The week’s opening events in Cincinnati did not disappoint.

Tokyo MUD and Vancouver Traffic in action during the 2022 WUCC Opening Day Exhibition Match. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

One hundred and twenty-eight teams from 30 countries gathered at Atrium Stadium in Mason, OH, for the opening ceremonies of the 2022 Ultimate Club World Championships on Saturday. With the usual parade of flags, spectacular air theaters and high-octane demo play between Traffic (CAN) and MUD (JPN), the opening ceremonies were, in many ways, a grand throwback to the game for the international ultimate community.

After a successful run for both the Masters Ultimate Club World Championships and World Games over the past month, the triumphant return of international Ultimate in the post-COVID era finally seems to be upon us. Players were free to mingle and chat, old friends were reunited, and despite three years of slumber, the competitive spirit is undoubtedly still alive and well in Cincinnati.

Upon entering the venue, fans were treated to a carnival of activity. A speed gun was installed for players to test how fast they could throw a disc. Snow cones were handed out to players for free (which, in the humid 90°F heat, was a welcome treat). The line for the merchant tent wrapped around the bleachers and disappeared along the cart path beyond. In short: the room was packed, the players were excited.

Walking through the bazaar, the bleachers stretching around the football pitch were filling up well before the official kick-off time. The teams – largely dressed in their club’s matching shirts – cut panels in the stands, huddled with teammates and compatriots and created a striking collage of colors. Decked out in shiny new uniforms, the players covered the stands like sections of a quilt. The reds and whites of Canada and Singapore. The yellows of Venezuela and Colombia. Seeing the stands filled with so many Frisbee players was almost like a family reunion. For most, attending the opening ceremonies was like coming home after a long absence.

“I thought the opening ceremony was fabulous,” commented Isaac Tan of the Singapore Otters mixed team. “To see so many teams after four years and the pandemic and other issues, I think it’s great to see so many clubs from all over the world come here and play together again. I’m so excited for the next week. frisbee for all of us.

The day’s festivities began as most opening ceremonies do: with speeches and awards. This year, the WFDF honored three longtime members of the community and presented them with lifetime achievement awards. Following this, Great Britain received their award for being the most spirited team at the World Games last week. All the while, teams were pouring in and continuing to fill the stands.

The main event of the opening ceremonies was the Parade of Flags. Unfortunately, as COVID continues to be a concern for participants, the tradition of marching teams or representatives with their flags onto the parade square has been discontinued. Instead, event volunteers acted as national surrogates, raising the flags from a safe distance.

As the flag presentation began to wind down, the crowd’s attention began to shift upwards. There, a small dot circled above his head.

It wouldn’t be an opening ceremony without a bit of drama, and Cincinnati didn’t disappoint. With the US National Anthem blaring from the public address system, the attention of everyone present gazed intently at the sky above. Soaring above the stadium, three brave souls dove headfirst from an airplane. Decked out in streamers, smoke and a Winnebago-sized American flag, three paratroopers weaved between and around each other, descending from the sky as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” rang through the speakers.

The first two skydivers glided gracefully across the playing field, billowing slides behind them, and were greeted with raucous applause. Shortly after, it was the grand finale. A final member remained in the air, with a huge red, white and blue flag in tow. After a few suspenseful moments, they dived, rising inches above the ground and landing so softly that despite the weight of the physical flag and the metaphorical symbolism it represents, the diver remained firmly on his feet. International broadcaster Tom Styles described the scene, saying, “I thought the stars and stripes flying from the sky had just set the stage for an all-American event like no other.”

MUD disrupts traffic to open up competition

After the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremonies, the top two teams from Pool G of the Women’s Division faced off in front of stands overflowing with the rest of the WUCC teams to kick off the competition of the week. MUD came out beating Traffic, who was seeded first in the pool, looking determined, although a little anxious too.

The first point was one of many throughout the game which saw sloppy play resulting in frequent turns from both sides. Eventually, MUD scored to stay on serve, though Traffic responded quickly. The Japanese wasted no time getting level with Shiori Ogawa’s grand layout, and soon the relief train had left the station. MUD’s offense and defense improved as they settled in, but the Canadians found it harder to find their groove. A pair earlier, Vancouver’s momentum began to change, and they rallied to tie the game at 4-4.

The next few points have been defined by more messy play and unforced turns on both sides as they struggle to move into each other’s areas and focus on fundamentals. MUD player Yukie Yamaguchi commented on their nervous energy noting, “Half the team is very young. For [them] it’s their first time in this kind of global competition, so they get very nervous [but] they became good, relaxed, comfortable and confident.

Indeed, the Tokyo team have become confident, especially with their shooting from deep, smart offensive decisions and aggressive discus. What they lack in vertical skills, MUD makes up for in their willingness to bid for anything. Shiori Ogawa, Risa Shimada and Kanari Imanishi were among the most threatening players on the pitch today, reminding us that international teams should not be underestimated this week.

The traffic had to work to keep up with the first half with some nice hitches – some impressive, some lucky. MUD held on to take the half at 8-7 on serve and were able to carry their growing energy into the second half with a heavy point that earned them another break. Despite their low energy, Traffic didn’t let MUD get away so easily and soon enough we were tied again.

The parity was short-lived, however, as MUD eventually began to capitalize more on Traffic’s slow defense. The points were becoming more and more clinical for the Japanese. A notable block from Yamaguchi led to MUD’s first break from the second frame and a two-point lead at 11-9. MUD’s mistakes here and there gave Traffic key opportunities to turn the tides in their favor, but they couldn’t get their time machine oiled. The point cycle that used to end in a score for MUD became routine as the lead extended to five and Traffic sank deeper into the energy chasm that any Ultimate team is familiar with. Terry Whitehead, a seasoned Traffic player, did her best to give her team the energy they needed with an epic layout block and a straight line to the end zone where she caught a dime carrying the score at 14-10. Unfortunately, Traffic’s renewed energy wasn’t enough to stop MUD, who made quick and decisive work on their winning run.

MUD was proud to open the tournament as “the representative of all Japanese teams […] and happy to play. Their plan as they take on other strong teams throughout the week is to continue to play to their strengths – deep looks and the “every disc is yours” mentality, both of which have been key to their victory on display.

When asked what was wrong, Vancouver coach Matt Doyle summed it up by “trying to overdo it with our shots and [not] run on the looks we were taking instead of taking what was available. Doyle attributed poor pitching choices to lack of energy.

Although the outcome wasn’t what they hoped for, Traffic saw the showcase game as “a good opportunity for growth” and they look forward to focusing on their toughness and resilience goals throughout the week.

The showcase game delivered a strong two-team ultimate and serves as an important reminder that every day is unpredictable here in Cincinnati.

Overall, this year’s opening ceremony was short but very enjoyable. A welcome return for Ultimate to the world stage and a great first day for WUCC 2022.