After decades of being thought of as a pseudo-sport for longhairs, ultimate Frisbee is attracting elite athletes who are landing professional contracts. The hero of this new breed is Beau Kittredge, who looks like an NFL wide receiver, sprints like an Olympian, and jumps like Jordan.
It all starts with the Catch. This is the origin story—when Beau Kittredge separates himself from the pack and becomes just Beau in ultimate circles. Watch the video at normal speed and you almost miss it. But slow it down and you can see the moment unfold. A player in a yellow jersey throws the disc half the length of the field—some 35 yards. One of his teammates is chasing it down, running at full speed, stride for stride with a defender in a black shirt and white baseball cap. They close in on the disc as it arcs and floats down. Then, suddenly, another player in yellow appears—Kittredge. He’s taller than the others and moving faster, but he’s out of position, the defender blocking his path. He has no chance. Kittredge jumps anyway, and an astonishing thing happens: his legs are now on either side of the white baseball hat. At the peak of his leap, he catches the disc, then lands in front of the man who, a half-second before, he was behind. He pauses a beat, then, as surprised as everyone else, turns to the sideline and asks, “Did I go over him?”
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The play happened in 2006, two years after Kittredge led the University of Colorado ultimate team to its first national collegiate championship. At six-foot-four and 205 pounds, with a 39-inch vertical leap and a 400 time of 47.4 seconds, he was the archetype of a new kind of athlete that now increasingly defines the sport. In recent years, a game that used to be confused with that thing you play with dogs has undergone a significant transformation. Universities are pouring tens of thousands into ultimate programs for both men and women, while a new pro league has spawned teams in 24 cities across the United States. Some seven million people play ultimate worldwide.
For more than a decade, Kittredge has been the sport’s Michael Jordan, winning championships and capturing MVP awards. At 34, he remains the most dominant player, though a younger generation of rising stars are poised to surpass him. They train like Olympians, many following regimens that Kittredge pioneered.
When Kittredge made the Catch, he was seen as the culmination of decades of growing athleticism in the sport. Today we know better. He was a glimpse of its future.
Every sport needs a legendary founder, its James Naismith, and ultimate’s was Joel Silver, the Hollywood producer who would give the world Lethal Weapon and The Matrix. In the summer of 1968, Silver was a brash high school student from Jersey whose parents sent him to smart-kid summer camp at a prep school in western Massachusetts. There, on the campus of Mount Hermon, behind an imposing gray dorm that looked like it could have been built by Josef Stalin, was a slightly elevated field where a counselor named Jared Kass taught Silver and other boys a game with a Frisbee that resembled touch football. Silver brought it back when he returned to Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, that fall. The earliest games were played at night in the high school’s overflow parking lot. The decidedly social and co-ed contests often lasted until the police came, after nearby residents complained about the noise. It was a major hangout for geeks: members of the football team drove by and threw eggs at them.
Silver and friends stuck an adjective in front of a brand name and suddenly there was something called ultimate Frisbee. (The “Frisbee” would be dropped in the late eighties.) While the founder left the game behind, others took it with them to college, becoming what Silver would call “the Johnny Appleseeds of ultimate.” A real sport emerged, with teams of seven playing on a 70-yard field with two 25-yard-deep end zones. When a player caught the disc, he or she had to establish a pivot foot and throw it within ten seconds. If it was dropped or knocked down, play instantly changed direction, offense becoming defense.
By 1975, Princeton, Rutgers, and Tufts were among the 30 colleges to have teams. Few schools offered funding, so players piled into cars and traveled around the northeast for weekend tournaments, usually crashing on the floor of a friend’s place for the night. There were no coaches, no managers, and no trainers, but there was lots of partying and just enough organization to keep the events going. When Rutgers players began wearing numbered jerseys, the entire Tufts team responded by donning shirts with “3” on the back. Soon, ultimate sprang up on the West Coast, but it was a slightly different game; the two versions evolved independently, like bands of Homo sapiens living over the hill from tribes of Neanderthals. The best players, East and West, kept playing after college on club teams with names like the Hostages and Rude Boys, competing in a national championship organized by the newly formed Ultimate Player’s Association.
The grainy film that remains from that first decade, of players with long hair and short-shorts, does not reveal a record of stunning athleticism. There were still nerds aplenty, and hippies, too, with the wafting smell of pot giving the game its signature aroma. But there were exceptions, like Harvey Edwards, a D-1 basketball player from Bucknell who had been recruited by hoops legend Jim Valvano, then quit in his junior year when a new coach took over. Edwards discovered ultimate and gathered a band of disgruntled varsity athletes to form the Mudsharks. He showed people what things could look like when someone capable of a reverse dunk went up for the disc.
“When my team was in trouble, they’d just put it up to me in the end zone,” Edwards says now. “But I learned quickly that this was a really demanding sport with all that ground you had to cover.”
The game back then was still relatively primitive, with players disdaining set plays in favor of a more mystical sense of “flow” and training almost entirely by scrimmaging. But the best athletes had an early sense of the possibilities—the way you could throw a disc at an infinite number of angles, causing it to hang in the air, arc around a defender, blade overhead in a vast parabola, or even rise from just above the grass into the hands of a sprinting teammate. There was a bumper sticker at the time that read, "When a Ball Dreams, it Dreams it’s a Frisbee." That got at it a little. The physics of it.
In the eighties, when I began playing, a less groovy sort of ultimate took hold, with points mattering more than flow. There were still no coaches, but teams adopted drills and track workouts. This culminated in a tough-minded club team called New York, New York, which won six national championships and was featured in Sports Illustrated. Ultimate, according to the article, required that a player “have the quickness of a basketball point guard, the finesse of a hockey center, the blocking techniques of a football guard and the reactions of a soccer goalie.” The exploits of New York, New York were recently exhumed in Flatball: A History of Ultimate, a documentary made by Dennis Warsen, the Beau of his day, and narrated by Alec Baldwin.
By the early nineties, the athletes were getting better and hundreds of colleges had teams, but the sport still refused to grow up. This came to a head when Jose Cuervo sponsored some ultimate tournaments for the best club teams. Dee Rambeau, a great ultimate player who also ran track at SMU, had been involved as a promoter in the early days of beach volleyball. He set up a series of ultimate tournaments for Cuervo with cash prizes and the hope of real TV coverage.
But many players rebelled, balking at wearing numbered uniforms and insisting on smoking joints on the sideline. At one tournament after-party, the sponsors offered free tequila for a couple of hours, then tried to close things down. Players climbed over the bar and poured themselves shots. Ultimate clearly wasn’t ready for prime time. “If you can’t sell the sport to a tequila company, who can you sell it to?” Rambeau asked.
The first time I saw Beau Kittredge play was at club nationals in Frisco, Texas, in 2015. I hadn’t been to a real ultimate tournament in two decades, and everything looked cleaner and shinier. A legitimate stadium, players in uniforms, and sideline boutiques selling discs and workout clothes. All the teams had coaches, and many had trainers.
It was all part of a recent, broad maturation of the game. In 2012, a bona fide professional body was created, the American Ultimate Disc League, and colleges were taking the sport seriously. At Harvard, the men’s and women’s club teams now have endowments of $250,000. Just a few months before the Frisco tournament, the International Olympic Committee recognized ultimate as a contender for the Summer Games.
I was immediately struck by the athleticism of the players—how fast they moved, the accuracy of their throws. But then the wind came up, causing things to get sloppy, and I thought, Maybe I can still do this.
That dream died as I watched the semifinals. Kittredge’s team, the San Francisco Revolver, which arrived at the nationals having won the championship three out of the previous five years, took on a Chicago club called the Machine. They played at night, under the lights, and it was clear that this was a different sport than the one I remembered. Kittredge cruised around the field shark-like, only deploying his speed when needed. There was something restrained about his game, coiled—“power in repose,” as John Keats put it. He displayed similar control during team huddles, keeping to the outer edges instead of going in for a lot of jumping around and high-fiving.
“I’m not that rah-rah,” he explained when I asked him about it on the sideline. “I guess I feel my energy could be spent in better ways.”
When he wasn’t playing, Kittredge came across as a little removed from everything—a step back. The one exception was when he talked trash to his teammates. Suddenly, his whole character would light up. When I pointed this out to him later in the tournament, he laughed: “It’s just another way of showing people you care for them.”
Late in the semifinal, Kittredge ran long for a throw into the end zone. Unlike in his famous YouTube catch, this time he was going up against two athletic players, one of them his height. The defenders had a bead on the disc, but Kittredge took his speed up a notch and then, most impressive, jumped with his off foot and calmly plucked the disc out of the air with his left hand.
As I would learn, he had practiced that play—right-foot jump, left-hand grab—thousands of times. That kind of repetition, unheard of in ultimate until somewhat recently, has become essential as the game has evolved and players have focused on specialized skills. While Kittredge had great throws, there were guys on his team who had even better ones, so he had accepted his place as go-to receiver. “People think he’s a superstar,” Mike Payne, the Revolver’s coach, said after the game. “But he is really the best role player on the team.” And, Payne added, he works harder than everyone else.
Growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, in the eighties and nineties, Kittredge had a difficult home life. He funneled his frustrations into sports, competing in everything from cross-country skiing to speed-skating to hockey to ultimate, which he started playing when he was ten. After high school, while hopscotching around the lower 48, he helped a friend move to Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 2002. On a whim, Kittredge played in an ultimate tournament with a local team that ended up winning the final, mostly by hucking deep to him. Players from the University of Colorado were impressed and asked him to practice with them. Soon the team offered him an athletic scholarship, one of the first in ultimate history, contingent on Kittredge going back to community college to raise his GPA.
“He was so much more athletic than the rest of us,” says Martin Cochran, Kittredge’s roommate and teammate at Boulder. “But he also worked out more and really pushed us. He talked shit all the time about how fat and slow and lazy I was. It bugged me, but I got in the best shape of my life.” Living with Kittredge, Cochran also eventually came to understand his standoffish personality. “For a lot of people, Beau’s an enigma,” he told me. “He pushes people away to find out who he can trust.”
Inspired by a book on explosiveness drills for football players, Kittredge and Cochran started spending at least 12 hours a week in the gym. Soon they were doing 360 dunks and could touch their heads to nine-and-a-half-foot ceilings.
But strength only goes so far in ultimate, where players can sprint more than 20 miles over the course of a tournament. So Kittredge turned to the track. While doing laps during his senior year, he noticed someone running faster and went over to say hello. It was James Davis, who had been a receiver for Colorado’s 1995 football team and later won the United States indoor championships in the 400 with a time of 45.5. Kittredge said he was looking to get faster, and the two hit it off. With Davis’s coaching help, he was soon running 400’s in 47.4 seconds.
“He’s a freakish athlete,” says Davis. “It was amazing what he did with virtually zero track background.”
Over the next decade, Kittredge would refine his workout regimen into a combination of weights, interval training, and plyometrics. His efforts helped earn him back-to-back American Ultimate Disc League MVP awards in 2014 and 2015 while playing for the San Jose Spiders.
On the last day at club nationals, Revolver pulled away from the Seattle Sockeye for their fourth title. Kittredge flew around the field, doing casual 50-yard sprints while his defender tried to keep up with him. But it was his teammate Cassidy Rasmussen who had the play of the game, throwing his body through the air to snag the tail end of a blading disc for a goal.
“I work Cassidy out almost every day,” Kittredge told ESPN after the game. “So seeing him do that sort of thing is like seeing your son do something phenomenal.”
And yet it’s still Frisbee.
It’s a Sunday in mid-January, and I’m standing on a storm-wracked beach in Santa Monica watching Kittredge chase after discs like an oversize border collie. Gulls and pelicans wheel off-shore, and rain slashes across the sand. While I can barely make out the lights of the famous Ferris wheel on the pier, the weather hasn’t stopped Lei-Out, one of the world’s largest beach-ultimate tournaments. (The name is a play on lay out, the ultimate term for diving to catch a disc.) There are 160 fields here, filled with thousands of players, stretched over six miles.
Beach ultimate is a more relaxed version of the field sport. On the first day, one team wore hazmat suits for uniforms. Early this morning, I was in the lobby of my hotel when a player, wearing only shorts and handcuffs, was ushered in by a policeman after spending the night in the clink for partying too hard on the beach.
Kittredge is with Team E.R.I.C. (Early Recognition Is Critical), named after an organization that promotes the early detection of cancer. It’s funded by Jim Gerencser, an ultimate player from the 1980s who later founded Nationwide Auto Services and last year paid Kittredge $50,000 to play for his pro team, the Dallas Roughnecks. Kittredge’s ultimate earnings help him afford a room in a San Francisco apartment he shares with Cassidy Rasmussen and a member of the Polish national beach-ultimate team. The three men center their lives on training, though Kittredge has recently been developing mobile video games, an offshoot of an earlier interest in writing children’s books. (He self-published five.) Kittredge failed to secure funding for his first game, but he seems committed to the effort. “It’s the first time in my life I love doing something as much as ultimate,” he tells me at Lei-Out.
Yesterday, E.R.I.C. went undefeated, but today they lose in the semifinals. Kittredge takes the loss surprisingly hard. “I’m ultracompetitive,” he tells me. “I don’t always have fun at ‘fun’ tournaments.”
We retreat to the mustard-colored beach house where a number of players are crashing. As we crack open beers on the deck, I ask Kittredge what drives him to play so much ultimate. “I’m obviously not in it for the money,” he says, laughing. He cites what so many players from across generations do: the community. “All the friendships I’ve made from playing form a network spreading over the country and now the world. It’s almost tribal.”
Tribal certainly describes the scene inside the house, which is crammed with some 40 drenched athletes. Mattresses and sleeping bags cover every spot not taken by wet clothes. Most of the players are in their twenties, and it’s clear they’re following Kittredge’s lead when it comes to training. Among them is Jimmy Mickle, who learned to throw in the Denver youth leagues back when he was five-two and 100 pounds. He’s now a cut six-four. On the first day of Lei-Out, I watched him throw a field-length forehand into the wind for a goal.
Signs abound that Kittredge’s days as the game’s best player are numbered. In February, a pro team, the Madison Radicals, signed Marquis Mason, a former wide receiver for the Division 1 University of Wisconsin football team. Jakeem Polk, a star cornerback at Wingate University who for the past two years has played for the pro Charlotte Express, recently had one of his leaping catches on SportsCenter.
At Lei-Out, though, Kittredge was still king, and opposing teams went all out against him. In the quarterfinal, a young player, as tall and fast as Kittredge, dived Superman-style to tip away a disc just before Kittredge caught it. He celebrated the moment, and maybe the game’s future, by jumping up from the sand, thrusting his arms over his head, and bellowing: “I just got a block on Beau fucking Kittredge!”
David Gessner’s memoir, Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Wild Youth, is out in June.