A sport that started with the aimless tossing of a pie tin, ultimate frisbee has always struggled to find legitimacy. Despite the existence of several professional leagues in the United States, a lot of people have a hard time equating tossing a disc with serious athleticism, which is a shame because it is one of the most physically demanding sports we have ever played. In ultimate, the person holding the disc cannot run; everyone else – on defense and offense – has to sprint constantly, which is hard to do for an entire 1-2 hour-long game, and much harder still during a tournament in which one plays 3-4 games a day.
Kigali’s third annual ultimate frisbee hat tournament was the first time we have played on different teams in four regional competitions. With only one Nairobi team going to Kampala for the 7 Hills Classic the last two years, we naturally played together. And even though Nairobi fielded three teams for last year’s FEAST, the team captains recognized that marital harmony was important and made sure to put married players on the same team with their spouses.
Hat tournaments function differently. When registering for a hat tournament, players rank themselves on their offensive and defensive skills, speed, and experience, and note their height. Then names are almost literally pulled from a hat as the organizers try to create evenly matched teams. There were seven of us traveling from Nairobi and there were going to be six teams, composed of players from Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Burundi, so we knew that we’d be unlikely to play on the same team.
Our hats go off to the Kigali ultimate crew, who ran a superbly well-organized tournament. Perhaps they were aided by the experience of living in a country with limited civil liberties – it is the only plausible explanation we can come up with for games that started on time and ended on schedule. Our first day we arrived at the fields just as the lead organizer announced on a megaphone that there was 1 minute left to game-time and that anyone who showed up late would not be allowed to play in their first match – harsh rules for a hat tournament!
The teams were also well balanced. There may have been one team that went winless and one that finished with a 7-1 record, but virtually all of the games were close and the team that eventually triumphed won most of its games by just a point or two, while the 0-6 team lost most of its matches by a similar margin.
After the first day of round robin play, D’s Red Hott team was undefeated at 4-0 while S’s Super Smurfs finished 3-1. Our teams did not meet until the second day, in the last game of round robin play, and the Smurfs were victorious, cruising to a 9-4 win. The loss knocked Red Hott from first to third place, meaning that D had to play an extra game while S’s team got a bye into the semifinals. Red Hott would have the last laugh however, as we met again in the semis, in which Red Hott prevailed 11-7. In the final, Red Hott took down #1-seeded Gang Green 10-9 in a back-and-forth game that was almost as much fun to watch as it was to play, allowing D to return home with bragging rights.
The best part of this hat tournament is that we had the opportunity to play on the same team as some of the Ugandans and Rwandans we had met at other regional tournaments. But this presented challenges too. Not only did we not mesh as well with players with whom we had never played before, but communication was also a serious problem. In most of the team huddles, one could hear both English and French being spoken, sometimes with a simultaneous translation into Kinyarwanda.
Playing eight games of ultimate under the scorching sun over the course of one weekend is utterly exhausting and we left the field with various bruises, blisters, and burns. Instead of indulging in a relaxing massage or enjoying a well-deserved beer, however, we climbed into a small sedan and headed straight to Musanze, the starting point for Rwanda’s renowned gorilla trekking.