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Ultimate Ultimate

A rising sport embraces the joy of play

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Blond athlete in cleats jumping in the air to catch a frisbee in front of a metallic backdrop

Jaden Busch ’23, ’24MS

The image of a frisbee flying through the air might, for the uninitiated, conjure a leisurely pre-picnic activity. But watching one game of ultimate frisbee (or, simply, ultimate) disabused this novice viewer of any such assumptions. This fast-paced competition is in no way akin to the friendly back-and-forth I am used to.

“Yeah, we get that a lot,” says Isaac Kaplan ’24, co-captain of the UMass ZooDisc division 1 team (second in the country at the 2023 nationals, by the way). “Honestly, the best way to understand ultimate is to watch it.”

When you do, feats of athleticism are definitely on display. An expert flick sends the disc skating impossibly past the waving arms of a defender, where it crisply meets a receiver who has run into position just in time. A player dives into the grass to catch the disc before it hits the ground, coming up mud-slicked and grinning. Spectators may pick up on elements of football (you score by catching the disc in the end zone) and soccer (players are constantly on the move, playing offense and defense, and the disc turns over frequently) in this non-contact sport. Catch the disc and you’re immobilized—no traveling. You can pivot and find someone to throw to (while defenders are actively trying to block you), but you have to let the disc sail before the defender counts to 10, or else suffer a turnover for a “stall.”


A student athlete in a Zoola uniform holds a frisbee above their head, standing in front of a metallic background.

Sabrina Erickson ’26

And yes, it’s the defender’s count that counts—because in ultimate, there’s no referee. Herein lies the special magic of ultimate, something called the “spirit of the game.” Players are solely responsible for ensuring fair play and following and enforcing the rules, even at national tournaments. Competition is intense, but respect between players and “the basic joy of play” are always paramount.

“Spirit of the game is what upholds ultimate,” emphasizes Abby Scheinberg ’24, former captain of the Zoola team. “It’s what makes ultimate work, that we’re all going to go out there and try our hardest, but at the same time, we’re all going to be respectful of each other and hold ourselves accountable.” When every team member is explicitly responsible for creating the culture of the sport, she points out, “it creates a sense of camaraderie within the ultimate community.”

“At the most essential level,” Kaplan adds, the spirit of the game means “Always have fun. Have respect for your opponents. Be a good person.”

It’s no wonder ultimate has seen huge growth in the 55 years since its invention at a high school in Maplewood, New Jersey. The World Flying Disc Federation estimates that between five and eight million people play the sport worldwide. Ultimate also prioritizes inclusion—mixed-gender teams are common, and openness to beginners is a hallmark of the sport. “A lot of women start playing when they come to college,” Scheinberg says, pointing out that UMass clubs offer multiple opportunities to play, from beginner level all the way up to nationally ranked. UMass has had a proud tradition of ultimate since the sport’s early days, with its first club founded in 1982.

Many players find ultimate in a search for a positive sports culture, Kaplan says. In other sports he played, “coaches would just scream,” he remembers. “You realize, this is not necessarily a healthy way to want to improve.” What would it be like to improve your performance out of self-motivation and dedication to the game? “If you’re really working hard, that’s your personal motivation. And I think that’s a pretty beautiful thing where you can really show yourself how far your own drive takes you.”

Raw Materials

Huge thanks to the many ultimate players who came out for our photo shoots at one of their evening practices. To show just how far outside the lines these players can go, we photographed using a high backdrop of crinkled mylar (which also helped reflect the lights). Some fun from behind-the-scenes:

Candice Pinault Novak preps the mylar backdrop

That mylar isn’t going to crinkle itself! Editor Candice Pinault Novak preps the backdrop.

Ari Jewell tests the photo concept

Editorial and Production Coordinator Ari Jewell tests the photo concept.

Thanks to Asa who threw the disc about a million times so we could capture some amazing catches!

What a night! Incredible catches—caught by photographer Lisa Beth Anderson:

See more action shots of these incredible athletes on the Zoola and ZooDisc Instagram channels.