Full circle: that time we started an ultimate league
A bunch of years ago, when I was a starving freelance medical illustrator/animator just starting out in Guelph, Ontario, some friends and I met at the Albion Hotel on a winter night and, over pints, we started a non-profit Ultimate league. None of us had ever done anything like that at the time, but we met regularly, and we organized well. We had youth, diverse skills, energy and idealism, a tiny bit of cash in our collective pockets, and maybe just a small chip on our shoulder to show the existing for-profit league in town that we could offer what we relatively more experienced ultimate players and friends considered a better product for much less. We wanted to build something that would grow, build community, and be self-sustaining. And we succeeded. While I currently live elsewhere, I'm still really proud of how we organized and created the Guelph Ultimate Players Association, or GUPA.
When we started, I was part of a three person communications team with two other IT/web guys. They set up the website and sent out email blasts (pre social media) I did all the graphics and design stuff. Our goal was to beat the for-profit league in all things design and communication. We would have better banners, better flyers, better ads, better merch, better tournament info, and a much better website. In short, we would have a better brand. It was the first real thing I had ever really designed and, armed with past Communication Arts annuals, I had carte blanche to go nuts and build what I wanted. There was no way we were going to screw it up so we went all out. I did flash animations...looking back we did all sorts of good stuff. The GUPA logo that I designed was kind of at the center of the whole strategy.
Originally the logo was the elephant headed Indian deity Ganesh throwing frisbees from multiple arms. Too blasphemous we decided. Then it was a guy laying out for a disc. Too male oriented. We agreed we needed a woman on it too since the ultimate we were playing was mixed gender, so we had to have a male and female figure. There's basically two different ways to throw in ultimate - forehand and backhand - so we made sure one figure was doing a forehand (the woman) and the other figure was doing the backhand (the guy). The girl was easy enough: I found a cool image from 2003 nationals in Montreal of a girl from (I think) Ottawa's Stella or maybe Montreal's Storm, or whichever team predated Storm, and I traced it. The guy throwing the backhand, though, was a hard find in just the right way. I couldn't quite get what I wanted, so I simply took a picture of myself in my living room, mock throwing a backhand huck, and traced that. At the time, I had a pretty crappy backhand and now a close, persnickety look at the grip explains why. So there's been a guy (me) throwing a bad backhand on it ever since. The two person logo worked and worked hard. It was on discs, shirts, hats, travel mugs, patches(?), stickers, websites, an epoxy reinforced pair of old tighty-whitey underpants that we fashioned into a trophy for the annual spring Soggy Bottom Bowl, and even a huge banner over one of the main streets in town right next to the farmers market.
Then, after a two or three year stint, we stepped down. I think we ALL stepped down. Volunteer burnout, particularly when it's your "baby", is a real thing and needs to be planned for. Fortunately we did. We anticipated that volunteers needed to be churned regularly when we wrote the bylaws and had already groomed replacements. Even the board position colourfully titled "Minister of Playas" (an ombudsmen, quality assessment role) was groomed for. And we succeeded. Baby successfully handed over. And over. And over. GUPA is approaching 15 years old now and from what I can see, is still going strong. While I live in another city and it's been years since I've played in a GUPA league, I still keep a distant, proud eye on it. Every time I see the logo I smile to myself. It's still a decent logo, it still stands up.
Today I don't play a whole lot of ultimate. I stopped playing competitively about nine years ago, getting progressively worse at the game since, and slowly losing all my hard-earned skills and good habits to low level local leaguey-league play. My wife, however, is a different story. We actually met during that inaugural GUPA season, playing on a team called "The Legend of Pete Isaacs" together. In one game, she threw a blade to me which split my hand open. Then she drove me (without a license) in my manual car to the hospital to get stitches. She has since gone on to get her license and prefer a manual transmission. She has also gone on to play a lot of ultimate, mostly for a women's team in the Waterloo/Guelph area; then with Irish clubs Jabba the Huck and Gravity when we lived in Dublin, where she unfortunately broke her ankle while practicing; then a women's masters team in Toronto. Two years ago, not really knowing who to play for, she switched over to play for a co-ed/mixed team based out of Waterloo and Guelph. She really just wanted to keep playing at a high level and wasn't sure it was a good choice at the time. But she immediately loved her team.
Last week we traveled with that team to small town Lebanon Ohio, just north of Cincinnati, for the 2018 WFDF World Ultimate Club Championships. Her team Crash (as in a "Crash of Rhinos") had qualified the previous summer to represent Canada and was playing in the mixed or co-ed division against teams from all over the world. Once in a lifetime. It was the fulfillment of both Serena's dream to represent Canada and her wish to simply keep playing at a high level, despite some injuries, a job determined to shape her exactly like her office chair, and some chronic problems as a result. For me, I was there in more ways than one. A high level touring team usually sports some sponsorship logos on their jerseys. Since both the Waterloo WODS and GUPA leagues develop and feed players into the competitive touring teams of that region, offering them some field time and maybe a bit of financial support, the logos of both leagues - including my GUPA one - are printed on the right shoulder of the jerseys. There I am out on the field, on the shoulder of each player, still doing it.
I will admit that I didn't expect Serena's team to do very well going into this tournament. They had been losing all season to faster, seemingly more athletic or more experienced American teams, and I just didn't think they had the horses to play at that level. But they won a game. Then they won the next, and the next, and the next: teams from France, Scotland, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany all fell to them. They actually didn't stop winning until they met the eventual world champions, Seattle's BFG, in the quarter finals, falling 15-12. BFG was very good, but no other team scored 12 points on BFG during the tournament, not even the silver medalists, perennially strong Slow White from Boston. This little team went the distance. I was both super impressed by them and super proud of them.
One of the best and most surprising things about ultimate at the world level is jersey trading. Jerseys are a thing in ultimate. Having a good, snazzy dye sublimated jersey is important because at some point late in the tournament the trading starts. It's a really rare and great international and sports moment to see or participate in. Players bring extra jerseys to trade with new international friends and competitors. Crash had some pretty good looking jerseys for Worlds so theirs were in high demand. There were trades with teams from Japan, Columbia, Venezuela, Singapore, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and the UK. At one point, one player from one of the Asian teams, proudly sporting a newly traded Crash jersey looked it over and noticed the sponsor logos on the shoulder. He then asked us what the GUPA logo meant.
Serena explained in her best International English that it was our local league and club. Not until I sat down to type this blog post about the GUPA logo, though, did I make the more important connections and realized what a journey it has been.
So that one winter night in 2004, we sat down in a pub and decided to create a better ultimate community in Guelph. I put the skills I had then to the best use I could. I made a logo and since I couldn't quite find the pose I was looking for, used myself as a model for one of the figures on it. That logo branded a community, and built a sustainable, successful league. There is that and I'm proud of it.
Originally I think I was a very competitive voice in the GUPA organization, pushing for gendered leagues to develop the mens and womens games equally. Part of this was that I felt women weren't going to develop their skills sufficiently when playing on teams, that try as we might to encourage throwing to everyone, always had dudes just throwing to other dudes. The other part was I'm a competitive sort from a competitive (swimming) background, and I had at one point hoped and even kind of dreamed that, out of GUPA, would perhaps rise a good competitive club team. Such a team might one day vie for a national title against the bigger cities, or at very least produce some really great players. There's been two Canadian National titles earned since then to GUPA related teams. Several players who have spent some of their time playing in GUPA leagues have gone on to play for Toronto's GOAT and AUDL team Toronto Rush, Capitals, and Canadian teams competing abroad. It's fair to say the community I wanted has slowly become what I thought it could be. So there's that too, and I'm proud of it.
My little GUPA logo has now been to the World Championships. It's on the jersey of the 5th best mixed team in the world. That is excellent. Flying around the world now, it is worn perhaps more proudly on the shoulders of the athletes returning to their respective countries than when we wore it on the very first GUPA t-shirts we ever printed for our little league. I remember, for the first games of the inaugural season of that little league, that we printed off some big GUPA banners to make it look all official and stuff. We played on a parched, ankle-spraining, undersized little school field in east Guelph, and there was this kind of jamboree feel to it all. It was happening. We made a league and it was filled and we were all playing in it. That's a cool thing to do with your friends. We had two leagues on two different nights: one beginner and the other competitive. And in the very first game of that very first season in GUPA competitive, I met Serena, my partner now of 14 years. Ultimate has since always kind of been the thing we do together, and I have always loved taking the field with her. I do regret now that I don't play much anymore. Maybe that's why she always asks me to come watch. Maybe, had I kept playing, I could have been out on that field with her last week as more than just a logo. I am only realizing now how very, very special it was to be there with her and her team in Ohio last week. Well done my dear. So well done.
That was the best trip to the pub ever.
The following were some alternate logos that I did for GUPA if we ever did womens and mens leagues. I know GUPA was the first (and only?) league in the region that did mens's. Anyone know if they ever got around to doing women's too? Hamilton has a women's league in the winter.