OUR interview at the UP Sunken Garden was winding down when Jasper 'Peng' Manlapaz, coach of the Ultimate national team, suddenly threw several questions at me.
“What is the ranking of our national basketball team?” (Answer: 34th on Fiba list)
“Do you expect them to win any games in the Fiba World Cup?” (Odds are against it)
“(How about international) football”? (The Azkals are currently 127th in Fifa ranking.)
In comparison, Manlapaz pointed out that in 2012, the Philippines placed seventh in the World Ultimate and Guts Championship, considered as the 'World Cup of Ultimate."
The Philippines sent two teams to Osaka, Japan. One of its Men’s Open teams brought home the 'Spirit of the Game' award, considered as one of the highest honors a team can ever win in the sport.
“We were the last to be awarded during the entire ceremony so we’re very proud of that achievement. And that was peer scoring - the teams that you compete against score you. The second was Germany and the US came in third. We were in pretty good company.”
The mixed team, composed of co-eds, fared even better, finishing in seventh place after losing a closely fought quarterfinals with Germany.
“They beat the Netherlands, South Africa, China, Russia, the French twice… If we had won against Germany we would have been in the Top 4. Can you say that with any other team sport that you’re in the Top 10 in the world?”
With the exception of dragon boat racing, no other Philippine team probably comes even close.
“This is where we are at internationally.”
Ultimate’s rapid growth has continued ever since the first league started in early 2000 when there were only four teams in the entire Philippines. Now there are more than 200 active clubs in the whole country playing a game that used to be limited to an expat crowd.
“When I joined the PUA in 2004 there were only six clubs in Metro Manila. Now in the New Year’s League we have more than 50 participating clubs … That’s more than exponential growth," Manlapaz said.
The game is encompassing of age and background, which is why it attracts a wide variety of people from all walks of life - young professionals, university students, multi-sport athletes and even boatmen from Boracay. Celebrities such as Derek Ramsay and Reema Chanco also helped bring the sport to the public eye.
“Anybody can form a club. Our leagues are very accessible. You can go to our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/philippine.ultimate) where you can just ask to join and you can see there the schedule of tournaments in Metro Manila and other places," Manlapaz explained.
To help govern the fledgling sport, the Philippine Ultimate Association (PUA) was established in 2003 and has since assumed a major role in growing the game. The PUA coordinates with the different clubs nationwide, oversees the community and organizes the teams that represent the country in international meets.
Manlapaz, the current PUA president, credits the sport’s growing popularity to the fact that it is an easy game to learn.
“It’s such a cheap sport to play. You only need a disc, an open area and willing people to run around and catch the disc. Ten years ago, when you look at the Sunken Garden, you would have one small patch of Ultimate players in the area surrounded by football players. Now it’s the opposite. By 4 or 5 p.m. this will be covered with Ultimate players and you’ll see Frisbees flying around … and there’s a small patch of football players,” said the 35-year- old energy consultant with a smile.
For the uninitiated, Ultimate is a non-contact game where two seven-man teams throw a plastic disc (popularly known as a Frisbee) across an open field. While one team defends, another team tries to score by having a player catch the frisbee in their opponent’s end zone.
Another unique feature of the team sport is the absence of referees. Players self-officiate themselves by invoking the 'Spirit of the Game,' which emphasizes sportsmanship, mutual respect and fair play.
The Ultimate season is from late January to late November. There are several leagues depending on the organizers. Among these are the New Year’s League, the Summer League (which attracts the most number of teams), the Malakas and Maganda, the Boracay Beach Ultimate and since 2012, the Nationals where the 16 best clubs vie for the privilege to be called the No.1 team in the country (the Sunken Pleasure, a UP-based team has won both).
There is also the annual Spirits - an international tournament for mixed and open teams where 50 to 60 clubs arrive in Manila from all over the world. A Philippine-based team won the event in 2013, only the third time in its 10-year history.
“Sometimes we play at Alabang Country Club. We used to play in Ateneo. A long time ago we played in UP. Walang choice dati but now we’re getting better fields,” Manlapaz said.
He said that getting good fields is a problem, albeit a welcome one.
“Before anim lang kami so two fields okay na yan. Ngayon, pag 50 na kayo kailangan six or eight fields and where can you find a place that big? Sunken Garden is perfect sana if the grass is good and if there weren’t any stones or fishball sticks (laughs). Perfect sana ito kasi libre pero hindi puede. We had a lot of injuries and we don’t want that,” said the PUA head who noted the best field is the well-maintained Polo Field in Alabang.
“You should see us. You should see the game. This looks like a fun game but when you see the really competitive games there’s people flying all over the place.”
'It’s like dancing'
After competing internationally in Ultimate tournaments for the past 10 years, the UP College of Engineering graduate said Filipinos possess the necessary attributes to excel and compete at a high level against foreign teams.
“Absolutely. What we see, most of the top Filipino players are really good athletes. They’re very quick. We have very good to excellent throws. And we have a certain flair.”
According to the veteran coach, compared to the best teams in the world such as the machine-like Japanese with their precision throws or the Americans who rely on brute force and physical advantage, the Filipino players, whose height range between 5’1” to 5’4” are like dancers.
“Pag Filipino, it’s like dancing. Iba ang dating. Very fluid, very graceful yung movement.”
His biggest challenge right now is to promote the sport to more people. Next month, the PUA will also start nationwide tryouts for the national team.
“We were seventh (in the entire world). And we’re Filipinos. And this is grassroots. You build players from scratch. And then you compete abroad and do well. And people don’t know about it kasi people don’t talk about it outside our community. That’s a big problem. That’s something I see with being around for a decade,” he said.
“We achieve so many things but it’s under the radar. Right now we’re trying to get the bigger companies to support us. Get more media mileage. Just so people would start hearing our story,” Manlapaz added.
Ultimate players describe their sport as "chasing plastic." With people like Peng Manlapaz, it’s also about chasing dreams - for Pinoys to stand among the world’s best.
And unlike in the more popular sports embraced by the public, this dream is well within reach.