In years past, the Ukranian Open has been held in either the capital city of Kiev or in Lviv in Western Ukraine, which is widely considered one of the country’s most important cultural centers. It is unclear what happened this year: as best as D could gather, there was some balloting controversy that took place on Ukraine’s ultimate frisbee forum and Ivano-Frankivsk got to host the annual tournament for the first time. People were upset; teams that travel from Russia and Belarus decided to skip the tournament. Last year, there were 16 teams, including Chisinau’s Flying Mamaligas. This year, only ten teams participated in the competition, and they were all from Ukraine.
Although the result was a smaller tournament, the venue change worked out in D’s favor. Kiev could only be reached by airplane, and Lviv would have meant tacking on an extra three hours to what was already a long drive. S was on the fence about going and ultimately decided to meet her parents in Amsterdam instead. D would have done the drive himself, but was very happy when one of the Moldovans he has met playing ultimate asked if he could also go. The route was fairly straightforward, but it was much more pleasant to do the drive with a companion, especially since the GPS that came with the car would not recharge and died mid-trip.
After a week of rains, Saturday morning greeted D with flawless weather — warm but not overly sunny and with a faint breeze that kept the temperature down but did not impede throws — perfect for ultimate frisbee. The hotel entrance was right next to the soccer stadium where the games were held. All one had to do was roll out of bed in the morning and walk through a gate to get down to the fields.
The first day was one of adjustment, as D became familiar with his new team and everyone got to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The Madcaps are a fairly young team, both in age and experience, when compared to the more established Kiev teams. The captain had excellent throws; many of the other players were athletic but without the game knowledge that comes with years of play. The ten teams were divided into three groups, and a complex re-seeding took place after each round of play once the group games finished.
The Madcaps took the first game by three points against a relatively inexperienced team, then crumbled against a more seasoned opponent in game 2. The third game was the easiest of the tournament and D’s team found the composure that eluded it in the second game to cruise to victory. Many of the teams only played three games the first day; the Madcaps had a fourth game — a comically one-sided 0-15 loss to Gigolo, Ukraine’s best team.
The most memorable game for D was the first match of day 2, which was against Impuls, Ivano-Frankivsk’s other team. The story goes that a bunch of young kids wanted to practice with the Madcaps and got told they were too small, so they formed their own team and started practicing relentlessly. They had a couple of older players show them the ropes, and were they ever impressive! None of these kids were older than 16, and a few looked like they had yet to enter their teen years. They were all fast, all ran non-stop, and most had excellent throws.
Rumor has it that they have been dominating the Madcaps in scrimmages all year, and one could feel the competitive emotions that were absent from the first day’s games. The game was close throughout, with neither team holding more than a 2-point lead. Down 8-10 as time wound down, the Madcaps fought back to tie the game at 10-10 to set up a winner-take-all point, which Impuls converted. After the game, one of the kids came over to thank D for the game and tell him that he had to sweat to keep up with him. D asked him how old he was and smiled before telling him that he was half D’s age.
Of course it stung to lose such a close game, but D was ultimately happy with the outcome. For one, he thought the better team had won. Also, the loss meant that the Madcaps got to play two more games, both of which were close affairs they won, 12-8 and 16-13. The 4-3 record was good enough for 7th place. Had the Madcaps prevailed in their match against their hometown rivals, there would have been only more game — for 5th place. D didn’t much care about the standings; if you’re not holding the champions’ trophy there is not much difference between 5th, 6th, and 7th. Much better to play two more games and go out on a winning note rather than place one or two notches higher in the final ranking.
The final got underway while D’s team was still on the field, so D missed half of it, but the half he did see was very exciting. The game was tied at 14-14 before Gigolo prevailed, defeating Kiev’s Nova to retain their crown. Gigolo has won every Ukranian Open since the tournament’s inception in 2005 except for one surprise defeat to a team from Minsk a few years ago. The perfect weather, which lasted all weekend, held just long enough for the award ceremony. The wind picked up during the medal presentation and the sky opened up minutes after D got back to the hotel room, a fierce downpour inundating the soccer stadium.
D’s friend from grad school is finishing up his Peace Corps tour in Ukraine and came for the first day of the tournament. Many thanks, Steven, for your sports photography and the best of luck with the rest of your tour and beyond.