The Rise of the Old Guard

By Adam Ruffner & Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen

When the AUDL launched three years ago, semiprofessional ultimate was a novelty. Despite the sport’s rapid growth, many within the ultimate community viewed the professional enterprise with ambivalence and skepticism. Pro ultimate just had too many questions and contradictions.

The biggest was whether pro ultimate could maintain that “it” factor that draws so many people to the sport—the pureness of the game, its focus on camaraderie over competition, and the inimitable combination of athleticism and community. Coming in as a close second were the flurry of questions over how pro ultimate would even work. For a community with a decades-long tradition of packing six or seven games into a two-day weekend tournament played in front of minimal fans, the move to one game a week in front of a stadium crowd marked a major departure.

“Honestly, I wondered how this can succeed,” Toronto Rush player Phil Watanabe said. “I was used to club tournaments, and then I thought the [2011] NexGen tour was amazing—the stands were packed, the stadiums were cheering. I thought if you could replicate that every week, then maybe you’d have something.”

“I didn’t think [a pro league] would start,” Madison Radical Nate Volkman said, echoing Watanabe’s sentiments. “I didn’t think it was a possibility. I kind of thought [club and recreational leagues] was all there ever will be.”

Volkman and Watanabe were not alone. As part of a small but mighty group of older elite players that includes San Francisco FlameThrower Sam C-K and Chicago Wildfire players Ron Kubalanza and teammate Gary LeDonne, the ability to play professionally in front of friends and family has always seemed alluring, but likely would never happen. LeDonne even admitted that he initially viewed the AUDL as an interesting project that gave him another opportunity to play ultimate—and that was all.

But in the last three years, the AUDL has become a haven not only for proto-athletes like Beau Kittredge and Jonathan Helton, but also for experienced players like Volkman, Watanabe and LeDonne who are just on the far side of their prime years with plenty left to contribute.

For the old guard, the chance to continue playing at an elite level was too good to pass up. Plus, they are able to mentor some of the sport’s top up-and-coming talent, as well as help build a new level of ultimate play.

“I’m just trying to be supportive and truthful about how they are playing,” Watanabe said in reference to developing the younger players on the Rush. Watanabe, who found competitive ultimate after suffering a severe snowboarding accident that left him with two broken collarbones in 2000, is one of the most established members of the Toronto ultimate scene, known for his hard-nosed, no excuses mentality. “You don’t really think about those things specifically as you are doing them, but when you get that feedback, it makes it really rewarding and makes you want to do it more.”

“It’s the young guys’ team. I’m not really a mentor. I just stand back and try to be supportive wherever I can,” Watanabe continued wistfully. “You realize as you get older: Ultimate is a team sport with 20 to 26 guys, and you realize how important it is to be a good teammate.”

All in all, the experience has been, well, as LeDonne and Volkman both put it, “exhilarating,” although it’s forced them to redefine their roles as players.

“When you’re older, you’re punching above your weight,” Volkman said, relaxing at home in Madison. He readily recognizes the challenges of playing in one’s twilight. “You’re clawing back against time. There are deficiencies that other teams can exploit. You need to focus to be calculated and efficient, and use those forces to combat any weaknesses.”

To say Volkman is passionate and knowledgeable about ultimate is akin to describing a Wisconsin winter as “just a bit chilly.” When talking about ultimate, he’s effusive and eager. Ask the right question, and he’s prone to monologue—he has an encyclopedic knowledge of ultimate history. He knows his community of peers well, regularly name-checking teammates and matchups, and is excited about the direction the sport is going.

An esteemed 17-year ultimate veteran, Volkman speaks easily and openly about the way he’s transitioned his playing style to fit the team’s needs. In his club heyday, he was a cutter, and played various stints for Chicago-based, nationals-caliber open and mixed teams. Now he’s a handler, and he’s trusted to handle the disc. He muses out loud about the Catch-22 he now finds himself in: understanding the game better than ever before, while having less time to devote and a waning physical self (he bikes regularly—in all variety of weather and windchills—and plays rec soccer to stay in shape). But he’s not one to lament.

“I’m thrilled to be able to help guys who are the future,” he said, name dropping Radicals Andrew Meschnick and Matt Weber as younger players to watch. “You do what you can to help the cause, although it’s tough to come to terms with where you’re at some times.”

LeDonne agreed with Volkman’s take. Actually, they agree on a lot—for both Volkman and LeDonne, some of the best moments in their ultimate careers happened on an AUDL field. The two are good friends, by the way, and playing against LeDonne remains a highlight of Volkman’s tenure with the Radicals, along with matching up against another “older dude” on the Rush, Phil Watanabe.

A local legend in the Chicago-area, LeDonne began his ultimate career in the early 1990s at the University of Illinois. Just a sophomore at the time, LeDonne matured parallel to the sport over the next two decades, watching it evolve from ragtag groups of friends into a sport filled with training regimens and serious commitment. The level of athleticism in ultimate increases every year, he said, and he has had to find new ways to contribute on the field.

“I can’t be the player that can play every point or carry a team like I could 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “I was happy to be able to find a role to help the Wildfire. And while I’m not slow now, I have to use rely more on my experience, field sense, and timing to be successful rather than just hoping I can out run everyone.”

“It’s amazing to even be a part of it,” Volkman echoed. “The beauty of it is that I can even have this discussion. I’m lucky to be able to play ultimate through all these chapters.”

Volkman likes talking about things in chapters—his life, playing career, even the structure of the AUDL season.

“I love weekly games,” he said. “The season is long, but it’s in little chapters the whole way. Each point matters more. There’s a weight of importance. All the marbles are right there. It is just exhilarating for me.”

The single-game format remains one of the AUDL’s biggest selling points for older players who find the wear and tear of a tournament weekend grueling. While some, like Watanabe and LeDonne, still play for elite open and masters’ teams, playing one game per weekend allows others to focus intently on one team and one matchup. You can put all your mental and physical energy into one game, Watanabe noted. And it gives them a chance to compete against some of the best younger players, LeDonne added. Better yet, because the games are held in their hometowns, friends and family can watch them play from the stands more easily.

“To me, the most meaningful thing, will be to play in front of my kids,” Watanabe said. He’s the father of seven-year-old twins, and having them at home games makes playing more meaningful. Although, he admitted, there’s a good chance the twins are more excited in eating popcorn and pizza than they are in watching flicks and hucks on the field.

“They get caught up in that rush – pardon the pun – they get caught up in the excitement of what’s going on,” he continued. “They don’t know what it is, but they like it – they like hearing my name called out, and that’s good enough for me. Just seeing them in the stands when they are there, it’s really special, and that’s what I will really remember this for.”

It’s that game day atmosphere that reminds Watanabe, LeDonne and Volkman of why they first fell in love with the sport. There’s a folksy, timelessness to playing, Volkman said. Part of it is the culture surrounding the event—the tailgaters, the fans in the stands, the T-shirt booths and the bacon-on-a-stick sales (a Madison specialty). The crowd in particular raises the stakes, and make playing more fun.

“People really care about what you are doing,” Watanabe said. “It makes you approach the game differently.”

“At first you’re like, ‘Oh! There’s actually a crowd there.’ You have to pretend that they’re not there,” Volkman echoed. “You can easily psych yourself out.”

“To be on the field was just an incredible opportunity, and was a gift of circumstances and timing,” Volkman added. In particular, it was the opportunity to extend his career just a bit longer into its sunset. A bit longer to bask in the glow of the sport he loves. “I was in the right place at the right time. I could find a niche, I was in shape and I could bring value. The stars aligned everywhere.”

And for the old guard, stepping onto a field for the first time answered any lingering questions about professional ultimate. Fans were in the stands, there was a new generation of talent drawn to the game and ultimate still had that special spirit that broadcaster Howard Cossell described as “a refreshing reminder of what sport was meant to be, and still, on rare occasions, can be.”