San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ultimate Frisbee Draws Passionate Followers

“Vamos equipo, pases cortos!” (Let’s go team, short passes!) shouts Martín Collado of Heredia as we begin to run toward our opposition. The seven of us galumph along the grass like a linear stampede, in search of our prey.

My prey, or “mark,” is Jenny Arce of Santo Domingo de Heredia, whom I’m responsible for marking closely, trying to swat down or intercept the Frisbee, or disc, when it’s passed to her. And it frequently is.

At 21, she’s a few years younger than I, but among the fastest, most reliable Ultimate Frisbee players who come to play under the lights at the outdoor fields of Santa Rosa, a small community within Santa Domingo de Heredia, north of San José, every Monday and Thursday night for two hours of muscle burn, sweat and good camaraderie.

It’s known commonly as just “Ultimate.” And it’s definitely ultimate.

A few years ago, Arce hadn’t touched a Frisbee. She happened to be doing exercises one night near the field during one of the group’s lively sessions, and was initially reluctant to try the sport, much like other newcomers over the years when first asked to play.

But she quickly fell for the sport that combines competitiveness, sportsmanship and strategy with an element of grace. The honesty and good nature of the sport is known in Ultimate circles as the “spirit of the game.”

Arce was initially attracted to the “hippie” sport’s welcoming nature (especially among a mostly male group) and quickly picked up the game’s basic rules, which are simply: catch, pass before moving your feet, then run and get open for another pass. She soon fell to the sport’s addictive energy, and it wasn’t long before she recruited a few of her friends.

“Now I love the group; it’s a group of athletes and friends as well,” Arce says. “They always want to share (the game) with new people.”

The evening romp is a mix of Gringos and Ticos. As few as 14 and as many as 30 players flock to the field, a large, grassy spread split into two soccer fields, trimmed with metal fencing. Most nights also bring many locals out to chat and mill around the field’s energy,  as well as some teenagers who enjoy the free entertainment and occasionally cheer the players they know.

The players are a mix of ages, genders and personalities, including a few local college students, North American students in the country on study-abroad programs, middle-aged Ticos who’ve just gotten off work and even the passing traveler in search of a good workout.

Early Days

Kevin Ludeke, Fico Chacón, Víctor León, Oscar Planco, Jean Carlos Tellini and Martín Collado are the older mainstays in the group, which, save Ludeke, had no prior experience with the disc and relied on the North Americans to explain the game. But now, when they come to the fields with their hollers and energy, focus and advice, you’d think they’d grown up with the game.

It was “big time” Ultimate player Garrett Crosby, from the U.S. state of Wisconsin, who moved down to Costa Rica on a teaching job and set up the game with some colleagues in 1991, on a soccer field behind what is today the American Outlet Mall in the eastern suburb of San Pedro. The initial group of teachers began to recruit anyone who wanted to play. For the next decade the group held onto a core of regulars, with gradually more foreigners joining after hearing about the league, which is advertised in various Costa Rican publications.

Collado, 38, came out for the very first game in 1991. He remembers some initial frustration with the sport.

“The first time, none of us knew how to play; there were like five Gringos who explained to us how to play,” he says. “It was frustrating because I dropped almost every disc. They didn’t want to pass it to me.”

But Collado quickly got some glue on his fingers and, having developed his own skills and game strategy, now enjoys the role of mentor and motivator on the field.

“It’s a great sport,” he asserts. “I have two motivations that (keep me going): exercise to keep my health good, and motivating old players and teaching new ones.”

Collado says he’s seen hundreds of players come and go in the nearly 16 years he’s played with the group at various locales throughout the Central Valley. Some brought good friendships, while others have been an inspiration to the game.

“I try to get people to play at a better level,” he says. “I’ve seen some really good play, so I know the level we can play at. I hope more young people keep coming so it can go on.”

Anyone Can Play

The fact that anyone and everyone can play has likely been the reason this relatively obscure sport has thrived in its own right for so many years.

This egalitarian nature, along with easyto-learn rules, has drawn thousands to the sport all over the globe since its inception in the United States in 1968 – the same year the flying disc itself was patented by creative inventor Ed Headrick, according to the Ultimate Players Association Web site ( Joel Silver created the game with his high school newspaper in Maplewood, New Jersey, in the northeastern United States. Despite starting the game merely for some after-school exercise, Silver would later refer to the game as the “ultimate sports experience.”

“It’s physically very demanding; you are TIRED after a game of Ultimate,” says Ludeke, 45, an expat living in the western suburb of Escazú.

Ludeke got addicted to the sport in an intramural league in college. After graduating he came to serve in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, and took some time off from the sport. During his hiatus, he met his wife Amy, whom he’s since recruited to the sport.

On average, about 15-20 players come out for the Monday and Thursday two-hour grind, leaving usually no more than five players on the sidelines as “substitutes” – coveted spots, especially in the last half-hour of the game, in which competitive spirit and a passion for that last “huck” (long pass) or “layout” (dive for the disc) keep exhausted legs moving.

“It’s an incredible mish-mash of different games,” Ludeke says. “It’s like basketball because you pick and roll. You can’t use bodies (to bump other players) so you cycle out to cut in and pivot.”

The game movement is similar to soccer and basketball, in that where you are on the field is dependent on where the ball, or disc, is.

After catching the disc, the player has only 10 seconds to throw it again.He’s forced to think fast and scan the field for an open player, usually having no more than a few seconds before a defenseman is in his face, frantically waving his arms in an attempt to block the disc.

End of the Night

Shouts fill the field: “Open! Outside! Here!”

The team is about to score – which happens when one player catches a pass in the goal zone, a 23-meter area marked off with cones on both ends of the field. The teams usually finish at least one game – the first to 21 points wins – and then continue playing until the bright lights turn to darkness. It’s usually about 10:30 p.m. when the lights are shut off. Their paid time is up. Exhausted bodies trudge off the field. Spiritually strong but physically weak high-fives and “good game” kudos abound.

But the group’s time together doesn’t end here. “¡Cervezas, cervezas!” a few cheer. It’s a post-game ritual to refresh the body with a few Imperial beers. For as much as a few hours after the game, at least 15 players hang around to joke and tell stories, while some shamelessly sing karaoke.

For the hundreds who’ve at one time run through the mud on the Santa Rosa field, learned a few new pachuco (street slang) words and enjoyed some post-game beers, there are many memories to hold onto.

In the meantime, that dedicated core group will continue playing and recruiting new players to the fields.

“Come out and try it,” Collado encourages. “Don’t worry about making mistakes. We’ll explain it to you.”

And so, in this little community in Heredia, “ the spirit of the game” continues.


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