Playing and Perspective

Last week I returned from France after co-captaining the first ever Ireland Masters ultimate frisbee team at the World Championships of Beach Ultimate (#wcbu2017). There’s lots in that sentence to explain to the uninitiated...

Ultimate frisbee = a sport played with 2 teams, 1 frisbee and 0 refs.

http://wcbu2017.org = a 5 v 5 game played on a beach.

Masters = over 32s.

France = cheese eating surrender monkeys.

Due to a numerical anomaly we were only belatedly accepted to play in the tournament a matter of months before it was to start. All other teams were notified last October. We expedited the selection process and crammed in as much playing time together as our small squad of 11 could manage before heading off to Royan in the west of France. The rush did not detract from the excitement. I’d never pulled on a green jersey before, nevermind taking the joint lead of the national team. This was going to be fun.

My co-captain was my best friend Mark. We took up the game on the same day in UCD during fresher’s week in 2000. Our frisbee careers had taken us in different directions since then (that’s code for him being better than me… and me playing while living in Australia) so this felt like an overdue joint venture.

The tournament started with an opening procession of all the countries, in alphabetical order, gleefully marching through the town before being introduced by the MC into the newly erected stadium on the beach. It’s cheesy but the pageantry of colour and cultures creates an atmosphere that makes you realise you’re representing your country and gets you pumped for games to begin.

My favourite part about playing worlds events is the coming together of the different cultures. You might get a kiss from a French player, a stern handshake from a Russian or an energetic high 5 from a North American all meant with the same sincerity.

We played 12 games during the week in temperatures that reached 38 degrees with sand so hot that blisters blossomed on the feet making sand socks indispensable. We finished 11th out of 14 teams in our division. The spirit for the week was amongst the best I’ve seen and that was reflected in the enjoyability of all the games. We evolved as a team over the course of the week. From the disappointment of a very poor performance against Germany, to great wins against India, Singapore and Russia, as well as the compulsory ‘heroic Irish loss’ which came in our televised match against, the eventual silver medalists, France (you can watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shHyui1gIbw).    

Our whole team was effusive with excitement about the whole occasion, but for Mark the event took on extra significance. I’ve been playing frisbee in different countries for 17 years and have rarely met anyone more well known or popular than my vice, I mean, co-captain ;) This is another family for him that he felt comfortable enough with to share his recent personal loss. Before the tournament Mark had yellow wristbands made up with the the words ‘be strong and be yourself #LianeUp’ written on them. After every game he took a minute to tell the opposition about Liane and how he derived enormous strength from her. He then gave out a wristband and a hug to all the players on the other team asking them to draw on this should their resolve be tested. He was quick to emphasise the positivity of it, and all the teams we played against took it in the spirit it was meant. Some players knew Mark well, others not at all, but what struck me was that on every occasion along with the positive sentiment there was a sanguine emotional connection. I remember a guy on the Swiss team, who Mark had never met, crying. Everyone has their own things happening in their life. This was a beautiful moment at the end of every hard fought battle in which the game was put into perspective and we came together in solidarity.

Tuesday the 20th was our third day’s play, and more saliently, was Liane’s two month anniversary. No better way to pay tribute to her than to have an international gathering by the sea, play her favourite song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-diB65scQU) and have a dip.

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Our final game was against a tough Russian side that had beaten us in our previous encounter. We came from behind to grind out an epic sudden death victory 9-8 that included two marathon points, one that lasted over 10 minutes. It was a fitting finale. We’d developed as a team to be able to beat teams that at the start of the week had our number. It was an incredible privilege to be able to captain the team and I was immensely proud of all our players. Two big nights of partying and watching the finals capped a stellar week. Not a bad way for Ireland to announce itself on the global geriatric ultimate scene.