Joanna Mayhew enters the world of Ultimate frisbee to learn more about a rapidly growing and highly addictive sport. Photography Charles Fox.

On a recent Sunday in Phnom Penh, the national anthems of countries like Kazakhstan, Nauru and Cyprus rang out across a large rectangular grass field, surrounded by a slip n’ slide, a toilet-themed photo booth and a scattering of beer cups and water bottles. Brightly uniformed teams participated in sideline chugging contests as a brass band warmed up for a post-game performance.

The main event centred around a small white flying disc and phrases like “scoopy,” “chicken wing” and “the clam.” It may sound like gibberish, but the terms represent key strategies to a sport steadily gaining clout within the capital and wider region: Ultimate Frisbee.

The sport has developed a cult following in recent decades, and Cambodia is quickly catching on. The country’s club team, The Orphans, launched in 2008 and now has more than 70 participants a year. The craze is also gaining traction amongst Cambodians, with local teams forming in Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham.

With similarities to American football, the game consists of teams advancing the disc down a 70-yard field and into an end-zone to score points. Players need endurance, speed and jumping, throwing and catching skills.

“The general impression is you think of frisbee, you think of dogs, of throwing the frisbee around on the beach, so what surprises people most is just the level of exercise and workout you get,” says Greg Bloom, the American founder of the Phnom Penh Ultimate Association (PPUA).

Ultimate is expanding rapidly in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, among other countries. Most major cities host one tournament per year – the Philippines alone has 15 cities hosting – meaning regional players can attend tournaments as often as once a month.

PPUA’s recent Olympic-themed tournament drew 160 players from around the world. But, as evidenced by the obscure country names assigned to teams and the event’s quirky activities, the Ultimate scene is defined by much more than the sport itself.

Ultimate has become its own sub-culture, defined by its hippy roots, inclusive nature, competitiveness and serious partying. Once people become a part of the Ultimate crowd, they’re often fiercely devoted.

“People can’t be away from this sport for too long, they go crazy,” says American Jared Cahners, the ‘Prime Minister’ of PPUA who started playing Ultimate while at university, 20 years ago.

The game is generally mixed gender throughout Asia, and though it takes a high degree of athleticism players insist there is a place for all skill levels, including newcomers to the game.
Another appealing facet is Ultimate’s ‘Spirit of the Game.’ This tenet makes participants responsible for all refereeing, with disputes talked out person-to-person before continuing play. “The idea is even if there’s some friction on the field, you circle around and all hug afterwards,” Bloom says.
“It sounds cheesy, but we really do encourage the respect between players as vital to the function of the game and the function of the community,” Cahners adds.

As the youngest regional team, Cambodia’s growth was slow and steady until a spike in numbers last year, thanks in part to a major milestone – the addition of local players.

“Still now, my friends say to me, ‘What is that sport? So crazy,’” says Reach Reachy, one of 15 male players for Phnom Penh’s new Khmer team, Swa. The team is a by-product of the US-based Youth Ultimate Project and local partner organisation Empowering Youth in Cambodia, which works with young people in slum communities.

Swa players now participate alongside expats in practices offered four times a week, and some have received scholarships from PPUA and other sponsors to travel abroad and to attend tournaments. “The team is growing in confidence. We have better communication, and they’re more confident to play with foreigners,” Reachy adds.

But a more surprising sight at the recent Olympic-themed tournament than Swa players participating was a talented female contingent from Kampong Cham that took the field by storm. The sport reached the province last year as a result of Peace Corps volunteer Vicki Chan’s passion for Ultimate. About 15 local players now participate regularly, 10 of whom are women.

The Kampong Cham group has benefited from collaboration with The Orphans and PPUA to improve skills and compete on a wider scale. But their interaction with Swa has proved the most meaningful.

“At first, it was just me trying to teach a completely new game. Then they saw other expats playing, and that was exciting. But the deal breaker was when they saw great Khmer players playing and competing with expat counterparts,” says Chan. “Their excitement over the sport reached a tipping point. Now they can’t stop talking about Swa, and when the next opportunity to play is.”

That chance may come in the upcoming Mekong Cup team tournament, to be held in Phnom Penh from May 24 to 25. The female Kampong Cham players hope to join the Swa roster to enter the tournament as the first all-Cambodian mixed gender team. This would be, as Chan puts it: “Unheard of, and totally amazing.”

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