Disc In: A Chat with Chase Cunningham

July 6, 2020
By Evan Lepler - 
"Disc In" Interview Series Archive

There can’t be many players itching more for the return of competitive ultimate than Chase Cunningham. By April of 2021—pandemic permitting, when professionally ultimate will return—it will basically have been 30 months since his last competitive game, an excruciating injury-riddled reality that is constantly fueling his fervor to battle for a championship whenever he’s able to retake the field.

After setting an Austin Sol franchise record by playing 390 points in 2018, his 2019 season consisted of just nine, after which a torn ACL served to sideline him the rest of the way. Coming off a career-best 56-assist, 32-goal campaign that included the Sol’s only playoff appearance in franchise history, Cunningham was the squad’s unquestioned leader and blue chip star, just entering his prime as a 27-year-old handler with size, throws, endurance, and passion. But in a reminder of life’s unfair twists and turns, he hurt his knee in the first half of Austin’s 2019 season opener against Raleigh. A week later, the Sol shockingly defeated Dallas in overtime, an unprecedented achievement that offered hope for a potential return to the postseason, even with Cunningham on the shelf. But Austin, unable to consistently deliver in close games, prevailed only twice more after that, finishing the season 3-9, with a 2-8 record in games decided by five or fewer.

Despite missing almost the entire schedule last year, the 6’3” left-handed handler still holds a mighty impressive distinction as the only player in the entire league to currently be a franchise’s all-time leader in assists and blocks, which Cunningham is for the Sol with 140 and 47, respectively. The legendary Sol’d Out trio could tell you his skills extend far beyond throwing and defending, even if they would also begrudgingly acknowledge that he has become the latest Austin talent to switch over to the Dallas Roughnecks. In January, Cunningham signed with Dallas, joining fellow former Austin-ites like Carson Wilder and Kyle Henke who’ve jumped Texas franchises, unintentionally reinforcing the little brother-big brother dynamic between the Sol and the Roughnecks. He acknowledges that it was not an easy decision, but the opportunity to potentially serve as the missing piece on a true championship contender compelled him to make move. 

I caught up with Cunningham in late June to inquire about the recovery and rehab process from the injury, his perspective on being a lefty in a righty-dominated world, and of course how he arrived at the point of signing with the Roughnecks. The conversation, which occurred a couple days prior to the 2020 AUDL season officially getting cancelled, has been edited slightly for clarity. 

Evan Lepler: Firstly, how are you and what has your life been like since the world shifted so dramatically in mid-March? 

Chase Cunningham: I’ve been healthy and well. I work as a personal trainer, so my job has slowed significantly. It has been picking up steadily since things have begun to reopen, but we are still a long way from normal. The shift has forced us to adapt, from virtual training sessions with clients to remote programming to training outdoors. I think it will be good for us in the long run, and the change of scenery has been nice; we've had some really nice weather in Austin the past couple months!

A positive spin, not being able to work as much (and not playing any frisbee) has given me a lot of time to spend with my wife and dog, as well as rediscover other interests. I've been picking up my guitars more often, and playing a lot of golf as well.

EL: What have you done to try and stay in shape over the past few months? And if the season started tomorrow, what percentage of the best version of yourself would you estimate you'd be?

CC: As a trainer, I'm around fitness all the time, so I've continued my own workouts with the equipment available. Early on, my dog was a great track partner, but I've been doing some sprint workouts with various teammates over the past six weeks. A couple weeks ago—as the first plans of restarting were surfacing—I started getting a small group of guys to together for 4v4 mini a couple times a week to get some touches. Things are in flux now, but it has been fun to get back into it through that, especially having not truly competed in nearly 20 months, minus the nine points I played in 2019.

If I were to put a number on it, I would say I'm at 80-85 percent of postseason shape, but definitely at or better than I would start a season. I think there's some endurance I can only gain from playing in a real game, but I think I've done well all things considered.

EL: So this chapter of the "Disc In" series is focusing on lefties, who are obviously a rare and occasionally bizarre-breed. I say bizarre because of all of the folks who, say, throw lefty but write righty, or have some other baffling combination of ambidexterity throughout their lives. Where do you fall on the spectrum in terms of lefty specialization? In other words, can you share whether you're lefty for everything, or how you divvy up your handedness for your life activities, writing, eating, throwing, etc?

CC: I am a true lefty, so I write, play sports, and eat lefty. The only thing I do right handed is play guitar. Lefty instruments are not easy to come by, and my dad is right handed so that's what I learned on. 

My dad, to his credit even though I hated it at the time, did make me learn how to do a lot of things growing up from both sides—throwing, kicking, hitting a golf ball—so while I'm better lefty, I am fairly ambidextrous.

Side story: I think it stemmed from golf, but I actually started my frisbee career with a righty backhand and a lefty flick; I didn't last long that way, but I still have a pretty good righty. 

EL: Presumably, you've been vexed by right-handed scissors since you were a kid... In life, is being lefty an advantage or disadvantage? In ultimate, is being lefty an advantage or disadvantage? Can you share how you've developed tricks or strategies on the field to try and capitalize on your lefty identity?

CC: Being lefty isn't much of a disadvantage in life other than a few annoyances—scissors, spiral notebooks, writing in pencil, table settings—but I think it is a big advantage in sports. Much in that way that it is an advantage in tennis, being lefty is good in ultimate because it is much rarer to play against, so everything is just a little different when it comes to marking that it gives us an edge.

Being tall helps a lot as well, but being left handed is a huge help for breaking the mark, so that is where I spend a lot of time in my progression of looks. Breaking the mark is extremely helpful in establishing and maintaining offensive flow, so if I can help my team in that way then great. As far as tricks or strategies, I learned a lot from Jeff Loskorn and watching him play and how he used being left handed to his advantage, from how he would stand, where he would hold the disc, to the throws he would make. Step through inside backhands are nearly always an "and one," and the shimmy most righties use for their inside flick is really nice for getting it off the sideline on a forehand force. The little flip to a force side upfield dump cut, where I'm in the middle of the field, is great for resets and putting a teammate in power position.

Life hack for lefties out there: I discovered legal pads are an awesome substitute for spiral notebooks. 

EL: Moving away from the lefty conversation, can you quickly share your general narrative about what sports you played growing up, how you discovered ultimate, and when your passion for frisbee really took flight?

CC: Growing up, I played most sports until I was around 11. I stuck with golf and tennis after that, but I was best at golf. I played competitively from age eight through high school, and I was consistently one of the top players in the city. I ended up having Tommy John surgery my senior year after injuring my elbow a couple years earlier, so that derailed the rest of my competitive career.

I discovered ultimate late in high school, but only knew the 20v20, no sidelines, barefoot version. I learned that it was a real club sport in the summer before freshman year of college from some friends that were thinking about trying out in the fall, so I decided to do the same. I went to Texas A&M my first two years, but I was bad. I was on B team my first year, and was just ok my sophomore year.

I played with HIP that club season, the fall of my first year at Texas, and that's probably when I really got the itch. From there, I started working out and training more and got way better. Matt Bennett still gives me a hard time about transferring after I finally got good. I played Cosa Nostra mixed club in 2013, and have been on [Austin’s top men’s club team] Doublewide since 2014; I think playing with a lot of those players that had been around the game longer than I had was key for my development and learning.

EL: I know you were excited for last season with the Sol, and then nine points into the first game that energy got derailed when you hurt your knee. Looking back on that ordeal a year later, can you describe how you handled that situation? What were the toughest moments in terms of the injury and the recovery process, and how did you manage your sanity during that extended period of time? And I'm curious to also ask how watching from the sidelines and doing some coaching impacted your perspective on the sport as you contemplate returning to the field yourself?

CC: I can't believe it's been over a year since the injury! What a ride. First off, I was incredibly fortunate that my surgery went well with no setbacks in my rehab, I had daily access to my gym to train, and I didn't have to worry about anything financially between my own insurance and the AUDL's. I had a lot of bad days where I was in pain or felt stuck, but I had a lot of days where I felt good. One thing that helped was the google doc I kept. I logged every workout I did for the first few months and how I felt before and after each one. Through that I was able to see where I was and how far I had progressed. That was great for me mentally until I was able to do sport-like activities and feel like an athlete again.

The toughest moments were seeing the MRI report confirming the ACL tear, and hitting submit on the club season series roster without my name on it. Not that I was expecting a different result, they just made it more real. Other than that, watching teammates play was tough at times, but I knew I'd get back.

From day one, I knew it was going to be a long recovery, so I set lots of short term goals within a single long term goal: train as if I was going to play at Club Nationals six months after surgery—I really wanted to, even tried to convince co-captains Jay [Froude] and Abe [Coffin] that I could do it, but it was best that I didn't. The first goal was to get as strong as I could in the five weeks between injury and surgery; I lifted three times a week and did long rides on the stationary bike twice a week. After surgery it was things like get enough range of motion to get on the bike, pass the return to run strength test, pass the return to cutting tests, etc. Setting small goals kept me feeling successful, and the long-term goal kept me motivated. After Nationals passed, I set my long-term goal on being ready for Team USA tryouts, which were going to be nine months post-surgery. While I knew I didn't play well enough to earn a spot, I was happy overall that I felt like I was able to compete and hang with the rest of the invitees.

Coaching was certainly a different experience. It's tough balancing trying to perform well at tournaments while getting everyone reps. Planning practices is tough because you're trying to mix concepts and fundamentals with developing chemistry and playing. While I've done similar planning as a captain, it was a slightly different lens as a coach. Watching every rep and figuring out what's worth pointing out and what's not was not easy. I don't think I did a great job, but I improved through the year; I learned a lot and hope to have the opportunity again in the future.

I'm sure Henry Furuta and Matt Armour are excited to have a real coach when we get back to playing again.

EL: You’re obviously not the first to make the move from Austin to Dallas or vice-versa, and there have been all sorts of reasons why a player makes the switch. So I'd be remiss if I did not ask how you made the decision to sign with the Roughnecks for the 2020 season? What made Dallas the right fit for you this year?

CC: It was honestly a really hard decision. I was super loyal to Austin, so much that I actually reached out to Dallas about playing because some thought I wouldn't even consider switching. It came down to two things. Many of the players I grew up playing with, save for a few, were either not playing or playing for Dallas. Guys like Jerrod [Wolfe] and Jeff [Loskorn], who I looked up to and loved playing with, weren't there, and current teammates had made the switch. The other consideration was that I felt Dallas had a great chance of winning it all, and that I could fill a necessary gap in their personnel.

EL: Had you gotten to practice with your new Roughnecks teammates at all prior to the pandemic shutting ultimate down? If so, curious what your first impressions were?

CC: I had gone to tryouts and a couple practices before the shutdown. I was mostly just excited to play again, but the main difference was going from being in more of a leadership-type role to just being one of the guys and not having to think about much other than my play. I knew most of the guys from Doublewide, but there were still some new faces to get to know and connect with, which is always fun. I really liked the general vibe being similar to Doublewide, competitive and intense on the field, but low key and relaxed off.

EL: Simple one: what's your favorite game you've ever played in and why?

CC: Pool play game vs Pitt at College Nationals in 2015. They hadn't lost since like January of that year, and we truly believed we could beat them. It was an intense game, and I really loved matching up with Trent Dillon and Marcus Ranii-Dropcho. I had internally made the goal of winning our pool in the fall, and winning that game achieved that goal, which was really satisfying.

EL: What was your first reaction to the offseason news about AUDL realignment, particularly with your divisional opponents changing so significantly?

CC: California and Seattle are pretty, and I was excited to maybe spend an extra day in one of those cities. 

EL: And lastly, who's your favorite lefty, and why?

CC: Manu Ginobili. Guy epitomizes putting the team first, always brought energy, and was so creative. Great role model, he's the reason I wear #20.