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Mercer Middle School Coach Sam Terry watches the Franklin High boys' Ultimate Frisbee team with Franklin's Henry Phan at a regional tournament in Corvallis, Oregon on May 15, 2011. Photo by Michael Werner.

Mercer Middle School Coach Sam Terry watches the Franklin High boys' Ultimate Frisbee team with Franklin's Henry Phan at a regional tournament in Corvallis, Oregon on May 15, 2011. Photo by Michael Werner.


Ultimate Frisbee Flies High In South Seattle Schools

Phyllis Fletcher

You might have friends who play Ultimate Frisbee, a field game with a disc instead of a ball. They probably learned the game at college, or afterwards with friends. They play to stay in shape and have fun. For some public school kids in South Seattle, the game is more than that. KUOW's Phyllis Fletcher reports on the rise of Ultimate in South Seattle.


Henry Phan's high school league just named him most valuable player. He first found out about Ultimate in middle school. His friend had been playing since elementary school and wanted Henry to join up. Henry was skeptical.

Phan: "Thinkin' that, 'Oh, you guys are playing Frisbee? You guys are just playing catch with each other? That's weak!' You know, that's what I thought."

Henry was a seventh–grader at Mercer Middle School. He claims he was chubby.

Phan: "Well, you know, I watched a lot of cartoons, particularly Pokemon. Played Yugio. Mario Car was on blast."

On his Nintendo 64. But not anymore.

At a game this fall, Henry helped Franklin High beat University Prep. You would never believe he'd been chubby.

Henry goes horizontal when he has to to get that disc.

A catch in the end zone is how you score.

He does it. His teammate does it — Christian Tugade. Christian is the friend who started in elementary at Bailey Gatzert. When he got to middle school, Christian was scared.

Tugade: "I probably was the smallest one there."

But he surprised the other kids because he was the only one with experience playing Ultimate.

Tugade: "All the basketball people were just like, 'Oh, this guy's filthy, he can throw really far.' So, yeah. That motivated me, to, like, help my team."

The Mercer team of 2008; Christian and Henry start laughing when they remember —

Phan: " — The really weird mesh of people that you got."

Henry names a black kid, a white kid, a Mexican kid and an East African girl who played in a skirt.

Henry says the Mercer Middle School team was a party mix, and the kids were the Cheetos and Rice Chex.

Phan: "Yeah, you don't expect it to be good, but bam, it hits. You know what I'm sayin'? It's that good."

They were that good. They won four titles. Some kids played with an adult league — in 8th grade.

People at tournaments who hadn't heard about the Mercer team were surprised. Ultimate is popular with prep schools and colleges. Henry says their middle school team was the first in the area where the majority of players were minorities.

Phan: "We did stand out. Like, it happened. It was pretty weird at first, but then the community got to know who we were, and so they welcomed us."

The Mercer team played all over the Northwest. They won a world exhibition game in Canada. It was a defining moment for Henry and Christian and their coaches.

Sam Terry: "That was the biggest thing that I had ever done. This was the most important thing that I had ever done."

Sam Terry is an Ultimate coach at Mercer. He's quick to point out he didn't start the Mercer Ultimate team. It started in the '90s, but eventually fell by the wayside. Then, the PE teacher found out Sam had played in high school and college, and asked him to restart the team.

Sam recruited another coach: Rex Gaoaen. Rex had only seen people play Ultimate once, at Greenlake.

Gaoaen: "And they were just running around in a box or something, and just tossing the disc back and forth. I didn't know what that was. It just looked awkward to me."

But Rex agreed to help out. He joined a league to learn the game, and he found out Ultimate has a special rule.

Gaoaen: "You don't have refs on the field, and it's self–officiated. The players on the field, if they call a foul, they call a foul, and they talk it out with whoever fouled them. And it clicked in my head that, wow, this is a great tool with getting to build this relationship with these kids."

This self–rule is called "the spirit of the game." Henry says the spirit of the game might be the reason something happened when Ultimate took off in South Seattle.

Henry says things were bad then between Mercer and a rival school down the hill: Aki Kurose.

Phan: "Kids would always, like, group up and go over to each other's school and fight each other for no apparent reason. I don't know, maybe they just really hated each other."

But he says both schools developed their Ultimate programs.

Phan: "And now, it's crazy that the kids from Mercer and the kids from Aki are actually friends, as crazy as that sounds: from beating each other up all the time to now becoming friends. And I don't want to put that just because it's Ultimate. But then again, look at it. It's mainly why they're all friends."

Between Aki and Mercer, hundreds of kids play Ultimate now.

Henry and Christian say the whole experience has made them better people. Everything, from playing on a co–ed team with girls to developing confidence, and having friends at high schools all over town.

Henry and Christian are seniors at Franklin High where they co–captain the boys' Ultimate team, and they're assistant coaches at their middle school alma mater, Mercer.

I'm Phyllis Fletcher, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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