October 3, 2012 by Wes Cronk in Other with 2 comments
The following piece is based on an essay which described the role ultimate played in various transitional periods in my life. From high school to undergrad at the University of Florida and then to graduate school at New York University, ultimate turned out to be a more important part of my life than I would’ve ever imagined.
Sports have always been an integral part of my life. Growing up in south Florida afforded me the opportunity to participate in some form of athletics year-round without interference from the elements. Like most kids, I tried my hand at pretty much every sport before eventually settling on one — which in my case was actually roller hockey — that I ended up playing competitively throughout middle and high school. I was born a very competitive person, a trait that has admittedly gotten the best of me a number of times over the years, and athletics was the arena I used as an outlet. It wasn’t until I started playing organized ultimate, however, that I began to fully understand where the true value of team sports actually lies.
Florida is by no means known for having a bustling ultimate scene. In fact, the sport was barely on my radar before college. I did have a Spanish teacher in 8th grade, Mr. Bonin, who would occasionally take the class out to play sprawling games with little instruction — I remember we used to play with those purple day-glow chameleon Ultrastar discs and use shoes to mark the endzones — but there weren’t really any options for me to play outside of school at that point. During my senior year in high school, some friends did put together an ultimate frisbee team, simply because starting a school club looks great on college applications, but more than anything this was just an excuse for us to all congregate on Sunday mornings and trade stories about the trouble we got into that weekend.
So when I first arrived at the University of Florida in 2005, I fully intended fulfill my thirst for competition by joining school’s club roller hockey team and continue playing the sport that had been my focus for the previous eight years. This plan, however, was immediately thwarted. Apparently, there had been a compulsory tryout the week before I moved in and, since I’d missed it, I was out of luck. If I wanted to continue playing roller hockey, I would have to wait an entire year for a chance to even tryout. For the first few weeks of school, that was the plan, I would just wait it out and try again next year. Eventually, though, my desire to compete got the best of me and I decided that I needed to find a sport to play to pass the time. Faced with few options, I chose to give ultimate another try.
Missing roller hockey tryouts turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Ultimate provided exactly what I needed out of an extracurricular activity at that point in my young life. It was simultaneously a platform for athletic competition and a community to help facilitate my transition into college. Unlike more traditional sports, collegiate ultimate teams rarely enlist the services of a coach. At Florida, each of the teams had their own coach but they were as much teammates as they were instructors. This important distinction changed what it meant to be part of the team. We weren’t playing to satisfy the person who was in charge, we were playing for each other.
For the most part, we were all relatively new to the sport as well. Because of the lack of opportunities to play youth ultimate in Florida, almost everyone was starting from scratch. The unique atmosphere of collective learning allowed me to bond with my teammates in a way no other sport ever had. This certainly contributed to my decision to remain with Florida’s B team for the entirety of my undergraduate career. My decision to stay with High Level wasn’t made because I didn’t take ultimate seriously — we practiced and ran track just as hard as the best teams in the country do — but the bonds we formed during those formative years were strong enough to make most of us B-team lifers.
When graduation finally rolled around in the spring of 2009, it almost felt like all of the work we had put in together had been for nothing. I had just spent the first four years of my adult life just a few hours from home, dedicating the majority of my time to a sport that it seemed like only my friends played and I didn’t feel like I had much to show for it. After all, I was about to move halfway across the country to start grad school at New York University, what was I going to do, play in the Metro East with a bunch of people I’d never met before? The idea seemed laughable at the time.
As it turned out, though, that is exactly what I did. I was a bit on the fence about playing for a different school at first but my eventual decision to commit had a huge impact on my new life. Ultimate made the transition to New York so much easier than it would have been otherwise. I was immediately welcomed onto the NYU team, Purple Haze, and since I had just spent a good amount of time learning from some of the best players in the world, I was often looked to for advice by our captains. Having just relocated to a city where I knew very few people, it was invaluable to have this built-in community embrace me as one of their own. It also gave me the opportunity to evolve as a teammate. Most of the players were still undergraduates, many in their first or second year playing, making my experience a valuable asset to the evolving program. Watching the younger players develop their skills became just as rewarding as my own personal accomplishments, a sentiment I would’ve likely scoffed at just a couple years before.
It’s now been a year since I completed my graduate program and, looking back, I can safely say that my college experience would have been dramatically different had it not been for ultimate. Simply put, the sport changed the way that I think about athletics. The bonds I was able to form with teammates at UF and NYU are clearly different than those I have with my other college friends and I am confident they will stand the test of time. When I see old teammates at tournaments or around the city, even if we haven’t spoken in years, it’s like we’re back on the practice field together or at a party having a drink. I know that I am a better, more well rounded person today because I play ultimate and, really, isn’t that what college is all about?
If you have stories about how Ultimate affected your life off the field, please share them with us in the comments or by emailing us at [email protected].