THE unique sport of ultimate has taken Castlemaine mum Robin Murdoch on elite international tours to Europe, even though she has never played the quick-paced flying disc game herself.
As a chaperone for Australia’s 19-and-under women’s team, Robin has attended two World Junior Ultimate Championships and witnessed the best young exponents in action.
She recently returned from Ireland, where her side took part in the 2012 world tournament.
“The girls came seventh, which isn’t as well as they have done in other years,” Robin says of the result of their campaign among a field of 15 competing nations.
“But given a lot of the players had only started playing this year, they did remarkably well.”
Robin says the ranking was impressive given the fledgling nature of the sport in Australia compared to countries like America, where it is played in schools and to qualify for the world team, you have to have played at national level for five years.
“The Americans take it extremely seriously,” she says.
“In Australia, ultimate is a predominantly university-based sport and it can be difficult to put together junior teams.
“We struggled to get a girls’ team this year to go to worlds, but it is becoming more widely known and there are now people working in a couple of states whose job it is to promote ultimate frisbee in schools and that is certainly going to help the sport grow in this country.”
The 52-year-old became involved in the disc sport through two of her children, who began playing in Creswick during their high school years and went on to represent their country at junior level.
Rohan played for Australia in Finland in 2004; Sophie won a silver medal with the “Southern Terra” girls’ side in Canada in 2008, and was a member of the team that finished fourth in Germany in 2010 when her mum went along as chaperone for the first time.
Though she was too old for the team this year, Sophie travelled to Ireland as an assistant coach. She now lives in South Australia and plays for the Adelaide league team.
Ultimate is a seven-a-side game played on a rectangular field that combines elements of many different sports, but is probably most closely aligned to rugby.
“Basically, you pass a Frisbee rather than a ball and the aim is to get it down to the ‘end zone’ and pass it to one of your players in that end zone to score a point,” explains Robin.
Players have 10 seconds to dispose of the disc, they can’t run with it, no physical contact is allowed, and the Frisbee has to be caught on the full each time or a turnover is forced.
But what sets it apart from most other sporting competitions is that it is entirely self-refereed.
Even at world championship level, there are no umpires or officials calling the shots, just the 14 players on the field themselves ruling on fouls, line calls and whether a score counts.
“If someone disputes a point or calls a foul, the two players sort it out together... sometimes they will ask the captains or other players for their opinions, but they negotiate until they reach an agreement,” says Robin.
“If a decision can’t be reached, they replay the point.”
This focus on fairness, collaboration and negotiation forms the basis of what is known in the ultimate world as “Spirit of the Game”.
It is regarded as the most important aspect of the sport, in which competitiveness is encouraged but, according to the rules, “never at the expense of respect between players, adherence to the rules, and the basic joy of play”.
At tournaments, teams are not only honoured for their win-loss ratio; a Spirit of the Game award is also given for the best display of fair-mindedness.
“In 2008, when our junior girls got the silver medal in Canada, they also got the Spirit award as well, which was quite unusual,” Robin says.
“The Australians are well known for their good spirit and sportsmanship.”
In her role as one of the national team chaperones, Robin’s job on tour involves providing moral and logistical support for the squad, which can include girls as young as 15 on their first trip overseas.
“Sometimes it can be just offering a shoulder to cry on,” she says.
“But during the tournament itself, the chaperone’s main role is to provide a good lunch for the team each day and to wash the girls’ playing uniforms at the end of each day.”
Not much different to the daily job of being a mum, really.
Robin says her family has grown to love ultimate for a whole host of reasons.
“It is a great sport because there is a high level of fitness involved because you are running from one end of the field to the other,” says Robin.
“And because it’s self-umpired, it promotes fairness and that spirit of negotiation and collaboration.
“But for my children, and for me too as a chaperone, I think it is the lasting friendships we have made from a range of countries around the world.
“It’s also that whole Spirit thing that keeps us interested and involved – as well as the skill level and the fitness, it’s feeling like you are part of a family. It’s like being part of a Frisbee community, rather than just a team.”
Not that Robin has been tempted to take it up competitively herself.
“I occasionally have a throw, but I haven’t played a game,” she laughs. “I’m a bit hopeless at catching – it’s really hard and if you catch it the wrong way it hurts!”
Ultimate leagues operate in all Australian states, with Victorian competitions scattered around Melbourne and in Ballarat.
Visit www.ultimatevictoria.com.au for more information.