Competition with a catch

Ultimate, a soccer-basketball-football hybrid, is drawing athletes who want a good workout - without unnecessary roughness

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June 24, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

Julie Caputo sprints gracefully as she and teammates flick a disc down field during one of South Baltimore Pickup Ultimate's twice-weekly games in Latrobe Park.

In line for a pass, Caputo, 24, plucks the disc from the air, pivots with one foot planted, and sends the disc again in a swift, graceful movement toward the end zone.

The small, sprightly woman plays Ultimate four to five times a week. She loves the running, she loves the strategy, but it is Ultimate's spirit of fair play that "I love the most," Caputo says.

Invented by high school students in New Jersey in 1968, Ultimate is a mash-up of soccer, basketball and football played with a disc - typically a Frisbee by Wham-O or an official model by Discraft licensed by the Ultimate Players Association.

Ultimate, though, has more in common with the Golden Rule than rules concerning offensive pass interference or penalty kicks. Physical contact is prohibited, and referees are nonexistent. Players are responsible for their own foul calls and must resolve their own disputes, although trained "observers" may be asked by players to make rulings during official Ultimate events.

As it has clung to its countercultural origins, Ultimate's popularity has snowballed at every level of play among enthusiasts who welcome a kinder, gentler breed of competition. A report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association estimates that last year 4 million people in the United States played Ultimate at least on a casual basis.

"We've really been seeing unprecedented growth," says Ryan John, spokesman for the Ultimate Players Association, which has 25,000 members.

"It's a great sport," he says. "You really need a disc to play and some people and some land. It's easy for people to get to a level where they can compete. At the same time, there's a lot of room for growth."

Youth membership in the Ultimate association has multiplied from a handful to 4,600 in five years, says John, who attributes the growth to Ultimate's emphasis on conflict resolution among players, as opposed to the meddling of bystanders.

Kids whose parents are weary of competitive meltdowns at athletic events, college students off the varsity track, and adults (young and not so young) seeking a good workout have flocked to Ultimate for its physical challenges as well as the premium it places on fun and camaraderie.

Steve Kopecky founded South Baltimore Pickup Ultimate more than five years ago. It is "growing by leaps and bounds, especially as more young people are moving to Baltimore," says Kopecky, a 33-year-old environmental planner with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Most regulars discovered "SOBO Ultimate" through its Web site ( On temperate evenings, as many as 40 men and women may turn out for the coed game (Sundays and Wednesdays), Kopecky says.

In Baltimore and surrounding counties, there are opportunities for every level of play, from casual pickup games to league teams assembled through a draft process to out-of-town tournaments. In winter, there are indoor teams. The Ultimate Players Association ( and the Central Maryland Ultimate Association ( each lists local leagues and pickup games on their Web sites.

For novices, community pickup games are perhaps the most welcoming way to ease into Ultimate and learn basic skills. Throughout the Baltimore region, more than a dozen pickup games take place weekly.

There's nothing stopping Ultimate newbies from forming their own pickup game. To get started, they may refer to the Ultimate Players Association's Web site for the game's "10 Simple Rules" as well as advice on finding local leagues and starting a team.

Those who shy away from team sports may be pleasantly surprised by Ultimate's decidedly alternative take on what team competition means. "A lot of Ultimate players aren't team people," says Jerry Rhee, a regular at the Latrobe Park pickup games and a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "This particular game I like; it's very friendly, yet [involves] very athletic and skilled players."

Ultimate's reputation as "a hippie sport" belies its physical demands, John says. "The people who play today practice just like anybody else would for any sport, by hitting the track, lifting weights, doing speed training."

In keeping with its free spirit, Ultimate, at its most fundamental, is an inexpensive sport. "You can get started [with] a $10 disc," John says. "Or, you can buy a $200 pair of cleats."

South Baltimore Pickup Ultimate used to be free, Kopecky says. Now, he asks players for a $20 voluntary contribution for each season to pay for field rentals and lights, he says. "We only collect money if we need it."

Win or lose, there are rewards for joining the Ultimate community. Caputo, a former sprinter and long-distance runner, started an Ultimate team as an undergraduate at Providence College in Rhode Island.

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