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Losing is Lonely

When I talk about my sport, I struggle to decide what to call it: ultimate or Frisbee? The latter dredges up images of dogs chasing plastic across a stretch of fresh grass, certainly better manicured than any fields we ever get a chance to use. The former is just silly (a sport named after an adjective?!), the product of stoned hippies discovering a new game they could play that would allow them to feel like athletes for an hour or two. “Hey man, this shit is the ultimate!” they’d opine in between drags from a joint and cups of beer (certainly applying the same statement to their bud or brew). I suppose I should feel lucky that they chose “ultimate” over another adjective–I could be playing “groovy Frisbee.”

Whatever it’s called, it’s hard to explain. My mom played in college back in the seventies but still doesn’t know quite how far the sport has come since then. My dad has seen a game here and there, but never enough to recognize the athleticism and commitment that it requires. I’ve given up trying to tell my coworkers why I return from long weekends with a red face, scrapes on my hips, and a noticeable limp. A teammate says that he’s pretty sure his coworkers think he plays rec-league soccer on the weekend. I envy his position. It’s better not to have to explain.

I’ll try anyway.

Last weekend, I traveled with my team to northern Washington for the regional qualifying tournament for the 2011 Ultimate National Championships. We’d get no coverage from ESPN or articles in the local paper. The sport is at the stage where live coverage consists of live-blogging from a start-up magazine and an audio stream from a writer who knows a few names here and there, but generally calls the guys on the field by their numbers.

Our team is likely one of the 10 best teams in the country, and probably the world. We compete in the toughest region in the country, home to a perennial national champion (Revolver – San Francisco), a fiery team of athletes that gets all the “press” in our sport (Sockeye – Seattle), and a Canadian team (Furious George – Vancouver) with tradition and history and the accent to go with it, eh? But nobody gives a shit. Outside of those few teams that play at the highest level, ultimate is a passing hobby like fishing or darts.

Winning brings a team together. Lose, and you’ll always feel alone.

When we lost a heartbreaker in the game-to-go to nationals, defeated at the hands of Furious, who we’d beaten just a few hours earlier, we collapsed into a circle of silence. A normally boisterous, playful, jovial group of men couldn’t find the words for… anything. We looked at each other and at the ground, and for ten minutes thought about another season coming up short of our goal, another story of “almost there,” another trip home filled with wonder at what more we could have done.

Those that know me know that I hate to lose, but this loss was magnified by the core of people who lost with me. I told the team that this loss hurt not because we wouldn’t be going to nationals, but that we wouldn’t be going to nationals with this team. Instead of thinking about how to prepare for the next tournament, we were left wondering whether the preparation we’d made for this one had been enough. The experience was over, wrapped up tightly with a final chapter that came a few pages too soon. And while the next volume will undoubtedly contain new characters, new challenges, and a whole different storyline, we weren’t ready for that to begin.

The hardest part of the loss came surprisingly over the next few days, when I didn’t have the team around me to share the heartache. It came when I tried in to explain the loss to my friends in text messages. It came when I tried in vain to tell Kristine about the way that we’d exceeded outside expectations and undercut our own. It came when I began to tell my parents about the tournament and decided not to even try it–that the story of our disappointment couldn’t be understood without the context that only our team knew about: a summer filled with two four-hour practices every weekend, workouts on top of workouts, hours of thinking and preparing for the game, competition and collaboration, bickering and arguing, triumph and failure.

Only our twenty-seven guys knew what we knew. As winners, we’d have ridden high with emotion. Everybody likes to offer a congratulatory pat-on-the-back or a high five to a winner. Human beings can relate to triumph, regardless of the medium of competition. They want to share the glory, ask what’s next, hear your tale of conquest.

Losing is lonely.

When you lose, your year is swept away with the other also-rans, the only record of your season marked by points on the board that you posted against the champ. And in ultimate you don’t have a fan base to pick you up off your feet and tell you to “get ‘em next time,” no press to tell you that you shocked the world. All you’ve got is the lonely, heartbroken stare of your teammates, looking off into the distance wondering what more they could’ve done to keep that season going just a little longer. Sure, we’ll “wait ’til next year,” but it’s going to be a long, lonely offseason.

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