Flying saucers

Who needs balls when you can play with a disc?

Ultimate player Wayne Smith throws the Frisbee.

Ultimate player Wayne Smith throws the Frisbee.

Photo By clint Demeritt

The Ranch, Reno’s free disc golf course, is north of McCarran Boulevard in Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, 1595 N. Sierra St. For more information, visit

Flying discs, in their essential and simplest form, resemble an inverted pie tin. It is highly likely that the modern versions are direct descendents of the humble kitchen implement. William Russell Frisbie founded the Frisbie Pie Company in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1871. Legend has it that college students at Yale University discovered that the pie tins could be turned upside-down and thrown back and forth, providing countless hours of fun. Leave it to college students to play with their food—or its accoutrements.

It wasn’t until 1948 that the first commercially produced plastic flying disc came out, and it went through a series of redesigns and name changes—Flyin-Saucer, Pluto Platter, Frisbee—over the next 15 years before it really became part of popular consciousness. In 1964, sales soared when Wham-O began marketing the professional model of Frisbee and calling it a new sport.

The sport of Frisbee has come a long way since then. It seems appropriate it started on a college campus, as it is highly popular—and still gaining popularity—on campuses around the country. While you still find students playing a game of catch with the Frisbee out on the quad, the sport has evolved into multiple, more complex games and competitions.

Chris Bonuel throws.

Photo By clint Demeritt

Ultimate marvel

Shortly after the rise in popularity of the flying disc, Columbia High School student Joel Silver started a school Frisbee team. The group of Maplewood, N.J., students got together in the summer of 1969 and began playing a form of Frisbee football. Silver dubbed it the “ultimate game experience.”

Warren Kinson, now in his second year playing for UNR’s Ultimate Frisbee team, would probably agree with Silver. Kinson describes Ultimate as “the chillest sport ever.”

Ultimate Frisbee—officially called “Ultimate” because “Frisbee” is a trademarked name, and there are multiple manufacturers of flying discs—is a combination of soccer, football and basketball. Unlike football, it’s a non-contact sport, and there’s a lot of running, even though once you catch the Frisbee, you have to stop and pivot on one foot, similar to basketball. To score a goal, a pass must be completed to a player located in the opposing team’s end zone.

The UNR team practices twice a week on the intramural fields east of the football stadium. The university has had a team for 10 years and last year they split into separate men’s and women’s teams. UNR’s team competes throughout the year and travels to tournaments in Oregon, Utah and California.

Chris Bonuel is the UNR team captain. He has lived in Reno for two years and started playing Ultimate at UNR.

“Throwing is by far the most important skill,” he says. “It’s a lot of running. It’s more physical than most people think.”

From left, Peter Bernhard and Quinn Hess.

Photo By clint Demeritt

“There is lots of passing and tons of running,” agrees Wayne Smith. Ultimate team practices reflect this: running drills and leg conditioning take up the majority of the time.

“I have dislocated a shoulder and even broken a leg playing Frisbee,” adds Smith, who was the previous team captain. “They call it a non-contact sport, but when you’re out there playing, it’s very much a contact sport.”

The women’s and men’s teams practice together. Alyssa Williams is new this year and has never played Ultimate before. “I’m not into mainstream sports. I love the people on the team,” she says, when asked why she decided to give Frisbee a try.

“It’s an awesome group of people,” adds Theresa Smith, who has been playing for about a week. “I mean, the game’s fun, too.”

Golf war

Disc golf is another Frisbee offshoot that was standardized around the same time as Ultimate. I had only a vague idea of what Frisbee golf was and decided to see if I could find someone who would take me out to play with them. Nick Plunkey and Maia Dickerson were nice enough to invite me to join them one evening on the disc golf course just north of McCarran Boulevard in Rancho San Rafael Park.

The course, dubbed The Ranch, is Reno’s first permanent disc golf course. The Reno Disc Golf Association, headed by Michael Jacobus, spearheaded the movement to get a course installed in the area—the closest courses otherwise are in Truckee and three locations around Lake Tahoe. Currently, nine holes have been completed, and the course is free to the public. Because the course is funded entirely by community contributions, it’s being built as money is collected. Eventually, the course will consist of 18 holes.

Colby Wallace at practice.

Photo By clint Demeritt

The game is essentially like golf. The object is to throw the flying disc at a target or into a basket with the least amount of throws. The course at The Ranch consists of trails through the sagebrush and metal baskets with chains hanging down into them around a central pole (called a Disc Pole Hole). The idea is to get the disc into this basket.

Plunkey and Dickerson have been playing disc golf for a few years but, luckily for me, they don’t take the game too seriously. Plunkey asks if I can throw a Frisbee and then hands me a blue disc that is denser and smaller than a normal-sized flying disc. He explains that there are different discs for different things. As in golf, there are distance drivers, mid-range drivers and putters. However, the discs are considerably cheaper than golf clubs.

Plunkey steps up to the teeing area and flings his disc toward the basket in the distance. His disc flies remarkably straight and a good distance, too. He makes it look easy, and so, as I step up to throw my driver, I think to myself that it can’t be that hard. I then proceed to fling my disc off into the bushes way left of the target and about a quarter of the distance that Plunkey’s went. I brought along my sister, Melanie, who had never played disc golf before, either, for a little sisterly competition. While neither of us even came close to getting the distance on our discs that Plunkey and Dickerson did, my sister totally showed me up.

Ultimate coach Matt Westfield spins the disc.

Photo By clint Demeritt

Dickerson stuck with her trusty driver for the four holes we made it through before it got too dark to play, but Plunkey carried a bag around with him on the course and would switch out his drivers and use his putters when he was close enough to the basket. I could see that it would be easy to improve my game with a little practice and, even though I was taking three or four throws to every one of theirs, I started to get the hang of it.

Ultimate and disc golf are just two ways that flying discs are used in sports. Frisbee golf can be played solo. (It’s one of the few sports involving Frisbees that doesn’t need more than one person.) Other sports that involve the Frisbee are freestyle, in which players perform tricks; dodge disc, a game based on dodgeball; and multiple variations of Ultimate. Frisbees are cheap and easy to use—and most of the games involving them don’t require any extra equipment.

“That’s how Frisbee works,” says Theresa Smith. “You can go anywhere, pretty much, and play pick up.”