The Ballerina Catch

When I feel restless, it’s time to try something new. So I quit the college wrestling team (I was 3rd ranked in Canada) and took up a minor in modern dance. Rugby, cycling and dance are an odd mix. I was trying to regain body control after knee surgery, but more importantly, tie into the underlying power, movement & music I saw in modern dance. 

My off/on again girlfriend had dragged me to a show and I was mesmerized from the very first number. Jeff M., a guy I knew from the sports world, had the lead in a number based on American prehistory; the voyageur era. Just a simple canoe for the opening shot, with the only movement the paddle strokes, then it grew.

A few years into the minor, I had done a few stage shows with the ballet professor, Darcy. One day she asked me to help in the Intro to Ballet class, so she could teach proper jumping & lifting technique. It started pretty rocky! The 2nd woman jumping had poor body coordination in the first place, made much worse by her panicked leap. She came flying in, knee first, arms flailing the air, and nutmegged me hard.

Darcy stopped the drill and told them “your only job is to make a smooth leap and hold the correct body position. Everything after that is trust. He’ll make the catch, if you stay steady and make it easy. Watch.” 

Darcy made a short windup for momentum, then made a beautiful, picture-perfect jump; a study in practical elegance. But… We had been drilling with straight-on jumps, into me. Darcy’s leap was going by me: I was set up wrong! But she had this beatific, serene smile as she sailed by;I knew she’d crash & burn rather than give up on the catch. So I lunged backwards while dropping to one knee, trying to get into position. I somehow managed to get my right hand down far enough to reach her; a no-look, one-handed catch, behind my back, inches off the floor. But it worked! Her knee dropped perfectly into the palm of my hand, and we both had the body control to keep balanced in the new equilibrium.

A spectacular catch that, alas, we knew we couldn’t build into the next show. The catch  was far too risky to try at all, left alone pulling it off with the same level of elegant flair.

That’s Just Eerie

I love no-look throws. There’s a certain zen-like satisfaction in pulling them off. I started doing them just as a throwing drill: you often can’t see the receiver you want because of so many bodies in the way, especially the one marking your throw. Once you learn the characteristics of your receivers, this becomes a very powerful weapon. Example: if I got a brief glimpse of Jordan making a cut to the wide side, I knew roughly where he was heading and his speed. From that, it just becomes a matter of confidence in your inner-math deciding when to throw & what throw will work.

But when throwing for fun, it is even better. 🙂 Example: somebody overthrows you in practice several times a session. If you take a quick look at where people are, before turning around to go get the disc, you can pick it up and throw it behind you, without ever actually looking. I got pretty good at this. In Munich, I was just throwing around a disc with some high school guys, so they missed a lot of shots. They couldn’t believe how accurately I could throw without looking! In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park pickup, I’d get there early for some disc practice. One day, I was feeling the no-look power and turned every catch into a behind the back throw. 13 of 15 hit, right in the breadbasket! I overheard someone on the sidelines mutter to his friend “that’s just eerie.” 🙂

And I mean anywhere

In the Hawaii tournament we had to pick up 3 new players for the last day; rookies all three, but with height & athleticism. I overheard our captain walking them through how we were running and where they fit in; standard stuff. But he ended with “And whenever Larry gets the disc, just cut away from your defender to open space; Larry can hit you anywhere” and started to walk away. Then I saw his head twitch for a second as he had a new thought. He walked back to the new players and emphasized “and I mean anywhere.” 🙂

Body basics

I get uncomfortable with direct praise, but like most people, I do like to hear people think well of my skills. The best example was in a D.C. area pickup game, up at Candy Cane park on the north side of the district. It was a great winter pickup spot: an hour and a half to bike there, talk & run with friends, then a good cycle home.

There was a new couple in town; serious Ultimate players from California. The guy was an excellent handler and played a very physical game: just the challenge I loved back then! I covered him every chance I could: I always took the best player on the other side (unless he’s got a big height advantage).

He was making a cross-field cut, just in front of the endzone. I had position on him should the disc be thrown and I was sticking close. He tried bodying me out of the way to get into a better position for a catch. It’d been years since somebody tried that on me; many Ultimate players try to avoid contact. With my rugby & wrestling background, it’s just another day at the office. 😉

The cool part was after the game. I was waiting for a chance to enter the next round and overheard Michelle talking with some friends, discussing the new players. Michelle said he had great throws, but you could tell he was new to the area. She laughed and said “he tried to body Larry off the disc” and the whole group of people laughed!

A Headbutt For A Butthead 

I loved wrestling. Man on man: a test of who is better. Mostly, the rules work to keep people safe, but a rookie referee can leave the door open for incidents.

Just a local tourney, so not much on the line. But this one yoyo thought he could intimidate me. He started the match with an immediate attack. He came in pretending to do a leg shot, but led with his head and smacked heavily into mine. “No worries,” thinks I; shit happens. Then blam! Same thing. Nobody at this level should be this incompetent, so it was looking pretty intentional. Third time: ditto. I stepped back and gave the ref the “what the hell” look and he just shrugged helplessly; there was nothing he could think to call, even though he was clearly thinking it was intentional too. I follow the “let the idiot do his thing, but with consequences” rule. He came in again and this time I grabbed his shoulders to stop his headbutt. I held him in position and gave him three crashing headbutts, whipping the sides of my head back and forth: the bony bumpy spots on the upper right & left sides.

He dropped like a rock. I was a little dizzy but I only needed to fall on top of him for the victory. 😉 The ref didn’t say one word! And we never saw that little headbutting thug again.


Sports have some unwritten policies, including making people accountable for being cheaters.

In the Washington D.C. area, we had enough players to add a corporate league one year. One team was from a law firm. Troubles ensumed. There was only one idiot, but he made up for it by being an extra-sized idiot, and rather dangerous to boot.

His defense was insane, and I do not mean insanely good or insanely intense. He covered me three times in the first half. The first time, I caught the disc on the run, then slowed to a stop, set my pivot foot and stepped out ready to throw a flick. This process takes a few seconds. *After* this, Blam! He wipes me out from the blind side; a full speed impact. We both go down in a heap. Mistakes happen, although not so long after the catch, so we played on: no harm, no foul. But next play, same damn thing! I’m set up & checking my downfield receivers, then Blam! Another blindside wipeout! Now I’m a little pissed. He was either incredibily incompetent or doing it dliberately. Either way, he needed to be stopped. 

My next catch started the same way: I caught on the run, slowed to a stop and set my pivot foot. But this time, instead of leaning left to set up for a throw, I leaned right, braced myself for an impact and started counting seconds. And sure enough, partway through “three one-thousand” the idiot came screaming in, dead sprint, from the blindside again. But this time, instead of a soft landing zone where he could use my body to absorb his impact, he rammed himself into my shoulder. While I, a former rugby player, was set; ready to take a hit. He dropped like a rock. 

Good, thinks I; he’s learned a valuable lesson about not overrunning players in a non-contact league. Blindside hits are always dangerous and are never allowed in Ultimate. But unbelievably, he bounces to his feet and starts yelling in my face. This crossed a line. I threw the disc to the ground, hard, and gave him A Look. I can be pretty intense and I was pissed; that apparently came across. He instantly shut up and walked away. And he did not wipe out another player that day. 😉 

There was an odd moment afterwards though. I mentioned the play to a friend of mine, who actually had introduced me to Ultimate years before. She thought I’d done something very unsporting; shameful even. But I thought it through, with that in mind, and I stand by the play. The only dangerous thing I did was brace myself for an impact that shouldn’t happen in the first place! And the guy was going to eventually hurt someone; not all Ultimate players have decades of background in contact sports.

The Hammer came down

I’ve made some gaffs when playing with strong people; they have moves & throws that the regular leagues I play in don’t usually have, so my default reaction can be the wrong one.

One day we were playing a pickup game in D.C., on the Ellipse in front of the White House. I was making a deep cut into the end zone and broke to the wide side of the field, assuming the disc would get swung to the wide side. Just after making the break, something reminded me: Curtis had the disc on the short side of the field, and Curtis was a Nationals level player. My mind raced back to the first time I had played Ultimate. After I had made a similar cut to the wide side, a savvy vet told me high-level throwers expected cutters to always cut to the the closest of the sidelines, as soon as they hit the endzone. Anticipating this cut let’s the handler throw the disc before the cut is made, such that the disc gets to the spot at just the right moment; a very hard play to defend. I screamed “shit!” to myself and dug into the turf for a complete 180 reversal. Fortunately I often run in a very low stance, which lets you do a much harder reversal than when you are upright. 

I made the reversal, and sure enough, the bloody disc was already coming down fast; a screamer of a hammer, but it was not going to flatten out before hitting the ground so I was going to have to try and catch a blade. Outside of my range. Inches from the ground. I only had time for a desperate layout, throwing myself to the ground, arching my body and stretching my right hand out to the max. 

The trick to catching a screamer is to let your hand travel backwards with the disc impact, giving you more time to snag it. But this screamer was already inches from the ground; I was going to have to try for The Perfect Catch. No space, no margin for error. I could feel the back of my hand scraping along the ground, but I just managed to get my hand between the edge of the disc and the dirt. Smack! The disc came down hard, right into the palm of my hand, and I clenched the fingers for a perfect catch.

Italians have the best rules

One of the problems with pickup teams is you often don’t know the other people’s skillsets; who will lay out for a disc, who can make a deep throw, etc, who can bring down a jump ball, etc. I always try for a pre-game throwing session with everybody I don’t know, so they know they can make a break-mark cut, or go deep to either side. Laying out and catching skills are harder to showcase. 😉

At Paganello, fortune worked in my favor. Early in the first game I was cutting to the endzone and the thrower just horked the disc; it was sailing out of bounds, like, way out of bounds. But Paganello beach uses the ‘toe under the tape’ rule. If you can hook the sideline tape with your toes and drag it out of bounds as you chase the disc down, it is a good catch. And this was the perfect use case! The disc was going to land about 10 feet out of bounds. My layout catches have always been strong, and I remembered the rule in time to give it a try. I hooked both feet under the tape as I dove for the disc, stretching one hand out to the disc. I managed to get my fingers under the disc before it hit the sand and made the catch, right in front of our team’s bench. And now all the other throwers knew all they had to do was put the frisbee into my general area: the rest I’d handle for them. Throwers love a receiver who can clean up any mistakes, so you get a lot more throws in your direction!

This paid off the next day. Our best player was from a US champion contender, Sockeye. We needed a score to hit halftime with a lead and we were working the disc down the field; the short, easy passes were working, until our Sockeye player made a throwing error: the disc was too high, too fast, and heading out of bounds. Sometimes, rarely, my body finds a way to make a big jump; mostly I don’t have much in the way of ups. This potential catch was one of those cases. But not only did I have to elevate, a lot, for the catch, I needed to get a foot down quickly before I was out of bounds. I got up high enough to get a couple of fingers on the disc and slammed down a foot quickly enough to stay in bounds. Sockeye called out the catch later as the hottest catch of the team so far. 🙂

Over-trained in Italy

Michelle and I took some time off to tour Europe a second time, with a less frenetic pace. I had gotten 5 weeks extra PTO for the work I did to get The Sims Online out the door. Michelle was only working part time as she finished her master’s degree, and both of us needed a change. We picked up with some German friends for the Paganello Beach tourney. It is a high level tournament: 90 teams from 30 countries and you need to qualify to get in.

I had done a lot of prep for this tournament. I was over forty, with six knee surgeries (I blew apart my right knee a few years earlier at Worlds). But I really love competition and the Zen of frisbees and body motion. The only way to compensate was to be in top shape, and with top throws, to make up for my lessened mobility. Worse, we’d never played beach Ultimate before! We found a California beach tourney: Lai Out, down in LA, and signed up for some practice. Beach changes the game quite a bit. It is very hard to run fast  or make cuts in sand. And yikes; my poor calves were mooing unhappily! The throws are different too. You spend much more time throwing to space than at people, and a couple of steps is all a receiver needs to be open on loose sand. We had a great time but knew there was a lot of work ahead of us!

Beyond the obvious calf & throw work, I added a lot of resistance band work for stabilization, balance and explosive first steps. Then, the week before our vacation started, disaster struck! I was drilling forty minutes each morning on my throwing skills and it was paying off, so I bumped time to an hour. Then I had a strong interview on the Microsoft campus and thought I should check out their sports field; a very nice astroturf-type space, well suited to the winter rains. I had a bag of dics in the car, so I did another hour of drills, just because. 😉 Then some frisbee people showed up: they had a lot of Ultimate players. It would have been rude to bail, plus I was still hesitant about the winter rains; these people might be colleagues soon so I decided to stay and throw with them. Then a pickup game started, and you can’t stop at that point either. Next morning: my hand won’t move!

I had overtrained and was now paying for it. Fortunately we had some time in Northern Italy; the Cinque Terrra area. My hand was slowly getting better, but now I was antsy for a different reason: I might be either a rusty thrower from the forced time off, or my hand would still be too weak to throw well.

Under & Up

I met my wife Michelle through Ultimate Frisbee; playing on the Ellipse in front of the White House. There was instant chemistry, but she was involved so nothing came of it right away. Eventually we started dating and going to tournaments together.

One weekend tourney was in Delaware. Michelle’s team was on a different set of fields, so we didn’t see much of each other. But Michelle came over on a break, just in time to see an amazing catch. 😉 

Most great catches are the result of something going wrong and this one was no exception. The thrower was in the middle of the field and swung a pass to me on the narrow side but the throw was way off target. My defender had taken the inside track and had an easy possible block. But he got a little fancy and laid out for the block with a Superman pose: both arms stretched out in front, flying gracefully through the air, 2 to 3 feet off the ground. If he had done a side layout, only stretching one arm for the block, I wouldn’t have had a chance. My conscious mind saw the underthrow and started my body to move in that direction. I saw there was some space underneath my defender, then my unconscious mind took over. When this reflexive action happens, I usually get a slight gap in time, where all I can see is black, then my brain catches up with what’s going on; I often find myself in some new, unplanned position that I have to recover from. This time, my perception returned while I was sailing along underneath my defender, squeezed in somehow between the ground and his body! I reached up with one hand, between his outstretched arms; this let me reach the disc before him for a spectacular catch. He was a fairly small guy so having him land on top of me as we skidded to a stop was nothing. The thrower ran up as soon as she could to apologise for the bad throw and I cut her off, laughing “you may have set up the best catch of my life; thanks!” And better still, Michelle was there, on the sideline, maybe 15 yards from the catch so she had a great view. I was a bit disappointed when she smiled and said she had seen the catch; I was hoping for a little “wow!” factor from my new girlfriend. As it turns out, I had already developed a reputation for making hard catches though, so it was nothing new to her, 😉