“The first thing that kept me going in the sport was the community that there was in Ireland. It was very different to any of the other mainstream sports I had tried.”
Initially, having dedicated her time to basketball, Sarah Melvin had to be persuaded and convinced to pick up a disc and try Ultimate Frisbee. A relatively new and unknown sport in the University of Limerick at the time, she was skeptical about giving it a go.
“Without knowing anything about it, I was quite negative. If you’re from Ireland, you’re into your traditional sports. But once I played it for the very first time, I realised that it actually had such a nice combination of different sports put together into one that just really suited me.
“It actually requires a lot of athleticism and there’s much more to it than I initially thought.”
Fast-forward seven years and Melvin was involved in Ireland’s biggest achievement in the sport – a gold medal for the women’s team at the European Championships in 2019. Not only was she involved, but she led the fight as the captain of her country’s side.
It was a major achievement for our small nation considering Ultimate only came to this land in 1996 where it grew its small presence through universities and colleges.
Nowadays, although it is still a small and tight-knit community, Irish clubs and international teams consistently compete to the highest standard at international tournaments.
"There’s something innately fun about throwing a disc and watching it fly, or chasing one down and reaching to grab it at the last second."
— Pundit Arena (@PunditArena) February 23, 2021
So what is Ultimate? The basic premise of the sport is to move the disc up the field through a series of passes until one player catches it in the end zone. President of the Irish Flying Disc Association Ian French expanded on the rules.
“Two teams of seven players compete on a playing field about the same length as a football pitch, but narrower. At each end of the playing field there is an end zone, similar to an American Football end zone. A team scores a goal if one of their players catches the disc in the opposite end zone.
“The player with the disc may not run with it. They move the disc by passing to team-mates in any direction.The defensive team gets possession of the disc if an offensive team’s throw is not caught by a player of the same team e.g. it’s intercepted or goes out of bounds.”
Unlike most sports, Ultimate is a non-contact sport and is self-refereed. There are two basic positions; the handler, who is the “playmaker” and in charge of distributing the disc, and the cutter, the people in charge of running and catching. Melvin falls into the latter category and was initially taken aback by the amount of athleticism required.
“It’s something I hadn’t considered when I started out. The pitch is very big for seven people and the disc moves a lot. So there’s a lot of running involved and sprint stamina is needed which is not necessarily something that is used in a lot of other sports.
“It is a huge factor especially when you get to those more competitive levels.”
The Mayo native was thrust into international competition back in 2013, just a year into playing the sport. Her first task was to link up with the Ireland squad for the World Championships.
“I was thrown into a much more serious environment than I was used to. But that opened my eyes to how big the sport actually was.
“My first ever experience with Ireland was to go to a World Championships. Just seeing how big it was and how much I had room to improve was eye-opening and that was the slip into taking it really seriously in the future. It was a tough year but it was what pushed me on.
“It’s absolutely amazing [to represent your country], it’s a feeling that you never get used to or you never get over. Getting to step onto the field wearing the Irish jersey is really, really great. ”
Up to 2019, Ireland’s success at the European Championships had been “varied” according to Melvin with most of their accomplishments coming in the Mixed division, including a silver medal in 2015.
“The Men’s and Women’s would have been in a lower bracket.
“After 2015, there was a switch in mentality and people thought we should be aiming for that [medal] in the Women’s division and over the next four years, it slowly changed and the Women’s division became more dominant.
“It wasn’t something we had outwardly said we were aiming for but to come away with the gold was an extra cherry on top. It was the first year Ireland won the competition in any division.”
That historic victory in 2019 propelled the sport into the mainstream media for the first time and resulted in a visit to Áras an Uachtaráin to meet with President Michael D. Higgins.
Melvin, unfortunately, was sick and unable to attend the meeting but was able to appreciate from afar how major a moment this was for the sport.
“It’s something that the team will never forget. Winning the gold made the sport important enough to get the media presence and to get that meeting with the President just blew everything up. It was great to get the sport in the mainstream media which is something that we struggle to do. So it was great for Ultimate Frisbee.”
While retaining their title is the major aim at the next European Championships, for now, the task at hand for Melvin and her colleagues is to try and secure Ultimate’s future in Ireland. They are determined that they will not be the first and last Irish gold medalists in the sport.
Ultimate Frisbee is a fast-paced, non-contact, self-refereed sport that began in the U.S. in the 1970s.
Here is a taste of the sport which is constantly growing in Ireland. 🔥👇
— Pundit Arena (@PunditArena) February 22, 2021
“After we won the Euros in 2019, there was really a sense that we didn’t want that to be a one-off experience that happened because we had a good bunch of players at one time. We want it to be something sustainable and something we can keep going into the future.
“At the moment it’s about increasing the numbers playing at the grassroots level, getting the sport into more schools, getting more kids exposed to the sport, and really just developing a sustainable, long-term sport in Ireland.”
To learn more about Ultimate Frisbee, visit the Irish Flying Disc Association website: https://www.irishultimate.com/