by Mike Nikomarov (Ultitude)
Potchefstroom, South Africa (17 September 2016)
A seasonally sunny Saturday took us on a 90 minute south-westerly drive from the northern Johannesburg suburbs to the town of Potchefstroom. “Potch”, as is it called, was a one-time capital of South Africa, now known for its agriculture and universities. The largest of these, the North-West University, was host to the second annual Ultimate Frisbee tournament – he objective of our trip. A church and the city’s local club NWUltimate join forces once a year to fundraise and spread the reach of Ultimate Frisbee. As a result, the tournament attracts many athletic but novice men and women to the sport on this day; the opportunity to bring our Ultimate experience and grow the sport in South Africa was a major reason for our journey. We also wanted to have fun!
The 2016 tournament included seven teams, with a 5-on- 5 mixed format. The Afrikaans pop-music blaring through speakers throughout the day and the smell of boerewors set a unique environment. Games were brief, but plentiful. The tournament kicked off with a 15 minute summary of the basic rules, for those who ever played Ultimate Frisbee before, no less a competitive tournament –an example of how new many of the players were to the sport.
Experienced players, such as us, were allocated among teams with the least experienced players. Ellie, from Skyveld, and myself were assigned to team “Fervor”, whose logo was Popeye the Sailor with the Latin theme of semper fidelis. Among our six other team members were Franco, Louis and Carla, all from the university, but none were regular players. As result, we struggled mightily at the start of the day, winning just one of our first four games. Drops, poor throws, ill-advised hucks, miscommunication and poor defense all featured prominently in our struggles. The gust-like windy conditions did not make the situation easier for the new players.
Despite all this, I was amazed that our record had no impact on the optimism to keep playing and desire to learn and improve from my less experienced teammates. They did not grow frustrated but instead asked what they could do better. They inquired where to run on defense, where to stand on offense, how to avoid travelling and what rules were relevant in certain situations. Those early games also allowed them to better understand their own capabilities and those of their teammates. “We are going into the wind, so do not run far,” they started to remind each other, recognizing that the wind would not allow long throws. Their confidence in their abilities rose in parallel with their knowledge of the rules. Male players started to run more aggressively to the disk; female players started to position themselves strategically on defense. A certain level of cockiness emerged, with end zone scores followed by “soccer-styled” celebratory posturing and dancing and a war cry.
The increased awareness, confidence and chemistry started to translate into victories. After the poor showing in our first four games, we won two in a row to secure a sport in the semi-finals. One of those games featured a pivotal moment when our team scored four consecutive points despite both Ellie and me sitting on the side-line. In six games, we went from a collection of novices and two experienced players to a team where everyone could play, defend and score. The semi-final was our seventh game of the day, and we could not have won without each player on the team playing, and playing effectively.
This evolution of the Fervor is an allegory for what we are trying to achieve in the South African athletics community overall. We have a small group of experienced Ultimate Frisbee players, primarily concentrated in the largest urban centers, and some of us already compete at the international level. At the same time, South Africa has young population of millions of athletic, sports-oriented women and men that are keen to learn new sports. At clubs, at universities and at high schools, the experienced players among us can continue to set the tone, while more and more of the population gains the awareness and confidence to play Ultimate. We will back next year and expect to see many new and some returning faces on the fields again to continue the development of the game in South Africa.
Oh, and as for the final, Fervor won. The 90 minute drive back seemed much quicker.