Disc In: A Chat with Pawel Janas

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

Although he’s made it perfectly clear that individual statistics are not how he measures his success, Chicago Wildfire handler Pawel Janas has set the standard for disc distribution over his three seasons in the AUDL. And beyond the dimes is his dedication, an all-encompassing commitment to his craft that has earned him considerable respect, league-wide acclaim, and a roster spot on the 2020 USA National Team.

As Wildfire Coach Daye Woods told me last year, “Pawel approaches the game with an analytical mind unlike anything I’ve seen from anyone else.”

It’s this mental approach that has separated him from his peers, both numerically and otherwise, in his quest to become the perfect player. He’ll be the first to tell you that currently, at age 26, he’s far from perfect, but it’s the devotion to that pursuit that has put Janas into a special category of competitors across the sport.

While role, responsibility, and structure all play a factor, the stats—sorry Pawel, they had to be briefly explained—are staggering. In three seasons, Janas has 256 assists in 40 regular season games, an average of 6.4 per contest that ranks number one in the history of the league. In fact, he led the league in assists in 2017, then again in 2018, and in 2019 too, a remarkable streak that is unlike anything else we’ve seen in the eight-year digest of AUDL action. Similarly, he also paced the circuit in completions in each of the past three years, accumulating 2,436 completions in those 40 games, nearly 61 per contest, and a success rate better than 95 percent. 

More importantly, Janas has helped his team improve considerably throughout his three-year assisting spree, lifting the Wildfire from three wins in a rebuilding 2017, to five wins in a better 2018, to seven wins in a very solid 2019, another two-game jump in the victory column despite two fewer games on the schedule. [Note: the AUDL trimmed the regular season from 14 to 12 before 2019.] Furthermore, Janas piloted the Wildfire back into the postseason last summer, Chicago’s first playoff berth in four years.

Though the pandemic is preventing him from throwing more goals at the moment, it has not dampened his general enthusiasm for the sport, as Janas has been a ubiquitous presence in the comment sections of ultimate rewatches over the past couple months. It’s gotten to the point that when he was not noticeably active in a recent Instagram Live, I double-checked to make sure he was ok. Turned out he was involved in another ultimate conversation at the time, as the Wildfire were meeting virtually, like most AUDL teams continue to do regularly, in order to stay in touch and remain together while hoping that ultimate returns at some point this summer.

A week later, Janas appeared as a guest on that Wednesday’s “LIVE with Lep!,” but we really just scratched the surface of conversational avenues to delve into. Consequently, I was obliged to again connect with the AUDL’s reigning assist king to discuss his approach to the sport, his favorite receivers, and getting labeled as a top thrower, a distinction that, to put it mildly, he does not particularly enjoy. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.

Evan Lepler: Firstly, for those who missed our recent IG Live conversation, how are you and what has your life been like over the course of the past month or two? 

Pawel Janas: I am holding up ok! The most challenging part in the first few weeks was definitely working from home. I am the type of person who likes to have clearly defined physical boundaries between my working and personal lives, such that one doesn't influence the other too much. Needless to say, these boundaries are gone and now my tiny studio serves both! It's finally starting to get nice out in Chicago, so things are looking up.

EL: I’m not sure if you intended to become one of the most prominent ultimate voices during the pandemic, but your presence has felt ubiquitous, in a good way! If you had to estimate, how many ultimate frisbee videos (games/highlight reels/educational clips/etc.) have you watched since this mid-March when this quarantine began?

PJ: I’ve watched pretty much every second of the "AUDL Rewind" and Ultiworld "Send It Back" series plus game footage from the club season for last three years plus all the WUGC 2016 games available on YouTube. I also joined Twitter and it's been really fun interacting with the ultimate community and getting a pulse on what people think about issues of gender equity, AUDL, USAU, etc. It's been eye-opening, to say the least.

EL: From a physical standpoint, what types of things have you done to try and stay in shape and keep your throws sharp?

PJ: From a physical standpoint, I've been lucky enough to receive guidance from Goose Helton and Chris Wicus from GPP [Game Point Performance]. The gist of what's helped me the most is the concept of "keeping plan B as close to plan A as possible." What I mean by that is I've tried to keep my lifting and running workouts as close to what I was supposed to be doing anyway. It turns out you don't need a full squat rack to train—a weight vest and a duffel bag stuffed with cans and a skillet will do. To make up for practices and games I've been running more—so many tempo runs—and doing point-like circuit simulations to maintain sports-specific mechanics like cutting, sprinting, jumping, pivoting, etc.

Allow me this rant. "Fitness" workouts/apps are a complete waste of time unless you really are stuck in place and have no other way of increasing your heart rate. There is zero (negative?) correlation between the type of movements these workouts train—burpee? when are you doing a burpee in real life?—vs. what you need to be an effective athlete on a field. I would rather run 30 mechanically correct 150s than do a single burpee. End of rant. 

In terms of throwing, I have around 20 discs which are all taco'ed by now from me throwing them at a soccer post. My next challenge is to find moving targets.

EL: While everyone who steps on an ultimate field needs to throw, catch, and defend, your playing style and abilities have certainly labeled you as a thrower. When do you think you first gained that distinction from your teammates and/or opponents on the field and how has that characterization impacted you as a player?

PJ: While it's certainly true that I am a good thrower, I don't consider this label as a "distinction." In fact, I hate it, Evan!

Practically speaking, these labels are good when you're trying out for a team—you have a specific skillset and you get to be on a team because you're better at this skillset than other people trying out for the team and the team has a spot for that skillset. Make no mistake about it, once you get to the elite level of the game, you are judged based on a specific role that you can fill on an offense or a defense. In that sense, this label of a "thrower" has helped me be on some really great teams that I would not have made otherwise.

As a player and competitor though, you never want to be just one thing. You want to be the complete package, the perfect utility player that can be put anywhere on the field and make an impact. My huge ego does not like the fact that I'm labeled as a "thrower" because I like to believe that I'm more than that. One day I hope to be this player and right now I hate that I'm being labeled as a "thrower."

EL: To understand your origins, can you quickly share the story of how and when you began playing ultimate, and along with that, how long into your playing days did it take for you to begin to feel fairly confident as a thrower? 

PJ: My journey to ultimate started with laser tag.

The short story is that, back in middle school in Boulder, Colorado, my friend and I wanted to play laser tag but my friend's mom wouldn't let us play inside her house. Instead, we had to go with her to summer league and play laser tag outside. Well, it soon became apparent that ultimate was way more fun than laser tag. This was 13 years ago. Been playing ever since.

I started being fairly confident as a thrower after my freshman year [of college] on Colorado Mamabird. There was a huge exodus of players in 2011, so not only did I make the team but was also put on offense. I made a lot of mistakes, couldn't really handle the pressure of playing for the program, and was generally ineffective with the disc. Learned a lot from that year and slowly became more competent as a thrower as a result.

EL: Aside from the simple reply, "I practiced a lot," what types of things did you do early in your career to develop your throwing skill? Were there any key coaches or other mentors who helped mold your abilities with the disc, or were there any high-level throwers that you viewed as role models and aimed to emulate?'

PJ: I just did more than anyone else. Worked harder than anyone else. Prioritized ultimate over most things in my life. I'm a believer that players that do more in the early parts of their career will progress faster than players that don’t. Building muscle memory requires repetition, and you can't substitute tips and tricks for hard work. I would go out on a field and throw by myself if no one on the team wanted to throw. Just like these days, I would throw at trees and run after my throws to simulate give-gos. People thought I was crazy! 

I've always looked up to [former University of Colorado and Team USA member] Jack McShane's style of play. The guy has all the throws in the book, is constantly in motion, and attacks with his legs. He's also very well-rounded and can play both sides of the ball. He is definitely the player I looked up to the most during his time with [Colorado] Mamabird and [the Denver-based club team] Johnny Bravo. I never got to play with him on either team—missed it by one year both times—but I'm sure I would have learned even more. 

EL: Between the backhand, forehand, hammer, and scoober, which do you think is your best throw and which is your favorite throw? 

PJ: I love the sound my backhand huck makes when I release it perfectly: a short but sweet “whoosh.” I know it's a goal right away. My favorite throw is the hammer, especially when it breaks zones.

EL: Putting you on the spot--not intending to get the rest of your teammates mad at you, though it may be inevitable--who are your three favorite receivers to throw to, and why?

PJ: It’s no secret that I love throwing to Michael Pardo. He's the fastest guy on the field and I have complete trust he'll run down every throw. Plus he's a really good teammate and a hungry competitor. I would really appreciate your help in trying to convince him to play again this year. Can we get #PardoWF2020 trending?

I also really like throwing to Seth Weaver and Jack Shanahan. Seth doesn't have the straight line speed Pardo has but will run circles around his defender to get open. He also has a strong mental edge and competitive drive, and I know that when the game is on the line he will come through. The thing I like about throwing to Jack is that (a) he is incredibly versatile and will make plays in the air and the ground and (b) I can start jogging off the field because he'll throw an assist after I get it to him.

I specifically did not mention Nate Goff or Ross Barker because I want them to get mad at me.

EL: If a younger ultimate player asks you for advice, what's your typical response, aside from the obvious "practice a lot"? Can you share one trick/suggestion about either footwork or grip or release-point or mentality that you've used to be successful, something others aspiring to 'throw like Pawel' may be able to learn?

PJ: Besides outworking your teammates and competition, the most important attribute to have is self-awareness. I can't stress this enough and can write a bunch on this topic but will try to be as brief as possible here. Self-awareness is the ability to critically examine your game—physical, skills, mental—and to adjust your training to make measurable and steady improvements. You should not have to ask your coaches and teammates for feedback on your game because you already know, for example, that you have the 10th best forehand on the team and are 10 seconds off the fastest guy in a 150 yard shuttle. My suggestion would be to try to answer your own questions before asking anyone else and to have an objective, data-driven approach to measuring your own improvement. Figuring out your own problems will serve you well outside of ultimate as well.

EL: Finishing with a couple of life questions, what's the most delicious thing you've cooked during the pandemic? 

PJ: My go-to "fancy" meal is searing a wild-caught sockeye (bbq glaze) with brown rice and steamed veggies. Healthy, delicious, and cathartic!

EL: And lastly, aside from ultimate, what's something that you haven't been able to do during the quarantine that you're most looking forward to doing again when (if?) life returns back to normal?

PJ: I was supposed to go on this great hiking trip to New Zealand with my sister at the end of March and I really miss being able to (safely) travel to see my family and friends.