KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — America's world champion ultimate frisbee athletes don't take themselves too seriously. Still, they wouldn't mind getting a bit more respect.
"Sure, it would have been a lot cooler if Obama had called me up and said 'Good luck to you, bro,'" said star Team USA member Beau Kittredge.
Kittredge and his teammates grabbed the gold medal Tuesday night at the World Games here in Taiwan, beating a scrappy Japanese team in a hard-fought, physical match in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
Not that most Americans would know. No U.S. broadcaster picked up World Games coverage, and the U.S. media presence (aside from yours truly) was zero.
Ultimate frisbee may be one of the fastest-growing recreational sports in the United States, but it's still fighting to shed its image as a campus quad past-time for the patchouli crowd, and be taken seriously on the world stage.
"The goal is to get more people to know that ultimate's a real sport with real athletes," said Kittredge after the team's gold medal match. "We train just as hard as anyone else in any other sport. And if anyone thinks we don't, they're welcome to step on the field."
Part of the challenge is that it's such a young sport. Recreational frisbee was the post-war invention of a U.S. World War II veteran, and ultimate dates to a New Jersey high school in the late 1960s. It's only caught on outside America in the last couple of decades.
Now, young Americans are flocking to the sport, said Team America 2009 captain Gwen Ambler. There were 4.9 million ultimate frisbees players last year, up from 4 million in 2007, according to statistics cited here, and Ambler said some 600,000 of those play the sport at least 20 times a year. "Some of the growth and recognition is germinating now," Ambler said. "So I'm optimistic in the long run."
Could it ever become an Olympic sport? "The Olympics isn't adding team sports, it's cutting them — so that would be a hard sell right now," Ambler said. "But the fact that it's gotten such a good reception here is a good sign for the sport's marketability, and its appeal to fans."
Jonathan Potts, president of the World Flying Disc Federation (so named to avoid the use of the trademarked term "Frisbee"), agreed, saying graduating to the Olympics would be "in the very distant future," due to the sport's limited resources.
"We're on a steep learning curve," said Potts, who was "tweeting" the progress of competition from Kaohsiung. "We're clearly not ready for the Olympics in terms of organizational capacity."
Then there's the question of whether the sport even wants to go Olympic. The game is unique among team sports in being referee-less, with a strong emphasis on "spirit" and sportsmanship. Potts says going Olympic could involve compromising those founding values. "Right now we're against having referees, because it violates the spirit of the game," he said.
Call it ultimate's awkward adolescence — the game's not sure what it wants to become, and how seriously it wants to be taken. In Kaohsiung, the teams balanced the intense on-field attitude of world-class competition with a friendly, relaxed vibe off the field.
Ambler said the team "plays best when really loose," so they kept it fun in the lead-up to the finals — with karaoke on team bus rides, impromptu dance sessions and playings of Ludacris' "On Top of the World" in the locker room. Teammate Chelsea Putnam sported a gelled Mohawk hairdo for competition, and Ambler "poofed" hers out.
But make no mistake: training was a grueling, six-month process. Twenty Team USA members were chosen from 130 that applied; that was whittled to 13 who made the cut to go to Kaohsiung. (Seven took the field at a time, four men and three women; ultimate is the rare co-ed team sport.)
Many of the athletes are members of elite U.S. clubs — Ambler, for example, plays for Fury, a San Francisco Bay-area women's ultimate club.
And as with any world-class sport, the players devoted countless hours to getting in top physical and mental shape. Given that, the lack of recognition can be frustrating.
"It was distressing how little media — none — was happening in the U.S. about this," said Cassey Crouch, the mother of gold medalist Cara Crouch, 26. "A bone thrown to them would have been nice. They worked very hard."
Cassey and her husband Michael, of Sugar Land, Texas, said their daughter played soccer before, but started ultimate nine years ago at the University of Texas at Austin. "We love watching it," Cassey said. "The passion for the game is unbelievable."
That was clear in Kaohsiung on Tuesday night where excited Japanese and U.S. fans alternated cheers of "Nippon" and "U.S.A." from the sidelines.
Will that passion translate into more eyeballs and media attention? Stay tuned for the next World Games in 2013 — in Cali, Colombia.