April 22, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
Some teams try to ease in their rookies when making their AUDL debuts, an understandable choice considering the heightened speed and pressure involved in every point at the pro level. Then there’s the DC Breeze, who went totally against the grain in this department. And to say it worked out “ok” would be a massive undersell.
Jacques Nissen made his first appearance for the Breeze on June 1, 2019, against the undefeated New York Empire, less than two weeks after celebrating his 18th birthday and becoming old enough to play in the league. Furthermore, DC leadership immediately slotted Nissen on the O-line, a bold maneuver against any opponent, but an especially ambitious decision with the Empire’s talent and experience in town. Talk about throwing a young kid to the wolves.
But as usual, DC Head Coach Darryl Stanley knew more than the rest of us, as Nissen delivered a spectacularly steady all-around performance, collecting four assists, one goal, and one block while completing all 28 of his throws. The Breeze let a lead slip away and fell 20-19—one of several great escapes that enabled New York’s season-long perfection—but the team disappointment over the result did not diminish Nissen’s debut in the eyes of teammates.
“Jacques is an animal and honestly inspirational,” explained DC’s Max Cassell last June. “I’ve seen people in his position struggle to overcome the pressure. Turning 18 midseason, joining a highly efficient O-line without practicing with us, and not missing a beat is so much harder than you can imagine.”
It quickly became evident to all ultimate fans that Nissen was not a one-hit wonder, as he played near flawlessly throughout his five-game debut season, going 94-for-94 in passing with only a single drop, offset by eight assists, six goals, and two blocks. Of all his attributes, his poised demeanor was particularly praised by teammates.
“We’re all blown away,” expressed DC’s Quinn Bergeron last June. “He’s amazing. We couldn’t see him the first half of the season because he wasn’t 18 yet. And then when he turned 18, we were like, ‘oh now we can finally see Jacques again,’ and it was an immediate ‘woh!’ He is skilled, he is talented, and he is calm.”
The youngest player in the AUDL last season—as of today, he still has four weeks before turning 19—Nissen enrolled at Brown University in the fall, joining the defending college champs as a blue chip recruit. And while his burgeoning stardom seemed inevitable, it, like most everything else, was paused by the pandemic. Thankfully, Nissen had time to answer some questions about his ultimate journey and how he’s handling quarantine life. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
Evan Lepler: Starting fairly simply, how are you, where are you, and what's life been like in your current hometown over the past month?
Jacques Nissen: I’m doing well. I came back to Washington, D.C. about a month ago, and have been living with my parents and my younger sister. All of us are healthy and doing well, but still adjusting to our new quarantine lifestyles. I am lucky enough to have a sister, Margot, that I am really close with, and I have gotten to spend a lot of time with her lately. Not sure what it is like for all the “only-childs” out there, but I am glad I have at least one other person I can consistently hang out with.
EL: Presuming you've shifted to experiencing your freshman year of college remotely, how would you characterize how that has gone so far? What's the typical day like and how jarring has it been to make the transition from on-campus student to what you're doing now?
JN: Taking college classes remotely has been very different than life on campus. I am a freshman at Brown University, and I could not have thought of a weirder way for my first year of college to end. It took my teachers a fair amount of time to adjust to giving online lectures, but now all my classes have fallen back into a routine, and stuff is starting to feel a little bit more normal.
One of the things that I miss the most about life on campus is the people and communities that I was a part of. The frisbee program is certainly one of the communities I am missing, as well as friends from my dorm. One way that people in the frisbee program have stayed in touch is by completing New York Times Crossword puzzles together over Zoom each day, as well as weekly movie nights or TV show viewings, and those have all been enjoyable.
EL: Ultimate obviously feels somewhat secondary to everything, but I'm definitely curious to ask how your college ultimate experience had gone thus far and what the emotions have been like handling the realization that this season almost certainly won't reach its conclusion?
JN: The upcoming frisbee season was one of the reasons I was most excited for the spring semester, and I loved every second of the shortened season we had. The team was a huge part of my freshman experience at Brown, and every practice we had was fun and competitive.
Our last tournament of the season was in early March in Knoxville, Tennessee, and while I was aware of the virus and was taking precautions to stay healthy, it did not occur to me that this would be the last tournament of the 2020 college season. A couple days after the tournament, Brown officially shut down campus and kids started going home. We had time to fit in one more practice, and that is when I started feeling sad and heavyhearted, mostly for the eight seniors on our team who saw their college experience end so abruptly.
EL: Before going further, can you enlighten me about your overall athletic background and explain how you got your start playing ultimate?
JN: Growing up, baseball and soccer were my two main sports. Sixth grade was my first year playing ultimate, but eighth grade was when I first started taking it seriously. At our middle school ultimate practices, we would have some guest high school coaches come every week, and by the end of eighth grade, they invited me and a couple of my friends to come practice with the high school team. Jake Radack and Duncan Fitzgerald were the guest coaches at those middle school practices, so I have to thank them for giving me that opportunity and then subsequently teaching me a lot about the game during my early high school years. Dave Ohls was my coach for all four years of high school, and he helped me elevate my game to where it is now. He dedicated lots of his time to help me, and the high school team as whole, improve and get better.
EL: It sure has become more and more common for 18-year-old high school seniors to make an impact on professional ultimate teams, but I still think it's noteworthy every time it occurs. What are your primary memories from trying out for the Breeze at age 17 and then learning that you made the team? Were you confident or did you surprise yourself through the process?
JN: I was unable to make the first couple rounds of tryouts for the Breeze, but Rowan [McDonnell] and Coach Darryl Stanley knew who I was before the tryout, and that helped me get a spot in the final tryout. The final tryouts seemed like a typical ultimate tryout, but the athleticism and general skill were really high. I remember feeling confident in how I played that day, but my only concern about making the team was my age situation. I turned 18 in late May, meaning that I would be unable to play for the team until then. The team leadership was aware of that before the tryout process began, but I was hoping that they would take me anyways, and they did.
EL: You made your AUDL debut on June 1, 2019 against the undefeated New York Empire; were you nervous going into that game? What was the experience like becoming a pro ultimate player and getting a chance to battle the league-wide favorite in your first opportunity on the field? Any memories from that game you're especially proud of? Any humbling "Welcome to the AUDL" moments that stand out?
JN: The day of my debut was incredible.
It was a home game for us, and in the afternoon leading up to the game, Rowan had organized a middle school tournament at the Catholic University Fields. I was coaching my sister and her teammates in the tournament, so I actually got to the fields six hours before game time. After 4-5 hours of coaching, I rejoined the team for warmups, and after that the pregame stuff went by like a blur.
The game itself was amazing. It was great to make my debut at home in front of a lot of people that I knew and also against a great opponent like the Empire. I had a pair of assists on my first two points, and the Breeze as a team started off very strong. I remember feeling starstruck for brief moments as well, especially when I was being marked by Beau [Kittredge], or [Jeff] Babbitt or Marques [Brownlee].
Babbitt did give a “Welcome to the big leagues” moment though. In the third quarter, as the Empire were starting to mount a comeback, our O-Line turned it over and I was covering Babbitt. I felt like I had him covered, but they threw up a huck to him anyways and it turned into a jump ball, and I had no chance. Babbitt skied me and I didn't even come close to getting the block.
One of my favorites moments of that day was after the game, when [Empire Coach] Bryan Jones came over and shook my hand and said “Nice game, Zero,” [referencing my jersey number]. We talked for maybe 30 seconds, but I still remember that today. To have one of the best and most respected coaches in the game say that to me was really cool.
EL: Do you have any favorite ultimate players, either people that you especially enjoy watching or individuals that you try and emulate when you take the field?
JN: I wouldn’t say that I have any one player that fits those descriptions. But growing up in DC, it was easy to be a fan of Rowan, especially when you consider all the stuff he does for the youth scene in DC. He personally coached me a couple times throughout high school, well before I became his teammate, so that was cool. I don’t think there are any players who I enjoy watching more than others though, so it's hard to pick out people there.
EL: What’s your favorite game you've ever played in and why?
JN: With an honorable mention to the games leading up to my YCC championship in 2018 (specifically semis and finals), I think I would have to say that my favorite game I have ever played in was Team France’s semifinal vs Germany in the 2019 European Youth Ultimate Championships. Any game at the international level is incredible, but this one was especially fun because it was the semis, and most of the other French athletes at the tournament were lining the sidelines and cheering. We won in a close game, and I also played pretty well, so there are a bunch of different factors that made me pick this game.
EL: To quickly follow up, can you share how you came to be on Team France for the European Youth Championships? And the natural follow up to that, I suppose: what was it like being named to the USA National Team for the upcoming World Junior Ultimate Championships (WJUC), and is it strange to play for multiple countries? I imagine a USA-France game at a future Worlds event—which sadly won’t be in 2020—will be both fun and strange for you?
JN: My mom is French, which explains the origin of my first name, and also why I was eligible to play for the French national team. Back in the fall of 2017, when I was in the process of submitting an application to tryout for the U.S. Under 20 team, it occurred to me that I also could play for the French team. So I sent some emails and I got invited to a tryout in France in the spring of 2018, where I earned a spot on the team. I went back to France for one more practice weekend that summer, then rejoined the team in Waterloo for the youth championships. I then played another year with the French team, this time at the European Youth Championships in 2019, which took place in Poland. The coaches of the French team, specifically Cedric Trestard, Deborah Le Calve and Jean Marc Rocca, were extremely nice and hospitable and they put in a lot of effort to make this work.
This past fall, I tried out for the U.S. Team once again, and this time I made it, meaning I would be representing the United States rather than France at the next World Championships (which were unfortunately just called off). My French teammates and coaches had known for a while that I was intending to tryout again for the United States, and I think they understand why I took this opportunity.
I was looking forward to a potential game against France! I would have really enjoyed playing against my former teammates, and I think they would appreciate playing against me as well. I would be honored to represent either France or the United States at future international competitions.
EL: Aside from ultimate, what's something else that you're especially interested in or passionate about?
JN: I am a huge sports fan! My room is decorated with plenty of photographs, books, magazines, memorabilia and baseball cards. I follow a lot of sports, but probably follow baseball, basketball, and football the most. I am also a big podcast person, which feeds into my sports addiction considering pretty much all the podcasts I listen to are about sports.
EL: Lastly, what are you reading or watching at the moment? Any recommendations of a book, tv show, or movie that others would enjoy?
JN: I recently finished a pair of books for my French class at Brown. One was called “Stupeur et Tremblements” and the other was “L’enfant de Sable”. Both were decent, but I preferred “Stupeur et Tremblements” of the two.
Currently in the middle of two TV shows, one of which I watch with my family and the other which I watch by myself. My family and I watch a show called “Le Bureau”. It’s a French show (we add English subtitles though) about a French spy and the undercover work that he does. Very dramatic and I enjoy it a lot. I highly recommend it, even to non-french speakers.
I also have recently started Narcos, the Netflix TV show about the Colombian drug cartel run by Pablo Escobar. That has also been really good, although it is a little more mainstream so don’t think I need to add much more.