Frisbee puts ’em in a spin

There is a scene in the popular television comedy series Family Guy that perfectly sums up the state of ultimate frisbee in Australia.
Chris: Dad, you should invent the frisbee, that’s an awesome toy.
Sister Meg interrupts: Chris, the frisbee is already invented.
Chris: Then how come I never heard of it?
When local students Stephen Johnson and Seb Barr, both 23, explain to people they’ve represented Australia in ultimate frisbee the next thing they often hear is, “what the hell is ultimate frisbee?”
“We get it a lot,” Seb says. “A lot of people think it’s just like down at the beach where guys are flinging it back and forward but it’s nothing like that.”
Frisbee was invented in the United States in the late 1960s when an American student decided to create the “ultimate game experience” by blending a number of sports together to form the ultimate frisbee game.
Played on a 110 x 37metre field with end zones at each end spanning 23 metres in length, frisbee is a fast-paced, self-officiated team sport where the goal is to catch the frisbee in the opponents’ end zone to score a point.
The seven players allowed on the field at any one time pass the frisbee up the field until it either hits the ground or is intercepted by an opponent.
The sport thrives at Australian universities where it features prominently at the annual university games but outside universities it is a relatively unknown sport with an approximate total of 5000 active frisbee participants nationwide.
Warragul resident Seb first discovered the wonders of frisbee when his older brother, Andrew, invited him to his university in the city.
“I came down there and he (Andrew) is like, ‘check out this new thing I’m playing’ and personally I probably thought he was a bit of a loser.
“I said to him, ‘what’s this frisbee stuff you’re doing, this probably isn’t the best idea’.
“Then I went out throwing with him and his mate, and his mate was ripping out 40-metre forehands and stuff like that then I thought, maybe this sport is all right.
“So I got pretty hooked pretty quick,” Seb said.
With an urge to play more, the St Paul’s Year 10 student brought his new-found passion to school where he introduced it to good friend Stephen.
“Seb brought this frisbee to school and I was completely uninterested,” Stephen said. “I was hopeless at it.
“You know how when you play games and you get picked, well, I was the last picked. I was shocking.”
But when Stephen moved with his parents to Berwick he discovered within two years that his pet-hate at lunch times had turned into a flight to Boston to represent Australia in the under-19 world championships.
“I was terrified (playing for Australia),” he said. “I had only been playing competitively for six months so I was the complete rookie of the team,” he said.
But the gifted athlete, who was selected because of his height and athleticism, quickly settled in.
“The first game we played was a pre-tour match against a high school called Amherst. This school was one of the best high schools going around and they brought back some of the guys who had graduated already to play against us. We played under lights and it felt like the whole town came out to watch us. There were about 400 to 500 people watching. We lost by two or three but the feeling was amazing,” he said.
Stephen and his under-19 team progressed to the bronze medal match where they came up agonisingly short against Colombia.
Four years on and Stephen found a measure of revenge when he came up against a similar-look Colombian side in the under-23 world championships recently held in Florence, Italy.
Joined by Seb who was making his junior debut for Australia, the Australians were this time prepared for their rivals.
“This Colombian team beat us (in 2006) and since then that had been in the back of my mind and the rest of that team who played in 2006,” Stephen said.
“Everyone on the field and before the game was so focused, there was a sense of electricity and we just came out and played one of the best games I’ve been involved in. Every player in the team was doing unbelievable things, it was one of the beautiful sporting moments.
“We smashed them 17-4 and I had a big monkey on my back all that time since the under-19s and now I just stomp on that bad boy,” he said.
Since returning from overseas in late September, the Stephen and Seb have now had time to reflect on what was an incredible road trip.
The Florence under-23 international tournament in August was just one part of the frisbee trip that also saw them compete in Prague for the world club championships in July where their home-made team, Heads of State, finished 20th.
“Age Against the Machine”, “Blue Arse Flies” and “Ultimate Vibration” were just some of the competing teams vying for the title of world’s best frisbee club, but don’t let the bizarre names fool you, these guys are for real.
Just ask Stephen and Seb who spent six exhausting hours at the local Pancake Parlour drooling not over the pancakes but over the thought of creating their own frisbee club.
Scattered among dirty dishes and left-over maple syrup, Heads of State was officially formed in late 2006.
“We basically had a six-hour meeting where we laid out the plan,” Stephen said. “We decided on what tournaments we’d go to, what players we would take, what our selection criteria would be. Are we going to be invitation only or are we going to have try-outs, what our uniform would be and everything else,” he said.
Although the first idea of a frisbee club was more of a “hyped dream”, according to Seb, by 4am on that fateful day it had become a reality.
Although no pancakes were thrown, Seb admits it did get a bit heated.
“There could have been pancakes thrown, it was long and drawn-out night,” he said.
The pair, both in their final year at Monash Uni, say it is not easy funding their frisbee passion, but taking primary school coaching sessions and running local poker tournaments does help pay for their addiction.
After four years of competing, the passion and the desire to grow the sport and play at the highest level still remain a high priority.
As Stephen and Seb say, and as Stewie from Family Guy makes clear in another episode: “I am sooo all about ultimate frisbee.”

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