-to-the-body release point makes it easy for a defender to block. During the scrimmage, the dark-shirted team scores on that very inside-out forehand. “That was beautiful!” shouts junior Jonathan “Gump” Toll.

The team practices for three hours, its initial 27 players swelling to 34 by the end. Junior captain Daniel Bernays says practicing hard now will help them identify and rectify weaknesses before the spring season starts. The Ozone Pilots play in USA Ultimate’s Metro Boston region, against teams such as Boston College, Tufts University and Northeastern University.

Ultimate is colloquially known as “Ultimate Frisbee,” but that name is a misnomer. Most Ultimate players consider the Frisbee, made by the California-based Wham-O company, structurally inferior to the Ultra-Star, made by the Michigan-based Discraft company.

“Don’t bring a Wham-O to practice or we’ll laugh at you,” says Max Langevin, junior captain for the Ozone Pilots.

USA Ultimate is Ultimate’s governing body. Although it has divisions for high school and adult club teams, it is most popular at the college level. The USA Ultimate website claims there are currently 12,000 college students playing Ultimate on over 700 teams nation-wide.

Despite its popularity, Ultimate players often find themselves up against a stereotype left over from the sport’s 1970s origin.

“The stereotype is ‘hippie,’” says Langevin. “When you say you’re an Ultimate player, it’s implied that you also carry a Hacky Sack around and wear Birkenstocks.”

There were no Birkenstocks worn today, only black cleats.

The four Ozone Pilots captains agree that Ultimate is also often associated with drug use, especially marijuana. Their team name, says junior captain Peter “Snappy” Wilson, is a veiled reference to being stoned. But this may be a nod to history more than a reflection on the team culture.

“Every team name in college Ultimate has a drug reference in it,” says assistant coach Casey Peters, although that isn’t true. Harvard University’s team is called Redline, after the MBTA line that runs through Harvard Square. Brandeis University’s team is named Tron, after the 1982 movie of the same name.

Ultimate appeals to college students as an alternative to NCAA-sanctioned sports. For a myriad of reasons, including talent level, competition, time commitment, and coach-defined atmosphere, many student-athletes come to college and choose not to pursue varsity athletics. Wilson says he didn’t think he was good enough to run Division-I track, whereas freshman Andrew “Panda” Hartman says he played soccer in high school, but found the skill level of BU soccer “daunting.” In both cases, and many others, Ultimate provides a way to stay in shape in what Bernays calls a “player-defined” team atmosphere.

All that, and it’s fun, too.

“The act of throwing a disc is one of those innately pleasurable things to me,” Wilson says. “It feels really good to do. That’s what made me come out. What initially made me stay was the community. As freshmen, you don’t know anybody, and it was like an instant community right there, with great guys that were really receptive to having you and welcoming you.”

After Sunday’s practice, the Ozone Pilots commandeer a group of tables at BU’s West Campus Dining Room and eat dinner together. An impromptu eating contest breaks out when Tracy Snyder, a member of the Lady Pilots, BU’s women’s Ultimate team, drops an apple pie in front of men’s senior captain Matthew Huynh and divides it in half.

Teammates surround the two Ultimate players, egging them on with cheers and catcalls. A man from Dining Services asks the group to quiet down, but he’s ignored. Huynh finishes his half-pie first and sticks his tongue out in victory. As the crowd leaves, a pained grimace appears on Huynh’s face.

“I might throw up,” he says.

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