Watch | Chennai’s thriving Ultimate community knows how to work a frisbee

Watch | Chennai’s thriving Ultimate community knows how to work a frisbee

From international tournament victories to a swell of beginners taking to the sport, meet the Chennai Ultimate community which thrives on the city’s beaches

Updated - July 03, 2024 03:01 pm IST

Published - July 03, 2024 01:24 pm IST

A little after dawn breaks over Elliots beach, there are cones being placed on the sand to demarcate areas to play on. A group of children take on an equally motley crew of teens, passing a frisbee and blocking their opponents, running and jumping across the sand. All around, similar pockets have matches going on, with a mix of cheering players and a gaggle of onlookers keenly observing from the sidelines. 

Over the weekends in particular, it is not rare to see discs flying up in the air as Chennai’s many Ultimate teams take to the city’s beaches. The many teams we chance upon on a Saturday, warming up, being coached, and playing matches are all a part of Agni Nakshatra, a beginners tournament. 

A player dives for the disc during an Ultimate practise session

A player dives for the disc during an Ultimate practise session | Photo Credit: B Thamodharan

“Every year, teams from Chennai try and get new people to play the sport. The Agni tournament is timed with the school and college holidays so that the children and teens who come in are coached, and get to play matches. This is the first opportunity these players get, to be a part of a tournament, and an experience they never forget,” Praveen Balaji (a.k.a Bajji), a player with Chakra, the first Ultimate club in Chennai.

A no-contact sport backed by significant community support and spirit, Ultimate which is played on the beaches in Chennai has five players on each side with an alternating ratio of three men to two women ratio. Players do not just stand on the sand and toss a frisbee. Watch an Ultimate game in action and you realise how much it looks like rugby, full of running minus the contact.  It is not uncommon to spot entire families, covering a spectrum of age groups playing the sport, given how it is inclusive and welcomes anyone who wishes to play. From the fact that the sport celebrates spirit, to how it is self-regulated, there is much that continues to draw people to it. 

Loving the disc

Chennai’s seaside has seen the Ultimate grow by leaps and bounds. It was only recently that the India Mixed team, with 16 of its 17-member squad from Chennai, clinched the silver medal at the Asia Oceanic Beach Ultimate Championship (AUBOC) in Shirahama, Japan. Tournaments like these are now aplenty, for Chennai’s many clubs and its stellar players. 

“When we began back in 2007, there were probably seven of us who came together to play Ultimate here. Hardly anyone knew of the sport, and relied on YouTube to learn, and even wrote to international players to coach us via e-mail,” recalls Abhinav Vinayakh Shankarnarayanan, indicating how far the sport has come. A player with Flywild, one of Chennai’s top clubs, Abhinav has seen the number of clubs and players swell since. Chennai currently has around 500 to 600 active players, including children from schools and NGOs. At present, there are between eight and 10 clubs here. 

As a part of the Agni tournament, beginners are coached and get to play a series of matches

As a part of the Agni tournament, beginners are coached and get to play a series of matches | Photo Credit: B Thamodharan

“From having around four tournaments per year, we now have at least one tournament every month to participate in. There is a large young population that is starting to play — IIT Madras for instance has an upcoming, strong team. The sport is economical, easy to teach, play, and organise,” he says. Abhinav adds that several older people have made a beeline for Ultimate. 

As one of the few thriving mixed-gender sports, a number of young girls and women are at Agni, picking up the nuances of the sport. A player from Coimbatore, Nila Makesh says she is thrilled to be in Chennai, to experience playing Ultimate in Chennai, taking in the picturesque views by the sea. “It has been a year since I started playing. Having been a skater before, I wanted to take to something that is a chill, fun, and a relaxed team sport,” she says. Nila goes on to join a spirit circle with her team, the team they have just played against. As a self-refereed sport, several players wax eloquently about how important spirit is, to Ultimate. Tournaments also have a dedicated Spirit awards for teams, which acknowledges their knowledge of rules, fair-mindedness, communication, and conduct on the field given that it is a no-contact sport. 

On equal footing

A match in progress as a part of the Agni Nakshatra beginners tournament

A match in progress as a part of the Agni Nakshatra beginners tournament | Photo Credit: B Thamodharan

“We don’t see a lot of sports where men and women play together, and in my own club, I’ve seen the number of women joining and committing to the sport increase. It helps that the community here in Chennai has been a safe, warm, and welcoming one,” says Namritha Anbarasan, a Chennai-based psychologist who plays for Stall 7. Having been introduced to the sport when she saw it being taught to students at a school, Namritha says there is a lot to learn about team building, empathy, collaboration, and even building leadership skills from Ultimate, which she says is a great fit for schools.  

Namritha was a part of the India Mixed Masters team, which also participated in the recent tournament at Shirahama, placing sixth. The Masters team had a female head coach, Mrinalini Siddhartha from Chennai, the first woman to coach an Indian team. 

“From how to handle adversities to picking up defense skills and strategies, there is a lot we experience from participating in tournaments both locally and abroad. The kind of Ultimate that you get to see is brilliant,” she says, of her Shirahama experience.  

As a sport that is independent and is without the backing of a government, the community is what makes Ultimate the sport it is. Right from organising tournaments, and something we overhear quite a bit on the field — being a large family united by the love for the game. 

Team India Mixed which won the silver at the recent AUBOC tournament in Shirahama

Team India Mixed which won the silver at the recent AUBOC tournament in Shirahama | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The captain of the India Mixed team which won the silver in Shirahama, Siva Raman, a player from Flywild recalls several instances of the Chennai Ultimate community stepping in. “Finding sponsors has always been hard in this sport. A decade ago, I was a student and my father was a tailor. I could participate in tournaments only thanks to how generously my friends like Abhinav pitched in,” he says. A decade later, Siva now helps back younger, promising players from lower economic backgrounds which include many from the fishing communities in the area who take to the sport. 

The beaches have long been acknowledged as what sets Chennai apart as a training ground and producing fine players. “The Ultimate community in Chennai is extremely competitive since so many people find a place in the national teams. It is really hard to run on the sand, and practising on the beaches as well as experiencing these strong winds helps us with stamina and conditioning,” Siva explains. 

The fierce competition however does not take away from how many of these teams come together to train together or even play against each other in the run up to a tournament. On the sidelines of the Agni tournament, Sreekesh Krishnan, a player from Chennai club Puyal says in preparation for an upcoming tournament in Kuala Lumpur, their team Madras Minnal from players across the country is gearing up to practice alongside Puyal. 

The next exciting challenge coming up are the World Championships in Australia. Five players from Chennai, including Stall7 founder Vishnu Das are a part of the team from India off to compete in the tournament. As someone who has been playing for the last 15 years, Vishnu says, “I have seen the sport evolve into becoming a lot more professional, given the number of tournaments, and how seriously the players take the sport.”(for print) 

So how does one begin their journey with Ultimate in Chennai? Praveen, Abhinav, Sreekesh and a host of others have the same response — to just show up at the beach. “On the field, everyone is equal and we will teach you to play frisbee no matter what. In fifty minutes you can be a passable thrower, and the sport will then take you decades to master,” Abhinav says. On what sets the sport apart, he is quick to quote Late psychiatrist Dr Stancil Johnson.  

“When a ball dreams, it dreams it’s a frisbee.”

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