They start ’em young in mountain towns.

by Leslie Anthony

I was out running in North Vancouver the other day when I encountered an odd yet strangely familiar odor. What was that? Ah—burning leaves, a smell I hadn’t encountered even once in my 14 years on the soggy West Coast, but one clearly lodged deep in the reptilian part of a brain that grew up in Toronto. The scent released a flood of fall memories of those days, but the image I zeroed in on—perhaps because I was sprinting and there was sweat in my eyes—was of playing Ultimate. You know, that Frisbee game (but don’t call it that lest “flying disc” aficionados wrinkle their noses).

I played competitive Ultimate for some 20 years, from recreational leagues to the Canadian National Team. Even won a World Championship. I’d learned a lot, and, if reminded by a mere smell, had probably come away with some form of wisdom—which I’d always thought to be a sense of fair play in competing both with and against someone. But who really knew?

I’d played at all times of year in all climates in all parts of the world but for some reason, in my mind, fall in the East was Ultimate season. It was when the air changed and running got harder; it was also when the weather got wild—wind, rain, cold, snow—changing both field and flight in a sport now truly fitted to the elements. It was when we would travel to big U.S. tournaments in college towns in upstate New York and New England. And it was when I first noticed that many mountain towns—ski towns—fielded great Ultimate teams. When I moved west that didn’t change. For many years Whistler had a great Ultimate scene, and I travelled and played with new friends, facing hard-nosed, hard-running squads from Boulder, Tahoe, Bozeman, Salt Lake City, Canmore/Banff, Vernon, and Fernie; it seemed attitude came with altitude—not least because discs fly further in thinner air. Like a special fraternity within a fraternity.

article continues below

I’d seen the game played in many a mountain town—“seen” being the operative word since I was forced, by the natural attrition of failing joints, to step away. But I felt those mountain-town stirrings again during an Ultimate game I’d seen this summer while attending a conference at Quest University in Squamish.

It was around 9 p.m. on a hot July day, just after the sun slipped behind the mountains to the west and the air went cool like water, when the young people started arriving at the field. I sat on a picnic bench as they came in from different directions, some of the guys shirtless, the girls all carefree and laughing. One group tossed a disc between them as they walked, continuing onto the field where everyone arranged themselves in a large circle. Most of the guys were throwing over each others’ heads on purpose so that the receiver would have to run after it. One barefoot girl was making trick throws—gripping the disc from the front and flipping it backward over her arm, then curling it under for a skeet-shooter-type delivery with a ton of torque. It was a freestyle throw I hadn’t seen in years and I wondered where she’d learned it. It was nice to see some of the old tricks still survived. I watched for a few minutes, the disc arcing through the air from hand to hand, a magic plate passed between athlete gods. It was calming to watch the flight of a flying disc. Meditative. And always had been: because they’re at the whim of even the faintest zephyr and never do exactly the same thing twice, I could watch discs fly forever.

Soon, a professor from the gathering I’d been at walked up and joined the game, carefully doffing shoes and socks and dress shirt and putting on a t-shirt one of the other guys proffered. He looked keen and I could tell he was a serious player. Another guy saw me watching and called over “Hey—want to play?”

“Uh, I’m OK. Thanks.” I watched them arrange themselves on the field, seven against six, knowing that by taking up his offer I could have evened the numbers for a standard seven-on-seven game. As they started up and the running intensified, I was drawn to the pounding of feet across the astroturf. There were other sounds, too: the audible counting, the grunting of exertion, the groaning at missed throws and catches, the clapping for each other when good passes or goals were made. This was Ultimate. The game I loved. I wasn’t sad but certainly envious.

Every fibre of my being had wanted to play, and saying ‘no thanks’ in that moment had been one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do. But I knew myself, and, given the impossibility of me taking it easy the probability of injury seemed virtually certain. So it was, for a change, enough to simply watch as the mountains turned pink in the glomming, and remember those halcyon days of fall in the East–when the smell of burning leaves would not have seemed so foreign.

Maybe that had been the true wisdom gifted by Ultimate—the courage to finally let it go.