One spring day in 2003, when we were seventeen, Damian brought a frisbee into school. A group of us threw it around for a bit, and then we got bored, so we invented a frisbee game that was a cross between American football, basketball and rugby. There were two teams, and you had to get the disc from one side of the yard to the other, scoring by catching the disc in the “end zone”. The game was fun, and kind of ridiculous, so my friends and I started playing it every break time, and then every evening, breaking into the field of another local school.
Some of us were naturally pretty decent at the game, while others (like myself) were naturally pretty awful. But I loved that it was something that I could get better at. I scoured the internet, reading message boards and forums, trying to understand the principles of frisbee. It was from these online forays that I discovered that we hadn’t actually invented a sport, and that there was such a thing as Ultimate Frisbee, and that the official rules encouraged slightly less violence than our own, where anything short of actual assault was seen as fair game. It was also on these message boards that I learned about the great Italian frisbee player, “Jumpi” Miscione, a figure whose legend grew and grew the more that my friends and I mouthed his beautiful name to one another: Jumpi Misc-ee-own-ee.
Inspired by “Jumpi”, we gave ourselves nicknames: Geraint styled himself as “the glove” (opting sometimes to wear one glove); Rhys we called “lofty” (because of his superior height); Damian dubbed himself “the Huck” (the name for a long throw down the field); and Gareth was called “concrete”, because he was terrible at jumping. And I was Power Man, because one time I excitedly told the boys I had just read about a really great way to grip the disc—the Power Grip!—and when I demonstrated this new-found skill, the disc just fell out of my hand, like a poached egg flopping off a plate.
‘Nice one, Power Man,’ Damian said.
One day, my frisbee searches on AltaVista brought me to the Official UK Ultimate Association. It was here that we learned about—and ordered—the official size and weight competition frisbee, which was wider and heavier and had a far smoother flight than the crap small ones we’d been buying at AllSports. And it was here, too, that we learned about the 2003 Ultimate Frisbee BritOpen that was taking place in Eastbourne, in six weeks’ time.
‘We could go and watch!’ I said.
‘Watch?’ Geraint replied. ‘We should fucking enter.’
So that was it. We downloaded the application form, and started telling everyone we met that we were entering the British Open. People laughed and assumed it was a joke. I assumed we were joking too, until we received the reply from the tournament organisers saying our application had been accepted and that the Caerphilly Flyers would be competing at the 2003 Ultimate Frisbee BritOpen. All we had to do now, they said, was send in the £125 entry fee.
‘It’s happening, boys,’ Geraint said. ‘It’s really fucking happening.’
At school, we kept playing frisbee every breaktime and every free lesson, and the game soon became a craze, in the way that pogs had once been a craze. Younger kids started bringing frisbees in their bags, and the careful equilibrium of the shared sporting space of the yard—Year 8 in one corner, Year 9 in another; one group playing widthways, another playing lengthways, etc—was violently ruptured as the territory became a tumult of carnage and chaos. Amid the usual whizzing footballs and thudding rugby balls, there were now a blizzard of careening frisbees cutting the air and crossing paths with no flight controller at the desk. For a couple of weeks in the May of 2003, if you walked across that school yard, the probability of having a wedge of plastic smack you bang in the side of the head was approximately 1:1. I’m sure the game was banned at one point, and I’m sure the teachers told us to get back inside and focus on our A-Level revision and coursework, but I can’t say I remember.
To raise funds for the £125 entry fee, we went to Morrisons supermarket. Over two weekends, we all worked two eight-hour shifts packing bags at the tills. (My back still aches thinking about it; whenever I’m in a supermarket today and see kids packing bags for a charity, or their team, I immediately hand over all my change.) We made £900, a sum which still staggers me. And with these funds we were able cover the competition fee and our return train tickets; while the rest of the money was squandered (or well spent, depending on your perspective) at the McArthurGlenn Nike store, where a few of the boys (I wasn’t there that day) bought the team a reversible kit made of an innovative hi-tech breathable fabric. We’re talking about a shopping haul that included: seven tops (two of which were sleeveless for the boys who wanted to show off their arms), seven pairs of reversible shorts, seven water bottles (four black, three white), a couple of massive bath towels, some training cones, and two huge kit bags. All emblazoned with the massive Nike tick.
‘Do you think we… need all that?’ I said to Huw.
‘Mate,’ he said, ‘we’re gonna look so good no one’s gonna wanna play us.’
Damian, meanwhile, loved having a project and he loved taking the piss. (He once mocked up a newspaper article about National Flip-Flop day and spent the day in flip-flops. Whenever a teacher challenged him, he took the fold of paper out of his top pocket.) When he and Geraint got together, things always happened. They both loved speaking on the phone, making prank calls, seeing what they could get away with. So before we knew it, they had arranged a photoshoot with the Caerphilly Campaign, our local paper. On the day of the shoot, Huw and Geraint came wearing ski hats and goggles; and I wore the most garish and colourful football shirt I owned: a pink and yellow Racing Club Lens shirt I’d found for £5 at JJB Sports. We thought it would be hilarious for the photo, and were very disappointed when the paper printed the article in black and white.
The article was followed by a good bit of media attention: we made the news, appeared in magazines, and were invited onto a number of Welsh language TV shows, choosing to accept an invitation for a feature on the S4C equivalent of The One Show, which in the final edit saw us playing frisbee in our school shirts, in front of the disused colliery in Maesycwmmer, the footage overlaid with royalties-free rock music.
The football season was over, and without training or matches a lot of us suddenly had evenings and weekends to fill. So we doubled down and started training hard for the Open. We found ourselves—strangely—improving, observing daily and weekly the leaps in our capacities. Unlike football, say, which we’d played every day for the past twelve years and were reaching, we felt, the limits of our potential, and the gains were marginal, in frisbee there were acres of space for us to improve into.
Becoming more fluent in the language of the disc was thrilling. I remember the aesthetic pleasure of learning, for example, how to curl the frisbee from outside to in: by angling the disc and flicking the wrist, you could release it in such a precise smooth way that once slung, it could yieldingly, perfectly, curve through the air, around an opposition player, divinely arcing into the path and arms of your oncoming teammate. It was majestic!
At the beginning, we might throw the disc into the air, and its trajectory could seem random, unknowable, but the more we played, the more we grew to intuitively understand the disc’s desires. Watching it move across the sky, anticipating its changing course, we’d change our own runs accordingly, recognising now where the disc itself wanted to go—all the while mastering how to catch the frisbee with one hand, like a duck plucking a tortilla from the sky. Students of the game, we were acquiring knowledge together, sometimes synchronously. There wasn’t much frisbee video content online at the time, so our deductions about certain techniques were based on textual descriptions, diagrams, and one or two grainy videos which we downloaded and shared amongst each other. There was something called “The Hammer”, which we loved the sound of. You had to lift the disc above your head at a 90-degree angle, hold it like a shark-fin, and—apparently—if you snapped down in the right way as you thew it, the disc should, after some distance, flatten out and hover through the air upside down like a flying saucer. At least this is what it said on the print-out I’d brought with me to the field. We all looked at it, and re-read the instructions, but couldn’t get our heads round what we were meant to do. Weeks of trying passed and when, in a game amongst ourselves, Huw lifted the disc above his head and proceeded to pull off an almost perfect (albeit slightly wobbly) Hammer, we all laughed and screamed and celebrated. Soon after, we all learned how to do it, too. It was as if now one of us had opened the gate, we could all rush through.
I want to assure you that I am not adopting a nostalgic backwards gaze here. Because even at the time, I was already nostalgic for what was unfolding: I knew then that these warm spring-summer evenings were—and would be—some of the most beautiful evenings of my life. There were times, standing there, arm outstretched after releasing a throw, watching the disc glide through the blue sky, as the birds sung, and the sun set, that I felt a serene sense of peace. There was a quality that was spiritual, almost religious, about the experience. Remembering those evenings now, I can smell the cut grass and my own sweat, and I can feel the itch of the dead grass tickling my shins under my football socks, and I am back there—beside the grass banking with my friends as we take a short break, catching our breath, drinking from our bottles, the sun-warmed water hitting our parched throats. If I push this any further, though, if I try to describe or summon that holy kinship that I feel now but couldn’t articulate then, I’ll only end up plagiarising Walt Whitman, so instead I’ll just quote him:
I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.
At night, my fingers sore and the webspace of my hand red and sometimes bloodied, I sat at the family desktop computer in the living room, writing my A-Level coursework whilst trawling frisbee listservs and websites made by computer science graduates, incrementally building a picture of the world of frisbee off the grass. I read about the philosophy of Ultimate Frisbee, its west-coast counter-culture origins; its values as a sport that prized “the spirit of the game”. There were no referees in frisbee: devoid of the hegemonic dominance of an external authority figure laying down the law, it was down to the teams and the players to respect each other, and play fair with one another. I read, too, about the people who called themselves frisbeetarians, who joked that when they died, their souls ascended onto rooftops, and got stuck. I knew it was a joke, but something about the idea beguiled me.
Before long, my friends and I understood more about frisbee than anyone else in South Wales. We couldn’t know this for sure, but we just decided it must be true, and we started referring to ourselves as the Welsh National Frisbee Team. Some of the kids in school hated us. The boys in the year below started called us Frisbee Pricks, but they were clearly jealous that they weren’t about to represent their proud nation in an international sporting competition. Were we for a short time minor celebrities? It’s not for me to say. But at lunchtime, people would come up to us looking for advice on the game. At this point my thinking on the game had become positively gnomic. ‘Frisbee cannot be taught,’ I told the kids, the teachers, and my own mother over dinner. ‘But it can be learned.’
The week before the championship, a few of us went camping. For some reason, we decided to pitch our tents on a giant roundabout. (There were trees and everything, but we could still hear and see the traffic, feel the thrum of heavy-good vehicles making their way to the M4.) It was a warm June night, and in the end we slept outside, in our sleeping bags on the tents we had now collapsed. Looking up at the stars, Damian said: ‘Imagine if we win it, boys. Just imagine: BritOpen champions.’
Thinking about friendship now, I think about the ways in which we are able to do things with others that we could never do on our own. The way that friends drag unknown parts out of our bodies, allowing us to be braver than we can feel by ourselves. Sometimes they make us do things we don’t even want to do. Years later, Gareth confessed that he had never really enjoyed frisbee, but he kept playing because we needed seven to make a team, and he didn’t want to let us down. Any other reason? I asked. Yeah, he said. I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed out on being with the boys.
And thinking about that period in my life, I remember how earlier that year, during the winter half-term when I was deeply depressed for reasons I didn’t understand, and I was just so tired and listless and I wouldn’t leave the house, I remember how the boys came round to see me but I refused to come out. They gathered on the wall outside, calling my name through the front door. Go away, I shouted back. And then they left, only to return ten minutes later with a custard slice. I smiled, opened the door, and stepped outside for the first time in three days.
‘You look like the early stages of man in the diagram of evolution,’ Huw said, imitating my slumping gait—and for the first time in a week I laughed.
When the day for us to depart for the tournament finally arrived, there were nine of us at Cardiff Central: seven players, and two friends (Berwyn and Jonny) who at the last minute decided to come and support us. Or maybe they just wanted an excuse to take a few days off school. We should all have been in school that morning, but instead we were leaving the country. Standing there on the platform, with all our bags, our tents, our kits, our water bottles—our arms and backs laden—we were, I guess, beginning to feel the strain of what we were doing. It really was ridiculous. And there was such a long day ahead of us: the train to London, followed by the connection to Eastbourne, and then the long walk to the tournament grounds, carrying all this heavy stuff. But when the train pulled in, we felt suddenly giddy and light. We were seventeen and ready to blow up the world.
There are many, many details I could give you about the tournament: about the opposing teams and their repeated incredulity about us being there; about the rules we only learned once we started playing; and how after each match there were fair-play rituals and initiation games, and how we turned these upside down, asking our opposing teams to close their eyes while one of us slapped them across the face with a mackerel. I could talk about the first night when we all got drunk and Jonny ran around the campsite naked, with a Welsh flag in his hand. Or the way Tom “Air” Morgan, thought it would be funny to lie on the disco dancefloor and feign a fit; or the terrible sunburns and heatstroke we all suffered; or how when I excitedly asked an Italian guy about Jumpi Miscione, he said to me: ‘Jumpi? Why are you so obsessed with Jumpi? He is not a legend of the game. He is a really average player.’ Or I could tell you how, on the last night, we stole the 6 foot by 3 foot tournament banner and hid it in our tents, then brought it home and proudly hung it up in the Sixth Form Common Room. For weeks afterwards, the tournament organiser kept ringing my house and leaving increasingly threatening messages with my mother, insisting we return the banner or he’d have no choice but to get the police involved. When Geraint and Damian did eventually bring it back—a four hour drive from Caerphilly to Eastbourne, they met the man in a carpark, where he gruffly shoved the banner into his boot, and drove off. The next day, it was announced online that the Caerphilly Flyers had been banned from all European competitions. I could give all these details to you, and I guess I already have. But what you probably really want to know is this: how did we do? How did the the Flyers fare?
Did we win?
Did we become British Champions?
No, of course not.
We were terrible.
We lost every single game.
Above: newspaper cutting ahead of the tournament
Above: video stills from training
Above: after the first game at the BritOpen.