Beach Diaries, Open (Brach) 8/26/11

Posted: August 27, 2011 02:50 PM

Today had to have been one of our best days of the tournament.  As a team, we opened in the morning with a quarterfinals game against Spain.  (Decisiveness, at last!)  We went up two breaks, then got the ball again but coughed it up, giving up the chance to set tone early and letting the Spanish squad right back into the match.  We managed to get one more break in the midst of some very hard-fought back-and-forth point-trading, until finally, at 8-7, we broke out.  We scored on offense, then rattled off four straight breaks to win it going away, 13-7.

The spirit circle was great - they spoke English to us; we spoke Spanish to them.  It was quite a refreshing change to play against a Western country that has a much stronger and more developed *beach* ultimate culture than a grass one - at the top levels, the Spanish are as passionate about beach as we are about the grass club series, and they noted with pride that we appear to be coming along: 2011 marks the first time that the US has sent a true selection squad to an international beach competition.  Hopefully, we’ll keep up the organizational effort and national interest.

The results of the other three quarterfinal matches offered no surprise, at least not to us: our pool’s 1st place finisher, Italy, beat a young Austria team; the Pool A 1st place team, Switzerland, beat Germany; and the plucky Philippines contingent knocked off Canada on double game point.  Their last score was a pretty good one, apparently: they baited a nervous Canada into hucking away two bad deep balls before punching it in for the win.  This set up two semis of us vs. Switzerland and the Philippines rematching Italy.

Prepping for the Swiss, we focused our game plan around stopping their main thrower: #29 Lorenz.  He'd played with Condors in years past, so he was not an unknown quantity to us: a left-handed handler with exceptional breaks.  We knew we had to keep the ball out of his hands to get our best shot at winning.

Again, we managed to get a few breaks early, going up 2-0 and then 3-1.  Our teammate and beach veteran Sean McCall had long stressed the importance of winning the first game to three, so notching that first small victory was psychologically quite big for us.  Though we stumbled after that, even going down 4-5, we managed to pull ahead again on the strength of some big d blocks and a few huge O points out of Asa Wilson and Tyler Kinley.  At the end, we beat their team 12-10 in a capped game, punching our ticket to the finals against a surprise opponent: the Philippines, who managed to soundly defeat Italy 13-4 in a stunning reversal of their previous defeat.  Apparently, the Philippines just went up big early and Italy imploded.  Who would have guessed that such a tough squad would fold like that?  I guess that's why you play the games.

The night saw us attending three finals matches: the grand masters, the mixed masters, and the women's.  All three matches featured US teams - in fact, US teams have qualified for the gold medal game in all six divisions.  That's good, in that all of us have done so well, but it's bad in that it sets natural crosshairs on us in any and all of our games – particularly the Open squad, as our final is the last match of the tournament.  Nobody wants to see one country come in and sweep, so fans at the finals will probably be pretty loud against us.  Of course, that’s been the case all along, so we need to brace ourselves doubly for a matchup against the fan-favorite underdog team from the Philippines, in which the crowd will likely be overwhelmingly so.

In the first final of the tournament, the US grand masters beat Austria.  In the second, the US mixed masters lost to the UK in a time-capped game that, from a viewing perspective, lacked tension.  Both teams played hard and with heart, but the US was out of it from the moment the game began, going down four scores early and never really getting close again.  The night capped off with the US women taking on Canada, and this was the match we’d all been looking forward to.  The men’s team broke out special apparel to cheer on our ladies, who responded by pulling ahead to a 9-7 lead with the disc when the time cap went on.

All the women needed to do was push in that goal to make it 10-7 and force Canada to reel off four straight, but they couldn’t do it.  This made the score 9-8, US receiving, in a game hard-capped to 10.  The pull was handled cleanly, but an early turnover and a quick break by Canada made it double game point.  Both squads felt the pressure, giving up a number of soft turns on swing passes, before at last, Marie Madaras got the disc on the weak side off a break by Rohre Titcomb and slipped in an I/O flick to the end zone for the game winner.
I’m excited for my friends on the grand masters and women’s teams, but now, I’m left wondering what’s to come tomorrow.  Will we join them in returning home with the gold?  I believe, but still, we’ve got to get it done – and the race isn’t over yet.  We’ve got a tough opponent tomorrow in the Philippines... and that brings me to a whole ‘nother subject.

The other day, I commented on the meaning of spirit.  The Philippines, as it happens, were one of the teams that gave us a relatively very low spirit score.  This frustrated me, and in the interim, I’ve vented that frustration.  But giving voice to that has had an unexpected effect: people actually listened and worked to make it right.

The first to step up was a member of a foreign team, who came to speak to one of our captains.  He detailed that the issue stemmed, in part, from miscommunication, misunderstanding, and differences in interpretation.  Take, for instance, the common marking foul.  In the US, we’re taught to throw through a tight mark – if a defender is playing you too close, you throw around the mark, let them foul you, and get the free throw by calling foul when you’re hit.  This is standard, akin to drawing a foul on a layup in basketball, and any top tier club player will tell you that this exact progression happens ten times per game at minimum.  However, in some other countries, the protocol is different.  The standard is to call for disc space, wait for the defender to back up, and then throw around him – even when getting fouled by an illegal mark, to take advantage of that free throwing opportunity is simply not done.  Thus, a part of the “spirit” issue may have been related to the fact that teams felt we were playing outside the rules, when in fact, our standard of interpretation is simply different from theirs.  (Of course, the guidelines of spirit explicitly state that part of good spirit is the willingness to teach other teams the rules when there is a misunderstanding, and no team bothered to mention this discrepancy to us until *after* they knocked us on the spirit scoreboard *and* after we approached them to proactively ask why they gave us such a low grade – but that’s another discussion altogether.)

Additionally, another source of consternation may have come from differences in understanding.  To my surprise, it turns out a number of people actually read this blog, and among them is Dutch-Portuguese BLUA President Patrick Van Der Valk, whom I first met at Bar do Peixe about a decade ago, before the World Championships of Beach Ultimate even existed.  Patrick and his compatriot Wouter were worried about my perceptions of “European” unspiritedness, and Wouter and I actually sat down before the women’s finals to hash it out.
“Look,” Wouter admitted.  “Partially, this is our fault.  We didn’t perceive going in that different teams would have different standards and mindsets.”  He went on to explain that some teams – among them the US, Canada, and Japan – seemed to grade spirit by starting at a “4”, or “excellent”, for every level, and then marking down for instances of poor sportsmanship.  “Most of the European countries,” he said, “do it differently – they start at ‘2’ and only mark up for instances of exceptional spirit.”  So our team was starting at 18 by default, and others were starting at 10.  Thus, to some extent, this vast gulf we’ve been seeing could be partially explained not by animosity, but by different cultural standards and the lack of any unified scale for spirit.

“Similarly,” Wouter went on to say, “the Russians told me that their key indicator of spirit is missing from the grading system entirely: competitiveness.”  To them, he said, and I agree with their feeling, one of the highest forms of spirit is knowing that your opponents are playing their absolute hardest to beat you – a true battle is an indication that the other team is exulting in play, and that’s one of the most spirited things a team can do.  Unfortunately, that’s not part of the spirit rubric yet, and it’s a shame.  Case in point: one of the absolute best games we’ve had all tournament was the semi-final against the Swiss, which was so good precisely because of just how hard they showed they wanted the victory.  However, following the guidelines of the existing scoresheet, we actually gave them the lowest “spirit” score we’ve given all tournament, and not because it was a bad or unspirited game – on the contrary!  It was just that, following the guidelines that we were presented to us, that’s where they ranked once the individual spirit category scores were summed.

Reflecting on all this, it makes me realize just how much of what’s going on here relies on communication and perception.  To that end, I was involved in a particularly charged incident yesterday, one which I’d all but forgotten about until I realized that, based on communication and perception, it left a number of other people with a very bad taste in their mouths.

We were playing an energized game against Belgium, and a large number of people ringed the sidelines to watch.  They were close – in some places, two close, less than three feet away, and as a player I felt that was far too near for the safety of the competitors.  Less than half a layout is not far enough to avoid potentially colliding with seated fans packing coolers and umbrellas; it’s just begging for players and or spectators to get seriously injured on a tough, athletic sideline play.

So, I walked over and asked them to move back.  However, one of the spectators – an American, actually – basically told me to jump off a bridge.  “There’s no more room.  The umbrellas are right behind us, this where our shade is!” I suggested she move the umbrellas, but when no one made any motion to do it, I went back there to do it myself.

Well, the shaft of the umbrella was wedged in the sand, so I picked it up by the parasol.  This caused it to immediately collapse in my hand, leaving me standing there with a folded umbrella. I was frustrated, I couldn’t get the thing to work, nobody was helping me, and I had a game to play, so I just gave up, dropping it right to the ground and returning to the match. The spectators, I figured, were grownups; they could work it out.

The woman who’d first refused to move yelled at me.  “You just lost your fans!” she said.  “Fine,” I replied.  Fans like that, I figured, we don’t need.  I went to the official staff scorekeeper and asked him to clear the lines for safety, since no one was listening to me, and he agreed to do it (telling me after that they also told him to basically jump).  Then I pushed the spectators out of my mind and turned my attention back to the game.

Just another everyday incident on a tournament sideline, right?  Nothing worth commenting on and certainly nothing worth thinking about.   Well, that’s what I thought, until word got around that there was some maniac on the US team who was either severely mentally maladjusted, or just a jerk, or both.  I couldn’t figure out why until I took a minute to hear the story from someone else’s point of view. Here it is:

A guy walks up and tells us to move back.  Before we can say anything (remember – only one very vocal person told me “no” before I acted), he walks around, rips our umbrella out of the ground, spikes it, and walks off, telling us he doesn’t want us even be watching the game.  What’s his problem?!

See?  Not how I’d interpreted the course of events, or how I’d intended my actions to be understood, but that’s not necessarily what matters.  Nor does it matter that I’d been coming from a good place – protecting the health and safety of my teammates, and to some extent, the spectators themselves.  The message was lost in malperceptions.  That was a wakeup call (not to mention the fact that I was left in the awkward position of owing an apology to the wife and kids of one of my teammates, who happened to be among the spectators.  I’m sorry, guys – I promise I’m not a lunatic; I was just looking out for safety.  I can see how my actions could have been perceived differently.  My apologies.)

In any event, our squad is now left with a finals matchup against the Philippines.  It’s not until night time, so we have a whole day to stew, think, plan, and prepare.  A good friend of mine back in LA told me this before I left:

“When I went to Maceio in 2007, I left a space in my luggage for a gold medal.  We didn’t get it.  We got a bronze.  Get over to Italy and do what we couldn’t do – finish the job.”

There’s still a few hours left for us to get ready.  We’re sure as hell gonna try. 

Team USA Beach Diaries

Some members of Team USA will be submitting diary entries during the event to keep everyone posted on their experience in Italy.

  Grand Masters
Mixed Masters