Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Catching Up: November, Part II

The taxista had dropped me off in the wrong place. I found myself standing alone on a dark Colombian street with no idea where I needed to go. I was tired after a long night of traveling and had no local currency, but my spirits were high nonetheless. I was looking for Sergio's house, a friend I hadn't yet made. My phone didn't work and since I had my bags with me, I felt like a blatant candidate for robbery...

As promised in Part I, the month was loaded with Ultimate. The first half of the month delivered success in the face of more stringent challenges than we'd seen before in the Buenos Aires league, but the second half would prove to be at a different level in every possible way. Thanks to a small group of ambitious and dedicated players, the local community decided to arm a national team to compete in the Torneo Eterna Primavera in Medellin, Colombia. I was deemed a capable enough player (probably only barely), and fortunately could spare the time (again, barely) and expense. So off I went with Team Truco to a country entirely new for me.

The arrival was a bit chaotic, but my friend Emi (an Argentine who had visited Medellin previously) took care of me, and sent me well on my way to Sergio's. I eventually figured out the cabbie's mistake and before too long I had arrived, tired and anxious about the following day's big games.

The team arrived to the field early eager to make our home country proud. But we were not prepared for this level of play. Some on the team (especially the Colombian natives) knew what was coming. Some, like me for instance, did not. From the first point I realized that virtually every matchup was going to be against someone younger, faster, more experienced, and with a much bigger tank of gas. At least most of 'em weren't very tall. My real Ultimate background was the Chicago Simpsons Division, a great league in so many ways, but not exactly championship-caliber competition.
Team Argentina "before"

In our first game, against Colombian team Ki.ê, we got stomped pretty bad. We simply couldn't hang. They were more fit, and had been playing together for years. We were a band of dudes from the Buenos Aires league and a few more like Sergio who had visited and were game enough to don the celeste y blanco. There wasn't much time for us to get it together. But improve we did. With each passing game, we congealed more as a team, figured out our roles and worked together. I must admit that I remained intimidated. Those Buenos Aires finals seemed like ages ago. But I too looked for ways to bring my game to a higher level - running faster, making better cuts, and clamping down better defensively. I still wasn't keeping up, but in some ways I was playing better than I ever had in my life.

Let me digress from the play-by-play for a few important comments. Firstly, no trip to Colombia is complete without indulging in the amazing variety and quality of fresh fruit available. There were old favorites like pineapple, mango, and papaya, but also a whole slew of new favorites whose names I can't recall, but whose flavor I will savor forever. Even though I was probably playing less than 25% of the points, after each game I was completely spent. It was that intense. But at every park, there were people selling salpicón de frutas. Quite simply the most satisfying collection of sweet fruit complimented by a hollow cookie and evaporated milk. Downing one of those was all the refueling I needed.
Some exotic fruit whose name I can't recall, but the flavor was exquisite

Even more impressive than the produce was the onda of the Medellin residents. Sergio was first and foremost for me, going above and beyond any reasonable expectations one could have of a host. But everywhere I went, I was hit with friendliness. It was truly amazing. The parking attendant at a grocery store chatted with us for ten minutes. The security guard at the airport talked about Ultimate with us for 15 minutes - all the while checking through our bags for drugs and weapons. One of the things I really dig about Argentina is how much more friendly and open the people are than in the US. My Colombian friends, however, have always called the Argentines cold. Now I see why. As I said, it left a great impression on me.
Martin rolled up in the banner for some good reason

Back to the game. Day 2 featured the morning kicking off against Seattle Sockeye, one of the top Ultimate teams in the world. We really had no business being on the same field as them, but we gave it our best, losing 15-3. And I think we would all say that we left pretty much satisfied with the 3. These guys were not just a phenomenal team, they were superb ambassadors for the game, playing with top notch spirit.
Emi snatches the disc for a score (photo by Mike)

Back in part I, I said that "on days when you're off your game, a frustrating round of golf seems soothing comparison." My dark moment came in the middle game of the tournament. We seemed to have a lift, picking things up, working as a team more. After finding ourselves down early in the contest, we hung tough and got on a roll, eventually cutting the deficit to 12-9 late in the game. After receiving the disc on a great continue cut, Alan found me bolting downfield on a continue cut of my own. I reeled in the disc about one meter from the endzone. Dani, my Big Red teammate, zoomed to the goal totally by himself. And I... I... I still don't exactly know what happened. I've always been good in the clutch. But this time, well, I can definitely say that my brain was turned off as I threw a backhand to the right side of the endzone well out of Dani's reach. At this level of play, you can't give up possession and you can't throw away sure points. I could have chucked a blade to him and we would have scored. This was easily the worst pecho frio moment of my life. We ended up losing the point and with it, the game. I commented to some teammates, "I'm going to have to live with that throw for a very long time." Here we are six months later, and I still haven't shaken the moment. Would we have won if I had delivered the disc? I don't know, but we would have had a chance... My confidence was ruptured after that, and I didn't really get on track in any of the remaining games.
I did catch this one for a score after bobbling it. So I wasn't 100% broken after the earlier gaffe. But perhaps I shouldn't have bobbled it. And I most definitely shouldn't have spiked the disc afterwards. (Photo by Mike)

Brief moments often loom large in Ultimate, but it's the errors that tend to have the biggest impact. The higher level you go, the less forgiving the game is. A misplayed cross-breeze, or a too-quick decision can make the final difference between winning and losing. In some ways, the less competitive division in Chicago is something I miss. But at the same time, getting beat by the best is something that only makes you better. And I learned a ton. Seattle Sockeye beat out Vancouver's Furious George to win the title in a game displaying what's possible on an Ultimate field when the best players in the world go at each other. It was a gorgeous thing to witness. I feel lucky to have been there.

We hit some bars to celebrate what was a successful trip, even if we couldn't quite notch any victories. I look back on the journey with equal parts nostalgia and appreciation for the experience. As much as I've rambled here, I didn't even get to the ajiaco, street hot dogs piled with everything imaginable, heartbreaking/last-play-of-the-game loss to Domino, ladies' penchant for designer jeans, aguardiente, papas rellenas (con salsa picante!), fantastic views, a bar that served only shots, the nice Colombian lady who helped me get cash, songs from the women's teams, harrowing cab ride to the airport, and probably a million other things I have forgotten. Aside from my mediocre play on the field, the trip surpassed every expectation and then some. I hope I can do it again someday.
Team Truco "after"

PS - I have already told them personally, but I must give special thanks to Mike and Martin for organizing and managing the whole shebang, to Emi for basically taking care of me that first night, and to Sergio for going way above and beyond what any anfitrión could possibly be asked to do. Un abrazo fuerte a todos. Vamos Truco!!!


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