World’s biggest beach Ultimate tournament returns to Wildwood

After pandemic’s interruption, flying disc-throwers are drawn by big beach, willing city and ‘spirit of the game’
Credit: (Jon Hurdle)
One player looks for a receiver during a game.

John Bagley and a half-dozen of his friends drove 24 hours from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Wildwood to compete for the first time in the city’s 29th annual Beach Ultimate Tournament, an offbeat gathering of Ultimate players that claims to be the largest event of its kind in the world.

Bagley’s team, the 12-strong Tulsa Variants, was among the furthest of the 208 teams and 2,000 competitors who traveled here to spend the weekend tossing white discs to each other on Wildwood’s wide, flat beach. (For those unfamiliar, the game of Ultimate — founded in South Orange-Maplewood a half-century ago — is a seven-on-seven field sport that’s a mix of soccer, basketball and football, all with a flying disc serving as the ball. The beach version plays with four to a side.)

This year’s event drew only about half its usual numbers because until June, it was uncertain if the state would lift COVID-19 restrictions in time to allow the tournament to happen. But the enthusiasm of those who did make it was undimmed.

“We felt like it was time to finally make it to what in our minds was a bucket-list tournament,” said Bagley, 31, a contractor who installs windows and doors.

Asked what makes Wildwood a “bucket-list tournament,” Bagley cited the number of players, the quality of the beach and the “aesthetics” of Wildwood’s beach-town attractions, including rollercoasters and amusement arcades.

Those qualities, he said, aren’t necessarily present at other Ultimate tournaments closer to home. “Being from the South and being next to Texas, you run into different scenarios in competition,” Bagley said, declining to elaborate.

Respecting ‘spirit of the game’

The tournament, which was canceled last year because of the pandemic, pursues what its players call the “spirit of the game,” a code of friendly rivalry that relies on players making their own calls for foul and out-of-bounds, avoids having referees, and welcomes individual quirks like pineapple-shaped backpacks or team names such as Sand in Bad Places and All Work and No Plague.

“It’s competitive playing but not at the cost of cheating or anything,” said Jeff “Uhle” Uhlenberg, 62, who has been playing Ultimate since he was 12 and was appearing at the Wildwood event for the Wet and Wild Nomads, a Philadelphia-based team that included some of the older players in the tournament.

“We self-referee fouls,” he said. “It’s put on us to be policing our own game, and that’s a unique thing in sport.”

Credit: (Jon Hurdle)
Jeff ‘Uhle’ Uhlenberg, 62, has been playing Ultimate for decades.

Uhlenberg, wearing a frayed, tie-dye tank top, said he’s watched the generations come up, and is happy that all embrace its spirit even though most players are now decades younger than he is.

“I’ve been playing this so long that people who are playing were little babies when I started playing,” said Uhlenberg, a metallurgical engineer from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. “Now, they’re playing against me, and they’re taller than me but it doesn’t matter.”

With now millions of players across school, amateur and professional leagues, Ultimate has grown to be a global sport and is even a candidate for the Summer Olympics. But whether young or old, many Ultimate players avoid taking themselves too seriously. At Wildwood, they included Graham Turner, a 26-year-old high school science teacher from Washington, D.C., who was playing for Stabmow, a reversal of Wombats, the official mascot of Skidmore College, New York, where he and his teammates graduated a few years ago.

Wide range of players

“It invites a wide range of players, intermediate players and those that maybe used to play at a high level, now just want to have fun with their old friends,” said Turner, wearing red, heart-shaped sunglasses and a multi-colored headband. “It welcomes a very wide array of player and background.”

Credit: (Jon Hurdle)
Graham Turner, a player from Washington, DC

Turner admitted he was a little concerned about attending an event with more than 2,000 participants amid a national rise in the delta variant of COVID-19 but assumed his teammates were fully vaccinated, and noted that any chance of transmission would be lowered by the fact that the event, held on a sunny, breezy day, was outside.

While very few players were wearing masks, there were signs that people were still avoiding perceived risks of catching the virus, said Tim Wagner, a co-founder of the event, which was first staged in 1992. He said he had noticed people doing “air high-fives” and elbow bumps rather than shaking hands at the end of their games.

“It is a gathering of a lot of people but a lot are being safe,” he said.

Despite lingering COVID-19 concerns, the town was happy to welcome back the tournament after its sudden absence last year for the first time in almost three decades, said Ryan Troiano, a member of City of Wildwood Fire Department, which provides emergency medical service for the event.

“This is what people need for their mental health and their well-being,” he said. “They need to get out and run around and be around other people. It’s a great thing to see everyone interacting.”

Good for business

Besides, the sudden influx of thousands of Ultimate players is good for business, and their event is normally one of the biggest hosted by the South Jersey beach resort, Troiano said. Despite their reduced numbers this year, some players could not find hotel rooms in the town, and had to pay high prices to stay, even off the island.

“The town itself has been really busy; it’s hard to get lodging,” he said. “It brings all different people from different areas. When they’re not on the beach playing, they are out there spending money in bars, restaurants, convenience stores.”

Credit: (Jon Hurdle)
High-fives mark a spirit of friendly rivalry between two teams after a game at this year’s Ultimate tournament in Wildwood.

The event peaked at about 450 teams in 2018, and drew competitors from as far away as Colombia, Costa Rica, Britain and the Philippines. Its popularity is based in part on the unusually large Wildwood beach which allows hundreds to play at the same time, and to the enthusiasm of the City of Wildwood, said Mike Adlis, tournament director and a co-founder.

“The city has been very cooperative with helping us expand over the years,” he said. “It helps us keep the community tight, and that draws people in.”

The tournament usually divides teams into the highly competitive, and those who are less so, but erased that distinction this year because of the reduced numbers, Adlis said.

Stephanie Shealy, 27, a pharmacist from Salt Lake City, said the tournament was a chance to catch up with 12 other members of the Crusty Cocks team, who played together as undergraduates at the University of South Carolina.

From as far away as Utah and Oklahoma

“I came here from Utah so I don’t get to see these guys all the time,” she said. “It’s really an opportunity for us to get together and play the game that we love. That’s how we became friends.”

The team’s name is an adaptation of the Gamecocks, the official mascot of the University of South Carolina, and reflects the advancing age of its members, said Jack Dowling, 26, a physical therapy student in Nashville, who drove 15 hours to attend the Wildwood event for the first time.

For the Tulsa Variants, the team name was chosen because of its topical connotations, which nevertheless are open to interpretation, said Bagley of Oklahoma.

“You can take that how you will,” he said. “It’s whether we’re a different strand of frisbee player or a different variant of a team. We’ve got a lot of different people on our team; it’s kind of hodge-podge.”

After the first day’s competition had “checked all the boxes” for him, Bagley said he will likely be back next year but it’s less certain that he will do the 24-hour drive again. “That’s debatable,” he said.

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