May 8, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
Although the Toronto Rush have only existed since 2013, one could argue that handler Thomson McKnight already has eight full seasons of professional ultimate under his belt. That’s because in addition to the 92 regular season games he’s competed in over seven years—an average of more than 13 per year—he’s also gone to battle 14 times in the playoffs, basically another complete campaign of intense AUDL experience. In fact, only five-time champion Beau Kittredge and a few Madison Radicals can claim more postseason caps than McKnight, who’s been a clutch anchor for the Toronto offense throughout his stellar career.
Among the league’s all-time leaders in a bunch of statistical categories, McKnight, who turned 33 last month, is presumably proudest that the Rush have gone 85-13 in his seven seasons with the squad, with nine additional postseason victories to boast about. Entering 2020, no AUDL team is closer to recording their 100th victory than the Rush, who are just six away, two closer to the century mark than Madison, reflecting the organization’s longevity and consistent success. The AUDL has certainly evolved considerably over the course of the past decade, however Toronto’s perch as an exemplary franchise is due in large part to the handful of veterans, like McKnight, who has been one of the key leaders throughout the journey.
For the moment, McKnight remains the answer to the trivia question: who has thrown the most completions in league history? And perhaps more impressive than the 3,661 successful throws is the 95.5 percent completion rate, the sixth-highest mark among the 20 players with at least 2,000 completions all-time. (If you’re curious, San Diego’s Dom Leggio owns a 97.4 percent rate to pace that specific category, though the five-year Growler has about 1,500 fewer completions than McKnight.)
Unquestionably, McKnight’s excellence is his consistency, a fact that is really tough to define numerically. Broadcasters and journalists have spent hours discussing Toronto’s arsenal of effective pull-plays that can lead to easy scores, and McKnight has long been a reliable cog in initiating these sequences. Current Rush Coach and former player Sachin Raina often used to joke that his job on the O-line was to ‘catch the pull, center it to Thomson, and then stay out of the way’ as Toronto would work it seamlessly down the field for a goal in just a few more throws. That plan was frequently a recipe for success, producing quick points, early leads, and plenty of wins.
I caught up with McKnight earlier this week to inquire about his evolution as a thrower, his secrets to maintaining consistency, and to hear how he’s handling life in Toronto during this unprecedented frisbee-free spring. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
Evan Lepler: Firstly, how are you and what has your life been like over the course of the past month or two?
Thomson McKnight: I’m doing well all things considered. My life has basically been the movie Groundhog Day...Since I’m in the film industry and all filming has stopped my work is shutdown. So I have just been at home everyday...While it is tough not making any money it has allowed me to focus on some classes I was taking in the evenings. I also have a ton of time for workouts.
EL: For those who aren't aware, can you enlighten me about how the city of Toronto has been impacted by the current situation?
TM: Toronto is doing so-so, I would say. We have quite a few cases here but for a major international city we seem to be doing better than most. The city has imposed social distancing laws and closed all park amenities. The parks’ green spaces are still open for walking/running as long as you stay six feet away from anyone else. There have been stories of people getting ticketed for not following these rules. Heard one guy got a ticket doing pull-ups on a set of monkey bars. Recently they closed High Park, the massive park near where I live and where I was running. Each year when the cherry blossoms bloom massive crowds come to the park, so they closed the entire park off this past week with a massive police presence. They claim they will re-open the park when the blossoms are done in a couple weeks. As of [this past Monday], though, Toronto is entering Phase 1 of re-opening. It will be a long process and Phase 1 is very minor, only allowing some very niche businesses to re-open, but I guess it’s a start.
EL: From an ultimate standpoint, what types of things have you done to try and stay in shape and keep your throws sharp during these bizarre times?
TM: As for keeping in shape, it hasn’t really been a problem. [Rush Strength and Conditioning Coach] Mike Haddock has given us at home workout plans. I’ve also got a good group of friends who I’ve been doing a daily online workout with at noon. We jump on a zoom call then do an Instagram Live workout together. I’ve also mixed in a lot of distance running and have been working on my 5K and 10K times. Also recently got some parts and was able to fix my bike up at home, so have started riding. As for throwing, that’s a bit tougher as it’s sort of a grey area whether it's allowed, since you are touching the disc and passing it back and forth. I know some people have said you can wash your hands afterwards and sanitize the disc, but I've avoided throwing with anyone as of yet. However, I have been taking a bag of discs to the local park and doing target practice at a wall. There is a cool graffiti wall and I made a little game where I give myself points depending on where on the wall I hit. Not ideal, but still something to keep me sharp.
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?
TM: I would say I began to think of myself as a thrower in high school. At that time I was more of a hybrid player, but when I got to the club scene they were more interested in getting people to play traditional roles. As far as my teammates considering me a thrower, I would say right away upon making the club team Goat in 2008, I was not the most naturally gifted [athlete], so it had to have been my throwing that got me on the team. From an opponent perspective, I would say around 2012 or 2013, when I started to be more of the central handler and get the first pass more consistently. Being known as a thrower, defenders will usually want to push you upfield and get you away from the disc, learning how to get open when they are trying to do this is the best thing to do and work on as a young handler, and also quite tough.
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?
TM: So I began playing ultimate in grade nine of high school. Our school was just starting its first ultimate team, and my sister, who is three years older, dragged me and a friend to the initial meeting. The rest, they say, is history. However, we had a bit of experience with it at summer camp when we were younger, but in the no-rules style that you see at summer camp. No real field restrictions, upwards of 15 on 15, the three step rule, etc. Not real ultimate, but an early exposure. What I really enjoyed was the disc golf course at our summer camp. They used ultimate discs so it was a great way to get that initial backhand form down. As for confidence, it would have been sometime in high school. My friends and I would spend lunch or spare periods just throwing and usually trying to bomb hucks further than each other. Then after school we would play urban disc golf around my parents’ place. I still have those two courses we crafted in my head and play them once or twice a year.
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 (on your team or on a top team that you watched) that you viewed as role models and aimed to emulate?
TM: One trick that helped me was learning to throw without moving your arm. You can even practice by holding your elbow with your off hand so that you can only use your wrist to throw. Obviously you can’t throw for distance but getting good snap and accuracy like this can go a long way. As for mentors, Tom Meyer was my high school coach. He won’t be known outside of Toronto, but he was the one that initially taught me the game and how to throw a forehand. When it came to perfecting my throwing, I tried to emulate two people. The first was Dime, aka former Rush Coach Evan Phillips. We played a couple years together on Goat, and he had tremendous powerful throws. He used to tell us to really squeeze the disc with your thumb on the forehand, even going so far as to bend the plastic! I also looked to [former Team Canada star] John Hassell. He was one of the best throwers I’ve ever seen. His ability to just make any throw and put them exactly where he wanted was unbelievable. It’s from him where I really learned that it is all wrist.
EL: Between the backhand, forehand, hammer, and scoober, which do you think is your best throw and which is your favorite throw?
TM: This is a tough one, and I think depending on the year I’ll go back and forth between backhand and forehand. I always feel confident in my backhand and it is my most consistent, but when my flick is dialed in I would say it is more lethal. I tend to throw a no-step forehand, so there is less of a tell. I do enjoy a good hammer and scoober but also think they get used as a crutch sometimes for people who can’t/won't break the mark. It makes life easier on a receiver to deliver the disc flat than inverted. As for my favorite, I would have to go with the I/O [inside/out] flick. Something about getting the perfect shape on that throw that is so satisfying.
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?
TM: Oh, tough one. Firstly I have to give it to Mark Lloyd. He’s caught a lot of my sketchier passes over the years and boosted my completion numbers. Having a receiver with his speed and ability in the air gives you a lot of confidence to put anything up. Next, I would have to say Cam [Harris]. The majority of throws I throw him are shorter passes but he just always gets open. The other team could know exactly what play we are doing and he still shakes the defender. That reliability is one reason our pull plays work so often.
Lastly, I’m torn between Izzy [Masek-Kelly] and [Andrew] Carroll. I’ll have to go with Izzy simply because we’ve played on O together longer. Carroll played D for many years before coming over to the O-line more recently. Much like I mentioned with Mark, Isaiah can bail you out of some bad throws/decisions! Having a big target like him gives you a lot more room for error. I can't remember what season it was that he hit the 50/50 club, but he was crazy good that year and should have gotten more recognition. He was catching everything. The other thing about all three guys mentioned here is their ability to throw after the catch as well. Defenders have to choose what to give them, the in or the deep. Made my job much easier when you have one of those options available for these guys.
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 Thomson' may be able to learn?
TM: Throw a lot is probably the best advice but something more technical is focus on spinning the disc more. This all comes from the wrist. There is a reason why big strong guys can’t just launch the disc way further than the skinny guys. It’s all about rotation and wrist snap. I mentioned above the holding your arm so only the wrist can move. Another trick is to throw as I/O as possible, especially with the flick. The number one struggle I see with people on the forehand is their release. Their hand often turns over and forces the disc to fall O/I. Working on that I/O, and I’m talking BIG, loopy I/O will train the wrist and hand to release the disc better and give you way more snap on the disc.
EL: Finishing with a couple of life questions, what's the most delicious thing you've cooked during the pandemic?
TM: Oh boy, I’ve been cooking a ton! Was just talking to a friend and mentioned I have yet to order food during the quarantine. A few weeks ago, I did a deli-style roast beef. Slow roasted in the oven all day. It was delicious! I also just baked a white chocolate glazed blueberry lime cake. It’s divine! Haven’t been doing a ton of baking but thought I’d treat myself. One other notable was a bacon-wrapped stuffed chicken. It’s amazing what you can do in the kitchen when you have unlimited time on your hands!
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?
TM: It’s really amazing how much you miss the little things once you can’t do them. I miss all my weekly activities: Tuesday trivia, rec league indoor ultimate, actual gym sessions with the guys...but most of all I miss playing hockey. Was playing three times a week before the closure so it was a big shock when that went away in mid-march. Not to mention watching hockey and other professional sports. Hope they can figure a way to get back to it. Would make evenings much more enjoyable if we had sports to watch! Can only watch grainy classic NHL games so many nights in a row.