Player Profile: Nicky Spiva

By Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen

Riddles have always intrigued Nicky Spiva—they are the perfect blend of poetry and puzzle for the former Callahan runner-up, Team USA vet and one of the newest additions to the DC Breeze.

“I’ve liked riddles for a while,” the creative writing major admitted, and noted that he also finds horoscopes intriguing. “It was a fun way to do poetry in kind of more of a game-type of environment.”

He’s written quite a few, and has solved even more. And next season, he’ll be put to task figuring out one of the AUDL’s peskiest problems: How can the Breeze overcome the juggernauts of the East—the Toronto Rush and New York Empire—and advance to Championship Weekend for the first time in franchise history. He joins a number of high-profile players, veteran club athletes and ultimate newcomers that recently signed with the DC Breeze for its 2016 effort, including his best friend Markham Shofner (more on that friendship in a bit).

The path the twentysomething, six-foot tall, blond and bearded Spiva took to the Breeze is a long one. He arrived in Washington, D.C., by the way of Nashville, Montreal, Colorado Springs, Nashville [again], and New Orleans, with stops in Florida, Moscow and numerous other places in between. Along the way he honed a hybrid set of skills for ultimate, learning how to capitalize on his versatility as a thrower and speed as a cutter to stretch the field with his throws and athleticism.

“I like to think that I don’t have any huge gaps in my game,” Spiva said. His playing style is that of a stretch handler, knowing how to exploit any given situation: give him too much space under and he’ll gladly take the role of facilitator and eviscerating defenses with his throws; play Spiva close and, well — good luck staying close to his jackrabbit speed and agility.

“It’s fun to get a young guy who is really excited, who is really jacked up, really physical guy who’s ready to get a D, but make them feel like ‘Oh, this guy, I can’t hang with him, oh, I’m a little bit behind him and I can’t make the D.’”

Spiva describes himself as the type of attrition-based gamer that relishes the grind of a good match-up. And at the root, it’s because he’s the consummate spirited competitor, always up for the next challenge.

It all started in Nashville. A product of the University School of Nashville (it’s a high school), Spiva’s ultimate training was loose and less regimented than some of the other high school powerhouses (see: Paideia, Amherst Regional). He attended his first tournament on a whim, using a friend’s pair of cleats. He didn’t know anything about flicks or stacks (“I didn’t know what that was because we weren’t very good at making them,” Spiva noted) and was constantly getting yelled at (“We had a coach that was very free with curse words in a loving way,” is how he described it). Eventually he walked away from USN with a solid understanding of the basics, but more importantly a deep love for ultimate and its culture, something his coach—a goateed man with a penchant for overalls and statement-making bandanas—felt was more important than executing plays.

“[USN players] might not know what a dump set is by the time they leave high school but they love the game more than anyone else,” Spiva said, commenting on the school’s reputation. “I felt like our coach really built in a love for the game.”

He paused.

“My good friend Markham [Shofner], he came back from [National Ultimate Training Camp] and was like ‘I have this great idea, I have this great idea.’ And I was like, ‘OK, what is it’, and he was like, ‘OK... you are going to set up a player back behind the disc.”

Spiva, not schooled in said strategic fundamentals, took a beat to set up the punch line: “And I was like ‘No! They got to him.’”

An embodiment of that loose, flexible style of play (and having developed a strong set of fundamentals along the way), Spiva has helped grow and establish ultimate programs all throughout his travels. Much has been written about how he transformed the Colorado College Open team, Wasabi. A two-time team captain, he was the Callahan runner-up in 2011, the same year Wasabi made their first-ever trip to nationals. Front-and-center at the story of the team’s unlikely run was Spiva’s commitment to spirit and dedication as a leader — overhauling practice and training regimens, fostering a respect for teammates as well as opponents, celebrating good plays and pushing each other to be the best ultimate players they could become. While the team was disappointed with their overall finish at nationals in 2011, they won the Open Division Spirit Award.

Spiva has translated that philosophy to the many programs he’s helped coach. He went back to Nashville after college, and coached the team at USN. A Teach For America appointment took him to New Orleans, where he worked with teams at Tulane University and Jesuit High School of New Orleans. He also took it overseas.

Last summer, Nicky Spiva found himself in Moscow, facing a predicament. He had arrived to help coach and run clinics in Russia and was the sole American player to travel to Russia for a program that usually hosts several elite ultimate players. Spiva worked closely with LuckyGrass, a Russian open team whose identity was rooted in a more physical style of play—close to the mark, aggressive on the field. But the team wanted to become more spirited and change their mindset.

“There’s this perception of Russians being more physical as players, trying to bend the rules, and it humbled me to see how much they embraced the spirit circle,” Spiva said. So how did he solve the riddle?

First, he led by example.

“I think honestly, doing it is one of the biggest things. I don’t think of the other team as these people we have to hate,” he said. “I will never say we have to go beat these guys, these guys are such assholes—you get that in organized sports all the time, that the other team doesn’t deserve anything. If the way that you interact and the way that you interact with the other team is that this is a great team, they are going to challenge us, and that’s a unique opportunity for us to have a great game, that’s a very different [mentality].”

Second, he tried to eliminate that us-versus-them mentality, and introduce an us-all-together mindset.

“I think you can still have some playfulness, the celebrations, in a respectful way,” Spiva said. “Those don’t need to get lost.”

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that Spiva is one the nicest, most open and talkative ultimate players. He throws out some tantalizing tangents that there’s not enough time to explore—specifically about banyas, or Russian-style heat rooms that feature “a guy with a big felt hat wearing sumo-type underwear and uses big branches of trees to billow hot air on you as you lay on the ground,” as he described it. “Anyhow, that’s a whole long story,” he said, before happily moving on.

That year, LuckyGrass broke into the top 16 at Worlds, a best-ever finish for the team. The experience also taught Spiva a lot—how to work with a team that has a history, and provide outside value and input that works. How to gain the trust of players, get them in the right mindset and how to appreciate the play of opponents. And that was one of the best things Spiva brought back from his trip, and it’s something AUDL fans can expect to see this spring, when Spiva takes the field for the Breeze.

So while Spiva and others try to solve the riddle of the AUDL East Division, here’s a hint for defenders who are hoping to figure out how to shut him down: Razr scooters.

“Markham and I used to Razr scooter in my neighborhood for entire summers,” Spiva said of Shofner. “That is why we believe that we are better at jumping off of our left legs, because we are stronger from Razr scootering.”

Try your hand at solving a Spiva-authored riddle:
I have four families in me,
and though they cut and cut and cut us,
together we remain.
Of death, incarceration and fortune,
I am the cause — or blame.