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Playing Ultimate Frisbee in Hampton Roads teaches more than just how to throw a disc

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Playing Ultimate Frisbee in Hampton Roads teaches more than just how to throw a disc

By Sonia Rao
Originally published by The Virginian-Pilot

The first thing I did when I found out I had gotten a summer internship at The Virginian-Pilot was to Google “Hampton Roads Ultimate Frisbee.”

I didn’t find much. A summer league in Newport News that played once a week. A women’s team in Richmond that seemed pretty good. A Facebook group with people — mostly men — posting about beach pickup.

I play Ultimate Frisbee in college at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

It’s more competitive than people think and, no, it is not the same as disc golf: The game calls for two teams, seven people each. A team scores a point by catching the Frisbee in the end zone. When you are holding the disc, you can’t run with it; you have to pass it to another teammate within 10 seconds. It’s like a combination of soccer, football and basketball, except with a plastic disc.

My college team has made it to nationals the past few years. I have teammates who have played on Team USA at the USAU World Championships.

Frisbee is addictive. That’s what I tell my friends to explain why its players care so much. I know people who play on three or four teams, who take an extra year of classes to play for their college teams longer, who care about Frisbee more than anything else.

I hadn’t played competitive Ultimate in more than a year because of the pandemic. So, when I first moved to Virginia Beach, I drove an hour and a half to Richmond on Sundays to try out for the women’s team, Rebellion. I still remember the look our internship coordinator, Sean Kennedy, had when I told him. He looked at me like I was being ridiculous. Maybe I was, but I was also desperate to play.

My first tryout came on my first Sunday living in Virginia. I met a girl who had gone to UNC and played for Pleiades, UNC’s women’s team, a few years ago. We had more than 20 mutual friends, and I excitedly shared updates on the lives of people she hadn’t seen in years.

At my first summer league game in Newport News, Izzy, another girl I had met at Rebellion tryouts, was on my team. We started carpooling to Richmond together and made plans to hang out outside of practice.

I met someone who had coached one of my college roommates, Theresa, when she was in high school in Connecticut.

I had been away from North Carolina for a week and had already found so many connections to people I loved back home. It was the first time in Virginia I felt like I had found another place I could call home.

For as long as I’ve played Frisbee, I’ve played only with women’s teams, like the one in Richmond. I was lucky to play in an Ultimate community in North Carolina that put a strong emphasis on building women’s Ultimate programs.

In Hampton Roads, there’s only one option for women: playing on a mixed team of men and women. There’s a separate men’s team, but not enough women to sustain a competitive team. Playing mixed was something foreign, and I wasn’t sure I would like it, so I told myself I’d just keep driving up to Richmond every Sunday.

Then someone I had met at league texted me to come practice for a new mixed club team, Brackish, in Hampton Roads. I was nervous but thought I would give it a try.

After a few weeks of practices, I decided to go to a tournament with them in Charlotte. That weekend was the best weekend I’d had in so long.

There’s nothing like a tournament weekend: The hours-long drive, chatting about meaningless topics with teammates you don’t know very well. Playing board games in the hotel room at night. Waking up before the sun has risen, stumbling wearily to the fields, warming up with the morning dew on the grass. Playing four games in a row, tired, sweaty, sore and happy. The chemistry you build with your teammates the more you play together. Making a defensive play that the sideline goes wild for. Throwing a perfect throw for a score and running to hug your teammate who caught it in the end zone. Afterward, going around in a circle and sharing all the cool plays you saw one another make that day. Dinner at a Mexican restaurant, where the teammates you just met surprise you with a flan for being the “MVP of the Day.”

And then, the best part — doing it all over again on Sunday.

At the Charlotte tournament, I made new friends and reunited with old ones — high school teammates I hadn’t seen in years, college teammates who had come to watch. We hugged, caught up on the sidelines of games, guarded each other during play.

It was the second time this summer I felt like I was home.

These three months have passed in a beautiful, Frisbee-filled blur.

It’s been the little things. Saturday morning practices at Jeff Robertson Park in Norfolk, Thursday night pods at Mount Trashmore, and Monday night summer league games. People on my summer league team jumping, screaming and hugging each other when we won our first game.

People ask me why I spend hours on a sport few outside of this world care about. I tell them I do it for the people, the sense of community.

I’ve been the youngest person on every team I’ve played for this summer. Everyone else is a “real adult”: They’ve graduated college, own homes, have “real” jobs and long-term partners. But they still welcomed me. I’ve watched my first post-quarantine movie, “A Quiet Place II,” with them. Gone to the Rainbow Cactus Club to see a drag show. My college friend Theresa came to visit, and I reunited her with her high school coach, whom I’ve been playing with this summer.

I love North Carolina. I’ve lived there my whole life. It’s home to my family, my closest friends. When I moved to Virginia for the summer, I didn’t expect that I wouldn’t want to leave by the end.

With a large military population, so many people are in Hampton Roads for a few years, leave and never look back. At first, I thought that was sad — what’s the point of making friends just to leave them?

Then I remembered the Charlotte tournament, where I saw so many old friends. I realized I have 20 more people I can look forward to seeing at tournaments and maybe even playing with on another team one day.

This summer, I drilled to improve my quickness and agility. I practiced throwing farther and with sharper angles. But the best thing I learned wasn’t Frisbee-related at all. It was that no matter where I go, thanks to the group of people who share a love for running around with a white plastic disc, I will always have a community.

In the fall, I’m not going back to school. Instead, I’m taking a gap year. In a few weeks, I’m moving to Puerto Rico, where I’ll be working at a bed and breakfast in the middle of a rainforest. After that, I’m not sure. The next year will be full of uncertainty — new places, new people, new experiences.

But there’s one thing of which I am certain. When I board my plane in September, I’m packing a Frisbee. I hope it’ll lead to more new friends and more places I’ll be able to call home.

Photos by Mike Caudill/The Virginian-Pilot.