This story was inspired by salad.
Which is saying something, considering that before I moved to Seattle from Michigan six years ago, “salad” meant dipping croutons in ranch dressing.
My first night in Seattle was spent on the godforsaken, urine-scented couch of Shannon O’Malley’s college house. This night was the first time Shannon and I ever met – I had started playing Ultimate in college, and Michigan and UW’s competition schedules didn’t exactly overlap. All I knew about her was that she was that athletic, pouty kid from Washington. Over time I would also learn about her passion for pop music and magical ability to wrangle small children, but more importantly about her limitless capacity as a loyal and giving friend.
The first memory I have of Drew Johnson is at a Riot track workout. She strolled up in a hoodie, munching potato chips by the handful right out of her sweatshirt pouch. She explained to me that track anxiety makes her have to pee, then minutes later took a medicine ball to the face and laugh-cried her way through a bloody nose. She stopped just long enough to sputter “Accelerate through the catch!,” making me spit water all over the turf, and the rest is history.
I honestly don’t remember the first time Alyssa Weatherford and I met – she’s the kind of person I feel like I’ve known forever. It undoubtedly involved a lot of flailing elbows and colorful costumes. Actually, when I stop to think more about it, it involved race-rolling down a hill, which seems about right. Who would I want to be stranded on a desert island with? Alyssa Weatherford. Cross-country road trip? Alyssa. Zombie attack? Alyssa. Of course, I didn’t know all that in my first few months on Riot, when she was furrowing her brow and shouting at me on the field with her best vocal imitation of Dino the Dinosaur. Thankfully I caught on quickly to all of the above.
At the time I was getting to know these three – in August of 2008 – I was 22 years old, Alyssa and Shannon 21, and Drew 19. The three of them were born and raised in Seattle Ultimate, all noodly limbs and goofy smiles. I was a meat and potatoes, “Is marching band a sport?” kind of kid from the Midwest.
And together, we were the “weenies” – a nickname affectionately(?) bestowed on us by those Riots who looked after us when we inevitably lost passports, “forgot” to pack rain layers that we never actually owned, asked for rides to everything at the last possible moment, and subsisted at tournaments on Sour Patch Kids alone. In fact, one year Jenn Willson roasted the lot of us with a brilliant “Quick Reference Guide” to understanding weenies that featured such items as: “Generally dislike vegetables,” “Wear neon spandex,” and “Dance with spastic arm and leg movements.”
But as my rookie year and then my second slipped by, these mentors slowly but surely left us to our own devices. Miranda went off to teach abroad, Jenn got married and had a kid, and Duffy followed suit. Somewhere in between these losses and the subsequent gains, the weenies grew up, without anyone really noticing. Shannon finally got a driver’s license; Drew got rain pants; Alyssa’s hair stopped matching her Five shorts; and I ate my first tomato. Then Drew started her own bakery, and I got a Masters degree. Shannon got engaged and Alyssa bought a new car.
On the evening I began writing this, Shannon and I had sat together atop the stadium overlooking Green Lake, puffing bursts of hot air into the cool Seattle spring and letting the leg-shakes from our stair workout fade like the sunset over the glassy surface of the water. This month she’ll turn 27, and I’ll hit 28 – the same age Miranda was when she left the team to us. As Shannon and I walked back to my house together, we talked about her wedding plans and my hopes for a professional development opportunity in China this summer. And the next thing I knew, we were sitting down to eat salad together in my kitchen.
The weenies of 2008 Riot wouldn’t have been caught dead with a salad – wouldn’t have even known how to make one, for that matter. And all at once the insignificant moments that had been stacked upon others to form the building blocks of six years hit me. I laughed and insisted that we take a photo to send to Miranda. Shannon and I joked about how far we’d come, and thought that Mir would be proud of us. Not just for the salad.
When Shannon left, I sat down at my computer, doing less writing and more thinking about what it was like to come to the team in that summer of 2008, with no forehand and no clue what this would all become. About what my life might be like if Riot hadn’t take a chance on a kid from Michigan that year. To be completely honest, my imagination can’t assemble this alternate reality. It simply doesn’t exist. Because Ultimate is where I’ve learned my most valuable life lessons in dedication, failure, self-advocacy, communication, leadership, risk-taking, discipline, openness, and healthy relationships.
Ultimate Frisbee culture is distinguished by a lot of unique traits, not the least of which is a “Peter Pan” syndrome, a phenomenon I’ve observed with a healthy fear during my six years in Seattle. Essentially, the culture of Ultimate is such that it’s socially acceptable to never really “grow up,” a tendency that both fascinates and scares me.
This is one of the reasons that Ultimate culture is so incredible, but also one of the reasons it is concerning – it can allow you to get older without ever growing up. It’s easy to play Ultimate until age 25, 35, and beyond, and to live like a college kid frozen in amber. But just as playing Ultimate can stunt growth if you let it, it can facilitate it too. I believe that growing up isn’t something that just happens to you; you must be an active participant in your own maturation. And I often reflect on how immensely lucky I am to have a community of peers alongside whom I can grow, explore, learn and just be silly – this is something most people don’t have in their adult life. So what I hope for myself and other players is the ability to hold onto the sense of passion, self-expression, and fun that Ultimate embodies, while evolving and changing when the time is right. That, of course, requires the ability to recognize when the time is right.
Most external measures confirm that I am indeed an adult. I have the proper age, degrees, and retirement accounts to prove it. But it’s Ultimate that has helped to develop all of the social and emotional measures that really matter to me and my own sense of personal growth. Ultimate has taught me how to grow up without getting old, and to preserve into adulthood the beautiful aspects of childhood that make me happy, healthy, and balanced.
And because of this, I can look in the eyes of the young people whom I teach, coach, and feel accountable to, and not simply tell them that curiosity and passion matter more than results, but to live it myself. And to watch people like Alyssa, Drew, and Shannon grow up to do the same.
Turns out it was never about the salad.