ROK-U Spring 2017 Season Wrap-Up

This past weekend saw the end of another season of the recreational Ultimate in Korea. Spring 2017 was an interesting season for me, as I began to take Ultimate more seriously than I have in the past. I saw great growth in myself and the team I play for, the Wonju Knights, even if the playoffs didn’t quite go as planned. We may not have won the league or even the consolation bracket, but we certainly had a good time and looked damn good doing it.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, my wife Kris has been in recovery from a torn ACL that she unfortunately picked up earlier this year. Despite this, she stoically remained captain of our team for the season. She didn’t miss a weekend, and gave the team encouragement and hearty cheers from the sideline. Her presence was inimitable, and boosted our morale immeasurably. Sadly, she could not add that fire onto the playing field itself. This left a gap in our handlers (essentially the playmakers of Ultimate) which I had to step up and fill. While I had played handler for the past few seasons, I was now required to play it for every point that I was on the field, and I was needed on the field far more than I was in previous seasons. I felt a lot of pressure at first, but the more I played, the more confident I became in my own play. The increased need for my mediocre skill helped me push past my previous skill ceilings. I am by no means anywhere near a good player, but I am on the road to getting there. My skills are no longer the weak point of my game – that is now my fitness, which I will work on in the coming months of downtime.

Beyond my own improvements, I saw great progress from every single person on our team. Newer players began to throw throws that they would not have done last season, and gained a greater understanding of how Ultimate works. Even experienced players on the team threw fewer risky, flashy throws. Off of the field, most of the players on the team were already friends before the season, and we tried our best to include the new players to the team into our fold. After play concluded on Saturday, we held a fines and awards evening to acknowledge everyone’s contribution to the team, and to have a few drinks together. Everyone received an award from the team, reflecting on some aspect of their play, attitude, or pretty much anything. Mine was the following:

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Even though I improved this season, I had a tendency to get a tad grumpy at myself whenever I made a clear error on the field. This may have involved outbursts on the sideline at no-one other than me. Over and above this, my defense style is quite passionate. Hence, the Super Saiyan award.

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Don’t mind me. I just missed an easy catch. I’m fine, I swear.

This weekend may have been a great final bonding moment for the team, but it was not our most successful. We finished league play in the middle of the table, landing a solid seed for the playoffs. However, our team cohesion just wasn’t quite there this weekend. We all missed easy catches (there may have been a couple of Super Saiyan moments from me), our throws went to nowhere more often than any other time this season, and we just weren’t gelling. We didn’t manage to win a single game in the playoffs, losing to teams that we’d beaten during the season. Our heads were a little down after our first loss, but by the end of the day, most people had realized that it was the last chance for this iteration of the Knights to be together, and we just had some fun.

With spring season of 2017 over, all that lies ahead for the next few months is the off-season. There is a club tournament coming up, but I didn’t make the cut for that one. For Kris and I, we have a couple of months to decide whether we will play again in the autumn. Kris may still be too injured to play, and I will need to decide whether I’d rather spend time with her or play Ultimate. Judging my how quickly this year has flown by, we will need to decide before we know it. Until then, we’ll just keep on enjoying our life here in Korea, and seeing what the future holds for us.

 

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Torn

Almost two weeks ago, my wife injured herself pursuing her favourite hobby – playing Ultimate. At first, we thought the injury to be minor. As time progressed, it became clear that it was more than just a niggle. As she went to daily physiotherapy sessions and eventual MRI scans, the projections got worse. Yesterday, she had to have surgery to fix the problem – a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). She is in recovery and the surgery seems to have gone well, but it’s been a tough few days for us.

In the middle of a club practice just under two weeks ago, Kris came down hard on her left leg and immediately cried out in pain. She had the presence of mind to stop playing for the rest of the practice. At that point, no-one was exactly sure of the extent of the injury. There had not been the popping sound most commonly heard when an ACL is torn, so the general conjecture was a sprain or something less severe. Our friends recommended to take it easy, and if it didn’t feel any better in the next few days, to go see a doctor.

When it didn’t get any better, Kris did exactly that. The doctor sided with the theory that it was most likely not a tear, but a sprain, and set Kris up with daily appointments at a physiotherapist to work the injured knee and try diminish pain and regain range of motion. After a week, the doctor re-assessed Kris, and found that she was not progressing as would be expected. He scheduled an MRI scan to get a better look at what was going on.

After a tense weekend of waiting for the results, we were floored to be told that it was an ACL tear after all. This type of injury is not uncommon in Ultimate, and can put a player out of commission for more than a year in severe cases. While it is possible to live with the injury without surgery, Kris would never be able to play Ultimate again. This was ruled out instantly, and we elected to have ACL reconstructive surgery. The surgery is said to be very painful and quite expensive, but the alternative was simply not an option.

In the few days between the decision to go through with surgery and the day of the surgery itself, Kris was a hive of fluttering emotional states. When I asked her how she was feeling, she broke down, saying that she felt guilty for wasting so much money. In response, I told her:

“Look. You’re my wife. I will spend any amount of money just to see you smile one more time.”

This is one of those lines that may strike you as trite and obsequious, nothing more than a punt to try help her feel better. As I was saying it, I was worried that I would feel the same way. However, when I had said it and I looked at her, head curled into my shoulder to hide her tears, I knew that it was the honest truth. This is a woman that I have traveled halfway across the world with. A woman that I have sworn to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part. And I honestly would do anything if it meant her happiness.

When the day of the surgery came around, we went together to the hospital. I helped to comfort her in the hours before the surgery, but I cannot imagine the fear that she was feeling. As someone as afraid of needles as she is, as someone that has never had a major surgery before, for her to do so in a foreign country where the doctors were giving her instructions in another language, fills me with admiration and awe. She held back tears when they inserted the IV, something that she believed would be worse for her than the surgery itself. When I had to leave her side to go to work, I held back tears of my own. I knew that the doctors would do everything they could for her, but the fear of complications fogged my experience of the day.

When I had finished my classes for the day, I rushed back to the hospital. I ran to catch the train as it left the station, just to shave precious minutes off the journey. I did take time to stop to pick up chocolate muffins from a bakery near the hospital, though. She had mentioned them before and I thought that it would cheer her up.

When I saw her for the first time after the surgery, my heart was filled with joy and sadness. She was in pain, sleepy, and thirsty, but she wasn’t allowed to sleep or drink water yet. There was a very kind Korean lady in the ward who had stayed with her, made sure that she did not sleep, and kept Kris as comfortable as possible. I sat down by her side and stayed there, distracting her mind from the passage of time and making sure that she stayed awake until the time for rest came. Those minutes were hard for us. We were happy to be together, but what Kris truly wanted was not to be awake, but asleep, away from the pain and discomfort. I shared with her the encouraging messages that friends had sent her. I told her about my mundane day at work. We just looked at each other, held hands, and smiled.

When the time came that she could rest, she smiled broadly, told me to wake her up when she could drink water, and drifted away into a peaceful nap. I sat by her side, marveling at her strength. Shortly afterwards, I woke her, gave her some fresh water and a bit of food, and helped her get to sleep once more.

The road to recovery is long. Kris will be on crutches for a month, and unable to play sport for four months at least. Thankfully, with the help of our friends and the doctors at the hospital, the injury was picked up early so treatment could begin early as well. While I wish that there was more I could do for her, we will walk the road ahead together, as we have done for the past years. The months ahead may be tough, but Kris is tougher!

Mind Games: The Return to Ultimate

A few weeks ago, I underwent LASEK eye surgery to correct my severe astigmatism. I wrote a little bit about my experience shortly after the fact. Since then, my eyes have gradually been getting better and better. Objects are becoming less blurry, and I am able to see more clearly every day. However, there were some restrictions placed on me by the surgery, including being unable to engage in sweat-inducing sports (including my beloved Ultimate) for a month. That ban was lifted two weeks ago, and I have participated in two Ultimate weekends since then, with varying degrees of success.

My first Ultimate weekend post-surgery was a club tournament held in the coastal city of Ulsan. It was my first club tournament, and I was rather nervous for multiple reasons. I wasn’t sure how my eyes would cope with strenuous activity again. I wasn’t sure if I could keep up with my opponents, as I am normally not very quick and I hadn’t done any rigorous exercise for an entire month. I thought I might have lost some of my skills. Our wonderful, cheerful team also had many male substitutes. So, I decided to take it easy, only playing when needed and not putting myself onto the field too much.

This proved to be a wise approach. Even in the warm-ups before each game, I struggled slightly with depth perception and generally seeing the disc coming at me. I felt off-balance a lot of the time. I got winded more quickly than usual. I had lost a dash of speed. All of these played a role in not meeting my own personal expectations for the weekend. I dropped catches I should have caught. Opponents that wouldn’t have beaten me a month ago got past me for the score on multiple occasions. I even had to remove myself from the team environment during a break to listen to music and re-centre and re-focus myself.

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The wonderful band of rapscallions that I played with in Ulsan

These mistakes and shortcomings aside, I enjoyed the first weekend back. Overall, I think I did alright – I didn’t let the team down too much, and we ended up with some great results. More importantly, there was always a positive attitude and atmosphere within the team, and we had great fun together. I took what I could from the Ulsan tournament, and looked ahead to my first weekend with my ROK-U team, the Wonju Knights.

Sadly for me, I hadn’t truly overcome the problems of the Ulsan weekend. I was still slower than I was, and for some reason my head just wasn’t in the right space. The Knights managed to win our first game of the weekend (something that would have been cause for celebration a season before), but I felt frustrated with my own performance. On the club team, I was a minnow and I knew it. On the Knights, I thought I would get more game time and play a more crucial role in the team. And yet, I would let others go on the field before me. I will generally sacrifice my own play time to make sure the more under-utilized men on our team get a run. It’s all about the spirit of the game and making sure everyone feels valued. Normally I would be okay with it – it’s what I do. But this time, I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. I both wanted to and didn’t want to sacrifice, but I did it anyway because that’s who I am. Once again, the team had a great time around me and enjoyed decent success, winning two of the three games that we played in and generally keeping spirits high in the process.

I guess the biggest impact that LASEK has had on my Ultimate game is not anything physical. I can see well enough to play at a decent level. My fitness (whatever small level I had to begin with) will return. The most significant hit I’ve taken appears to be mental. With a big weekend of important games this weekend, I need to take time to work through the mental obstacles preventing me from performing and enjoying the game I love. I need to stop thinking about dozens of different things and just get out there and have fun throwing a piece of plastic with my friends.

Sport or, How I Learned to Socialize Whilst Sweating

I sit with most of my body aching at present. My shoulder is sore. My calves are tight. My back occasionally reminds me that it is not at tip-top performance either. Finally, my throat is hoarse, and my voice gaining husky sultriness and quiet awkwardness in equal measure. Why is this? Bonding over sport, namely Ultimate and rugby. There were losses. There were wins (although these were fewer). Most importantly, friendships were formed or forged even stronger through the simple acts of playing and watching sports that we love together.

In school, I found sport largely an odd phenomenon. Sure, I played sport all of the way through my schooling career. I was in the 3rd cricket team in my final year. I batted at number seven at earliest, and bowled one over per game if I was lucky. I occasionally latched on to the optimistic thought that my fielding was that good, but most of the time I realized that I was profoundly average. The sport that I enjoyed the most in school was hockey. Although I did not achieve a higher team placement than cricket, I felt like a more integral part of the team than I did in cricket.

My first truly great sporting experiences lay on the hockey field, but on the club level. When I say club level, I do not mean the kind of club level where the players are all sporting six-packs, there is constant training, and my team is expected to win the title each and every year. I mean the kind of club level where the players are all sporting six-packs of beer, there is no training whatsoever, and the team is expected, well, to hopefully remain in the same league and not get relegated.

It was great fun, and I had many happy memories from my club hockey days. Some of these great memories came from on the field, but the majority arose during the shenanigans that took place off of the pitch. One memory that springs to mind most often is the one and only time I have seen my father truly drunk. Here is a picture from that night.

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Doesn’t he look majestic? I was a year or so shy of legal drinking age, and fairly responsible. I ended up driving us home, because he was incapable of doing so. It was a night I will never forget.

Whilst hockey was my first foray into social sport, I feel that I truly found my outdoor sporting community in Ultimate Frisbee at Wits. Everywhere else, I had felt a little bit of an outsider, for one reason or another. I was too slow. I was too young. I didn’t drink enough. The list goes on, and many are likely to be overly critical perceptions from my mind. But in Ultimate, while I wasn’t the most integral part of the lineup, I still felt like part of the team to a degree that I had never felt before. Some of my strongest friends from my days at university come from the Ultimate team, despite me only playing in my final year in the university. I even played with my supervisor for my Honours thesis project whilst doing my thesis. Witsies will always be there to jol (have a good time for all of you not from South Africa), and that is what I loved about Wits Ultimate and the Ultimate community as a whole – everyone simply wanted to have fun.

This feeling continued into Korea, where the emphasis on the community is even more intense, especially in ROK-U, the main league in which I am playing now. ROK-U is largely comprised of expats from countries as varied as Russia and Canada, with several stops off in South Africa along the way. As a result, when game weekends are planned, so are organised social events for the teams to mingle and grow their expat connections within Korea. Ultimate people are great. Everyone is a little weird, and no-one cares, because you are all there together, in a strange country, playing the game you all love.

This past weekend, there was a two-day game weekend in Daejeon, which is pretty central in Korea. At one of these parties, the South Africans in ROK-U all bonded by staying up until 2am to watch our national rugby team, the Springboks, suffer a narrow defeat to the rugby juggernaut that is New Zealand. It was a heart-breaking affair, but I will never forget the sounds of a handful of South Africans (some more drunk than others) screaming at the top of our lungs at a television screen in the corner of a bar. It really was one of those special moments.

So, to everyone looking to meet new people, try sport. I’d say try Ultimate, but I may be a little biased. I am sure there are many sporting codes being played really close to you that you never knew existed. You don’t have to be serious, or even fit. I most certainly am not. Just get out there. Spend a little bit of time away from the digital overload. You won’t regret it. Not even when everything aches on a Monday evening and you have to carry heavy shopping.

Victory! and other stories: ROK-U Game Week 2

Our amazing ROK-U team, Cheonwon, managed to win our first game of the season. Our weekend started rusty. There was a brief break for varying levels of drunken revelry and a stay at an amazing hostel. Then the sweet taste of victory washed over us. Our final game may have the been tainted by administrative hijinks, but nothing could take away the feeling of success that we all felt at pulling together as a team.

The games this weeks were held in Busan, the coastal city that we initially wanted to be placed in, and fell in love with over Kristen’s birthday weekend. For the second time this year, we played on sand, and for the second time this year, it was hard on our bodies. Our team had never played on sand together, and it showed in our games on the first day of play. We were rusty. We were slow. We were uncoordinated, and miscommunication abounded. Our first game epitomised these flaws, and was a demoralising loss to one of the better teams in the league.

Nevertheless, we avoided falling into a negative mental state as a result of the loss. We acknowledged that the game had happened, noted some mistakes to be worked on, and proceeded to the next game, against a team native to Busan. While we lost once more, it was a much tighter affair, with our noble Cheonwons only going down 4-8. It was in this game that we first showed signs that we could win a game on the sandy beaches of Busan.

Once our second game was completed, our games for Saturday were finished, and we had the rest of the afternoon and evening to our own, before we would head to the arranged ROK-U party at the local Irish pub, The Wolfhound. Our team took the time to visit our accommodation for the evening, a local hostel named COOOOL Guesthouse. They most certainly lived up to their name – the space was very well-designed, open, clean, and, frankly, cool. We put our kit down, had quick (or, in the case of some ladies, not so quick) showers, and headed out for a team dinner. We ate our fill, took some photos, and left for The Wolfhound.

This was my first taste of an Ultimate party in Korea, and I must say that it was a great night. Even though I was not drunk, I had more fun than most of the drunk people there. It was wonderful to see large portions of the teams in a social setting, as opposed to on the field. I played darts, I danced, I walked around in a onesie once more. The theme was pyjama party, and my actual sleeping clothes (or lack thereof) would not really be safe or pleasant for the general public to see. After Kris and I had had our fill of merriment, we left, lay down in our bunk bed, and slept soundly.

We arose in the mid-morning, with our first game of the day only at 1 p.m. Our wonderful host at COOOOL had prepared a scrumptious breakfast of egg and cheese on toast, complete with condiments and French pressed coffee. Where nothing more than a loaf of ordinary bread, some jam, and instant coffee in a tub would have sufficed, COOOOL went the extra mile. When we return to Busan, we will most certainly be returning to COOOOL. We then packed our things and said goodbye to our lovely host, heading to the beach to support the other teams/spy on them for their weaknesses.

One of the teams that we had our eyes on were the team that we would be playing next, Feel. Unlike most of the other teams in the league, they seemed to be less than perfectly organised, similar to our own level. We were cautiously optimistic that we could give them a tough game. We could maybe even win. In our pre-game pep talk, everyone was ready, and had a fire in their eyes that had not been there in the first game on Saturday. We knew that we started to really come together as a team in the second game of Saturday’s play, and if we played at that level, we could show the other teams what we could truly do.

The first half began well. We managed to score a couple of quick points, leading the game for the first time of any game in the season up until that point. After our initial burst of scoring, the game slowed down, and we began trading points back and forth. However, once we scored our sixth point, the half ended. The score was 6-2 to us. There were many smiles in our half-time huddle, but behind those smiles lay weary eyes and beads of sweat – we had run hard in the first half, and we were all tired. This tiredness showed in the first part of the second half. We became complacent, and Feel capitalised on this, scoring three quick points of their own to bring the score 6-5. At this point, hard cap was called. This meant that the game would end after the next point was scored, unless the game ended in a tie. My body was quite broken, and I spent this crucial time on the sideline, cheering for my team. Both teams played scrappily, a combination of exhaustion and in-game stress leading to a host of throws going awry. After this one point lasted ten minutes, the fastest cutter on Feel managed to break away from his mark and catch a lofty pass in the end zone, bringing the scoreline even again, and forcing the game into the Universal Point. Whoever scored the next point in the game would win it.

If the hard cap point was a marathon, the Universal Point was a supermarathon. Even with fresh legs on the field after the hard cap, the game had been long, and we all were wrecked. Instead of trying to work the disc up the field with short passes, both teams fired long-range passes, hoping to catch one of their respective cutters in the end zone and end the game quickly. They did not succeed. The point went on for twenty minutes. Fast cuts and interplay changed to ambling and desperation. And then we managed to get the disc deep in the Feel half. I made eye contact with our handler, Jotham. We both knew what had to happen. I faked a cut, beat my mark, and bolted for the left-hand side of the end zone. Jotham floated a beautiful pass, slightly beyond my reach. I leapt into the air. I caught it. We had won. It is the proudest moment in my Ultimate career up until this point.

Our next game, which had been rescheduled to a later time, was less positive. Many players on our team had booked train tickets to and from Busan weeks in advance, using the earlier timetable, where our final game took place one hour earlier than it ended up doing. Consequently, almost half of our players left in order to not miss their trains. Our last game was a rout.

Not even the frustration of losing awfully due largely do to administration could wipe the smile off of my face though. I had scored the winning point for my team in the most dramatic fashion. I felt like a king. Even now, sleep creeping in on my senses like black mist, I think back to that moment and smile. Sure, I may have fulfilled my role rather well at that moment. But without my team, I would not have been in that position. And in the moment that I scored, there was nothing in our team’s mind of but the glory of winning our first game, the joy of overcoming everything put in front of us. I helped do that.