Jess LeRoy came to Champaign-Urbana in 2009 for graduate school, and like many of its residents, she decided it was a great place and never left. While in school here, she started playing Ultimate. (A little aside just in case, like me, you’ve always added frisbee to the sport name. The word frisbee is a trademarked toy created by Wham-O in 1957. This is why the game is referred to as Ultimate. You may also want to know that this non-contact game is played by throwing a disc to other players on the same team. Points are scored by passing the disc to a teammate in the opposing end zone.) LeRoy eventually became the commissioner of the competitive league and then, along with five others, started Ultimate C-U. Throughout our time together LeRoy was hesitant to talk about herself, steering our conversations back to what she and the board of Ultimate C-U are doing. And they are busy. Between hosting new clinics, running games, and setting big goals for the future of this organization, it is apparent that teamwork is a deeply embedded value in this game and in Ultimate C-U.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Smile Politely: How did you get into Ultimate and how did that lead to Ultimate C-U?
Jess LeRoy: I started playing in college, just pick up games with some friends then when I came here I played in the rec league for several years, and then started running the rec league. The rec league started in the early 2000s. The competitive club team Prion started a recreational team for the league as a fundraising purpose. I played in that league for a while then became the commissioner. I helped run the league for several years and then eventually passed it off after my daughter was born. It changed hands a couple times and is now under the current commissioners, Paul and Shirley Saunders. They have done awesome work with the league. They shepherded it through COVID and the after effects and brought it to where it is today.
As for Ultimate C-U, we could sense a growing desire in the community to make sure that our league and the sport were sustainable in the community and that we could provide opportunities for people to learn. So a group of six of us — Paul Saunders, Shirley Saunders, Aaron O’Connor, Andrew Almeter, Charlie Linville, and I — got together and decided to form Ultimate C-U. We registered as a nonprofit with the state and we are in the process of doing that as a federal nonprofit 501(c)(3). Over the last few months, our goal has been to get the business side of things set up so that we could do more of the exciting programming events. Our goal as a whole is to foster the growth of the sport in our area, by giving people the opportunity to learn, play and teach in an inclusive way. In a way that also fosters the spirit of the game in our communities.
SP: Do you already have people involved in your league?
LeRoy: Yeah, absolutely we have been running this league since early 2000. And it’s bounced from around 90 players to 130. We’ve got players for the recreation league and then we also run pickup games. It’s only recently that we’ve brought the pickup games under the umbrella of Ultimate C-U. Before, the pickup games were always self organized and now we do it through GroupMe.
SP: Walk me through what it’s like to show up to an Ultimate C-U game. What does that look like?
LeRoy: When you complete your registration for the rec league you self identify as a female-matching player or a male-matching player. As part of the registration, you fill out a self assessment of your skill and experience. It asks questions about your throwing ability, your athleticism, and if you have ever played the sport. Those answers assign point values and one of the very smart people on our board has put together a computer program that uses those points to generate the teams in as fair of a way as possible. It’s a mixed fleet, so all gender identities are welcome in the league. In Ultimate, the way things work on the field is that you have male-matching players and female-matching players. At the competitive level, it is four male-matching players and three female-matching players on the field at a time. We just don’t have the female-matching numbers. We’d love to get more female-matching players to increase that ratio, but we usually play more of a five male-matching and two female-matching player ratio in the rec league.
SP: What’s the best part of a game?
LeRoy: Ultimate is really fast paced and fun and it requires so much teamwork. The best part of a game is when your team is really flowing with each other and people are in the right place at the right time. It feels like magic. Something that’s also really unique is that ultimate is self officiated, as part of the rules we have this thing called Spirit of the Game. The idea behind it is that the sport doesn’t work if people aren’t showing up in the mindset of fair play and sportsmanship. Since we’re officiating games as players, we have to be able to mediate conflicts, respectfully communicate, actively listen, and respect our opponents. It’s really cool to see it play out on the field when people are playing competitively but with respect for their opponents. It is one of my favorite things to see.
SP: Between putting together these games and creating this new non-profit what are some challenges that you’ve experienced?
LeRoy: There are a number of challenges to putting together a new nonprofit; we’re kind of building the plane as we fly it in terms of the business end of things. Fortunately, we have some good minds helping out. We’re always looking for more female-matching players to join the league. Like I mentioned, we would really love to get up to that four-three ratio on the field. This year we are really putting a lot of effort into recruiting and making people aware that we’re here.
SP: Who do you find is drawn to the game?
LeRoy: We get everyone. We get people who have a really strong athletic background in another sport like soccer, basketball, tennis, or running. We get people who have never played a team sport before in their life but they want to learn and have fun. And one of the great things about the community here is that everyone is really interested in teaching both in a formal teaching setting like our Learn to Play clinics or informal at pickup games. In the rec league teaching moments arrive where play stops and we can explain or demonstrate a technique.
SP: Is there an ideal field scenario or a dream location for a game of ultimate?
LeRoy: Fields are really expensive and we do try to keep the league as affordable as possible. One of the reasons that we formed Ultimate C-U was to be able to get to a point where we can pay for fields that are maintained. A beautiful green soccer field is really the ideal but, the beauty of Ultimate is that you really don’t need very much to play, you just need a disc and a flat open space.
SP: When you think about five or ten years in the future, what does Ultimate C-U look like?
LeRoy: Our vision for the future of Ultimate C-U includes continuing to run our rec leagues, increasing the number of female matching players in the rec leagues. We want to continue to provide opportunities for players to learn the game through learn to play clinics and, we also want to have clinics for that next level of skill set building for those a little further along. We would love to do some fun individual events like a hat tournament where you sign up and you are randomly assigned to a team and you play a couple of games that day. It’s just more of a fun, social thing. We want to continue to build connections with the other Ultimate groups in our community. Building mutual support amongst the recreational level, the college level, and the competitive level. And finally, a sort of impetus for forming this organization, is that we want to build youth activities into what we do by providing learn to play clinics for youth. Specifically there’s a program called Girls Ultimate Movement which are clinics specifically for girls. We would love to get some high school teams formed where they could either play in C-U or start going to some of the tournaments throughout the state. That’s our big vision.