What ultimate Frisbee can teach us about Jon Ossoff
It’s a muggy day in Atlanta, sometime in 2004 or 2005. Jon Ossoff takes off toward the disc. He’s sprinting, but it stays just out of reach.
So he digs a cleat into the ground and throws himself forward horizontally, a lithe streak in flight.
Faster in air than on foot, Ossoff gets his fingers on the disc and clutches the rim. He lands on his torso; it’s graceful, or as graceful as you can be when you’ve just flung your body at the ground at full speed. There’s no time to bask: young Ossoff jumps up, passes and takes off running again.
That’s a layout — one of the flashiest, most rewarding plays in ultimate Frisbee. There is nothing like it, the glory when it works and the defeat when it doesn’t. It’s a bold move, high-risk and high-reward. And Jon Ossoff, varsity ultimate player at Atlanta’s Paideia High School and future United States Senator, could really kill a layout.
“If he was a 6 or a 7 out of 10 on a whole slew of skills, then he was like a 9 in that moment where you’re closing and actually leaving your feet,” recalled Grant Lindsley, a Paideia teammate of Ossoff’s and a member of the U.S. men’s national team. “He could lay out pretty big.”
“You could make the parallel that’s exactly what happened in the election,” Lindsley said.
At 33, Ossoff is now the senior senator from Georgia, a Democrat who eked out a victory in a longstanding Republican stronghold in January’s historic runoff.
— Jon Ossoff (@ossoff) April 28, 2021
Picture the race literally: Ossoff and the incumbent, Sen. David Perdue, dashing down a field, aides straggling sweatily in their wake. Ossoff, who first made national headlines when he lost his bid for an open House seat in 2018, started from behind. Somehow, when the dust cleared, he held the disc, winning by just over 1%, or some 55,000 votes.
Ossoff’s other great ultimate skill was defense — which, like laying out, is the realm of those who just refuse to quit.
“I could put him on really strong players on really good teams and he would do really well,” said Michael Baccarini, who created Paideia’s program in the early 1990s and still coaches it today.
You could do worse in the department of political metaphors.
All sports shape character, but, as almost any semi-serious player will tell you — I was one, once, so I know — ultimate Frisbee does so more intensively than most. And at Paideia, a scrappy private school that during Ossoff’s tenure managed to field one of the best teams in the nation, that was amplified.
“We were a small school going against juggernauts,” Baccarini said. “We knew we had to train harder, not just physically.”
Part of that training, he explained, was in learning, deliberately and sometimes painfully, how to push forward as a group, with players making the big individual moves — the ones that end up in highlight reels — only when they served the team.
“Ultimate,” Baccarini said, “gives us the practice of being better citizens.”
If you think of ultimate — the sport’s official name, since “Frisbee” is trademarked to a toy company — as the kind of goofy pastime reserved for summers at Camp Ramah, a sort of athletic cousin to hacky sack, you’re not alone. In 2008, the tragically defunct blog “Stuff Jewish Young Adults Like” deemed it “the un-official sport of the Jewish people.” It was ranked fourth, beaten only by ironic Jewish-themed t-shirts, Isla Fisher and voting.
But while ultimate may remain a goofy pastime in some quarters, it’s also much more.
Invented in the late 1960s by a New Jersey teenager, Joel Silver — who went on to produce “The Matrix” — ultimate is an international phenomenon. There are quadrennial world championships, run by the wonderfully named World Flying Disc Federation; 39 countries from six continents participated in the 2016 games. American college and club tournaments air on ESPN.
And, sometimes, players do the kind of astounding athletic things that fuel lifelong devotion among both players and fans. In my early teens in Denver, I thought ultimate sounded kind of dumb. Then my brother made me watch a video of a University of Colorado game in which Beau Kittredge jumped straight over a guy standing at full height, and I reassessed.
The Paideia School, which currently has about 900 students in preschool through 12th grade, was in the vanguard of schools to develop serious ultimate teams. Baccarini, who began playing in the 1970s, came to the school as a physical education teacher; introducing the sport was a natural extension of the job.
By the time Ossoff arrived as a middle-school student, Paideia’s high-school squad was about to become the kind of team that teenaged ultimate players across the country talked about in hushed tones. If you played on a moderately good team and came across Paideia at a tournament, you tried to talk yourself out of assuming you would lose. Usually, you lost anyway.
“Paideia didn’t have a football team, so in place of the number of athletes that might have played football, all of those numbers were occupied by ultimate players,” explained Lindsley, who last saw Ossoff at a wedding shortly after the unsuccessful House race in 2018. “Something like a quarter of the entire high school was probably playing ultimate.”
That included Alisha Kramer, who began playing at Paideia in sixth grade, went on to captain her college team at Georgetown and play highly competitive club ultimate, and in 2017 married Ossoff. “What do I value above all else about ultimate?” she wrote in a 2010 essay. “It is without a doubt the people and the community.”
The pair began dating Ossoff’s senior year, when Kramer was a freshman. “It definitely was a little scandalous,” said Lindsley.
Ossoff, a gifted athlete, didn’t get sucked into ultimate right away, instead focusing on baseball. Once he made the switch , he started on the junior-varsity squad, then carved out a place on varsity his senior year. He went on to play at Georgetown University through his junior year.
Ossoff’s time on the Paideia team was a pivotal moment in its ascension, with a younger group of players, including Lindsley, starting to push to the next level. Proof of their frankly insane momentum: Of the 24 players on the American men’s squad set to play in this summer’s world championships, three — Lindsley, Chris Kocher and John Stubbs — are Paideia alumni from the roughly half-decade of dominance that followed Ossoff’s graduation.
“In the grand scheme of things, he was a pretty significant player on a really good team,” said Baccarini, the coach.
In ultimate, being a significant player means something slightly different than in other sports. Individual skill matters: if you can, say, launch yourself directly over the head of another human, you will likely be considered fairly good. But teamwork matters more: The rules mandate that the disc be passed at least every 10 seconds, which makes it practically impossible for one or two stars alone to take a team to the highest levels of play.
And what matters equally, making ultimate so uniquely formative to so many who play it, is the spirit of the game.
At every level, from elementary school to professional, ultimate is almost entirely self-officiated. Players point out violations that they see, experience or even cause, and both sides have to agree the violation occurred for it to fully count. If they don’t, play resorts to a sort of half-penalty. The disagreement is incorporated into the game, not punted to arbiters on the sidelines. “The grace that allows us to exhibit, if we buy in, is transformative,” Baccarini said.
If you don’t take the responsibility of self-officiation seriously — if you’re inclined to lie, fight, or act the victim — people notice, and stop giving you chances to show off those instincts. It doesn’t matter what other skills you bring: Violate that cardinal value, and you’re on the sidelines. In ultimate, you’re either successful at owning your mistakes, or you’re genuinely bad at the game.
It’s hard to imagine a more poignant counterpoint to the world of politics, in which the act of admitting a mistake is anything but the coded norm. So for those of us who are alienated by the self-serving cynicism that often seems to define the United States Senate, Ossoff’s training in that kind of radically different value system offers a glimmer of hope.
After all, his wife, while captain of the Georgetown women’s team, opened that 2010 essay with a quote from Howard Cosell, as straight a shooter as has ever covered the world of sports.
“Ultimate,” he said, “is a refreshing reminder of what sport was meant to be, and on a rare occasion, still can be.”
So: Who was Jon Ossoff, member of one of the best high school ultimate teams in the country?
He was “an extremely hard-working athlete,” said Baccarini, who always called Ossoff “Jonathan,” not Jon. “It makes sense that he ended up becoming what he’s become; it’s all about determination, grit, being of higher mind. You gotta really elevate your laser focus to be a great defender.”
Ossoff particularly excelled at zone, in which players guard a section of the field, rather than another player. He primarily played in the cup, the group of players who try to stop the offense from passing the disc downfield. It’s the position that Baccarini himself favored as a player. “I took great pride in sort of being the anchor of the defense,” he explained, “because everybody plays off the wall you put in front of them.”
In the right moments, when Paideia was at its most playful — part of what defined teams of that time, Baccarini said, “was how much fun we had” — Ossoff fit right in. Ultimate’s culture is centered on the ethical core of self officiation, but a large part of the spirit of the game is about being willing to truly play with your opponents.
(“The amazing aspect of the sport and the defining feature,” Kramer, Ossoff’s future wife, wrote in that 2010 essay, “are the friendships that are made with the opponent.”)
Paideia’s team, now known as the Pythons, was then called “Gruel,” and took delight in the kinds of weird, often nerdy rituals that make up part of ultimate’s character. A standard Paideia cheer at the time, Lindsley said, consisted of one person yelling “three!” and everyone responding “point-one-four-one-five-nine” — the first six digits of pi. The culture was, Lindsley said, “pretty tight-knit, pretty loving.” Ossoff, who he described as “fun and pranky,” fit right in.
It was already clear where he was headed. “Everybody who knew him knew that he was gonna be a politician in the future,” Lindsley said. “Same jawline, same haircut, same kind of demeanor. He is who he appears to be.”
When Baccarini felt, after a 2004 loss to Amherst Regional High School, that Paideia needed to put a more intense focus on physical fitness to keep up, Ossoff established himself as an unofficial leader on the team, despite being fairly new to varsity. He had a knack for spreading his own immense drive and “really demanding,” Baccarini recalled, “that everybody be sprinting every leg of every drill.”
Voters have seen some of those sides of Ossoff, already.
There’s the hard work and infectious ambition: a 2017 JTA article about the so-called Ossoff army, a squad of devoted volunteers, depicted the neophyte candidate getting formerly shy Georgia Democrats entertainingly amped about qualities like being “sane and moderate.”
There’s the sense of play: Ossoff went viral the day he was sworn in for displaying an impeccable, painfully charming wink on the Senate floor, an unusual moment of real fun in a normally stultifying environment.
Now the question is whether, as at Paideia, Ossoff can jump into a new role and quickly begin to make change.
There’s promise, sure: No Ossoff army, and no Senate seat, would have been possible without his ability to get things moving.
But the stakes are higher now.
What might we hope for? There’s Baccarini’s idea of grace, that ultimate is a sport that, at its best, pushes players to excel in the moment when they must decide how to react. We’ve missed that grace in our politics lately, missed the sense of a leader pausing to make the right choice instead of the easy one.
In my own ultimate days, that grace — not the triumph of a big catch or a shutdown defense — was the best part of play. It was a reminder of the point of the thing, a reminder of something to strive for.