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. There is "less finger-pointing," John says. "You have to be honest with yourself, or you won't be looked upon favorably by [your teammates] or your opponents."
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 -- and a social network -- 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 (soboultimate.com). 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 (upa.org) and the Central Maryland Ultimate Association (md-ulti mate.org) 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."
Ultimate regular Rob Wahl, 28, says the sport's self-officiating requirement took some getting used to. When he played soccer and basketball, he and his teammates took advantage of unrecognized fouls. "If the ref didn't call it; it didn't happen," he says. Ultimate's emphasis on honesty was a "hard transition," Wahl says. "It's difficult sometimes to make the right call."
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.
When she moved to Baltimore two years ago to take a job as a special-education teacher in Baltimore County, Caputo used Google to find her way to the South Baltimore pickup games, which often conclude with post-play gatherings at Rafters, a Fort Avenue restaurant and bar. "My social life has evolved out of the people I've met here," she says.
A friend put it well at the pickup group's recent fifth anniversary party at Rafters. As Caputo relates it, he explained to a non-Ultimate player the beauty of the game and its spirit. For its plucky band of regulars, South Baltimore Ultimate, he said, "has become our family."
Basic Ultimate Rules
The field is a rectangular shape with end zones at each end. A regulation field is 70 yards by 40 yards, with end zones 25 yards deep.
Each point begins with both teams lining up on the front of their respective end-zone line. The defense throws the disc to the offense. A regulation game has seven players per team.
Each time the offense completes a pass in the defense's end zone, the offense scores a point. Play is initiated after each score.
The disc may be advanced in any direction when a player completes a pass to a teammate. Players may not run with the disc. The person with the disc has 10 seconds to throw the disc.
When a pass is not completed, the defense immediately takes possession of the disc and becomes the offense.
Players not in the game may replace players in the game after a score and during an injury timeout.
No physical contact is allowed between players.
When a player initiates contact on another player, a foul occurs. When a foul disrupts possession, the play resumes as if the possession was retained. If the player committing the foul disagrees with the foul call, the play is redone.
Players are responsible for their own foul and line calls.
Ultimate stresses sportsmanship and fair play. Competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of respect between players, adherence to the rules and the basic joy of play.
[Source: The Ultimate Players Association Web site (upa.org)]