Breaking free

UW-Eau Claire senior documents trip to explore the ultimate Frisbee culture in web series

Story by Katie Bast, News Editor

Like all great ideas, this one started over a scotch.

UW-Eau Claire senior Chris Schasse and his friend Eau Claire alumnus James Wagner, both ultimate Frisbee players, said they wanted to travel last summer. Schasse said they were sitting on his porch one day drinking a scotch, talking about what they wanted to do that summer.

“I knew Chris was one of the few people who would do it because he was up for the experience and willing to travel and try new things,” Wagner said. “We decided we didn’t just want to go and travel and play just for ourselves, we wanted to make something to show for it.”

They settled on making a web series documentary and “The Break Side” was born.

Schasse said the name comes from an ultimate term. In ultimate, there’s an open side and a break side. There’s someone marking the person with the disc, forcing them to throw to a certain side of the field and cutting the field in half for the defense. The side that’s easy to throw to is the open side. But to tear apart a defense, a player can try to get around that and throw to the break side.

“It’s a lot easier to throw to the open side because that’s what the defense is giving you, but you’ll eventually get stuck on the sideline because they’ll keep forcing you over and over,” Schasse said. “It’s easy to get a steady job and work it, or it’s straightforward and simple. This wasn’t. It took a lot more ground work, a lot more critical thinking, but we felt that by doing this, even though it’s very difficult, the potential rewards are a lot greater.”

Schasse and Wagner planned the trip by mapping out their route and earning money for their project on Kickstarter, an online crowd-funding site. They had a general idea of when they’d be in each city and kept their website updated as they reached the destinations.

One of the incentives through Kickstarter was Schasse and Wagner would give a disc to someone they met on the trip in the donor’s name.

They distributed discs in Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona, California, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, Wyoming and South Dakota. They also visited Nebraska, Montana and Washington.



Playing the field

Ultimate Frisbee is a game played between two teams without coaches or referees. Players advance the disc up the field by throwing it to teammates, but they aren’t allowed to move with the disc in their hands. They score by getting the disc to reach their end zone.

The sport has been around since the 1970s and Schasse said he has been playing since high school.

Schasse said he got into ultimate for the culture, the people and because it balances competition with fun unlike any other team sport.

“It’s highly competitive, but it’s also really fun and people are focused on having fun,” Schasse said. “That’s why we don’t have refs even in the highest level.”

Schasse’s mother, Marilyn Zmuda said she didn’t know anything about ultimate the first time she watched her son play, but the friendliness between the teams drew her in right away.

“When I saw they don’t have coaches or refs, I thought, ‘How can they do this?’ But then I saw the camaraderie between the teams and the fairness that happens,” Zmuda said. “There isn’t fighting, there isn’t arguing, it is done on a brotherly, or sisterly, basis.”



Making new friends

That camaraderie is what helped Schasse and Wagner meet people to feature in “The Break Side”. Wagner said he’s never met an ultimate player he didn’t like. The people he met while filming only reinforced that.

“Most people who play the sport, you have an instant connection with and they’re willing to open their doors and let you crash on their couch,” Wagner said. “There wasn’t anyone we met who turned us down or wasn’t willing to help us.”

Schasse said most people who play ultimate play pick-up games and use social media groups like Facebook and Google to coordinate them. Schasse said he and Wagner used these  groups to find teams in the areas they visited.

“Ultimate has been an underground sport since it started and it’s becoming more and more mainstream, especially in the last three or four years,” Schasse said. “But it still has got this big underground culture, especially on the west coast. We just went out and found those groups and told them what we were doing. If you go to a town and find people who play ultimate and tell them you play ultimate, you’re accepted into their community.”

Zmuda said she was skeptical they would be able to find teams, but encouraged the trip nonetheless.

“I had no idea it was so popular throughout the country,” she said. “I was thinking it was a university thing, but no, there are tons of different teams and the whole spirit of it is everywhere. I didn’t realize that at all.”

Schasse said the trip reaffirmed what he already knew about the ultimate community in a powerful way.

He said there is a stereotype of ultimate players as “hippies throwing a disc,” but that isn’t at all what he encountered on the trip.

“They’re people with powerful ideals, they’re hard workers, motivated, and just all around good people,” Schasse said.



A lifelong team

Schasse said he got much more out of the trip than just the experience and the videos.

“My outlook on life changed,” Schasse said. “It was like I realized there’s more to life than what I’d been living in the past. There are more good people in the world than I thought. I feel like a lot of the people I met along the way, in some small way, restored my faith in humanity.”

He said he even learned some life lessons along the way.

“I realized that I don’t need to settle for mediocrity ever in life,” he said. “There are a lot of people I met who don’t. This summer, I don’t feel like we settled. It really wasn’t a possibility.”

On their trip, Schasse said he and Wagner met many people who had been playing ultimate since the early days of the sport and still play or host tournaments.
“I’m convinced at this point that I’ll always play ultimate,” Schasse said.

He said he enjoys the dynamics of the sport and the athleticism required, but he said that’s not necessarily what will keep him coming back to the game.

“Even more than the sport, I love the culture,” Schasse said. “Even after the point when I can’t play, I feel like the culture is still going to be a big part of my life.”

Schasse said he and Wagner even have more ultimate-centered trips in the works.

“We’ve been throwing around several different ideas,” Schasse said. “We’ve been talking about Europe.”

For now, Schasse said he’s just focused on finishing the web series – and sleeping.

“Once I can sleep on a regular basis,” he said, “I might come up with a better answer of what the future will hold.”