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Catching L.A.’s Spin Doctors

Michael Kiyoi leaps for the catch and a score, during a recent L.A. Aviators match at Occidental College. The professional team in the American Ultimate Disc League plays this Saturday in Eagle Rock. (Photo by ANNIE NGO)


EAGLE ROCK. – As one who came of age in the 1980s, I’m particularly keen on the recent nostalgia for the decade of my youth, such as in the popular series “Stranger Things.”

So when I caught wind of a local professional team in the sport of ultimate, my interest soared a bit.

Ultimate is believed to have sprung up with young, counterculture types in the late 1960s, but the game really took hold with my generation. In my high school days, it was also called frisbee football, since it was often played on a football field. My alma mater, Blair High in Pasadena, had a team that competed against other schools during halftime at the weekly football games.

While most folks would consider “frisbee” a pretty generic term for any sort of flying disc, it is indeed a trademark of the Wham-O company, which marketed the toy to great success starting in the 1950s. Because of the rights held, the game we played became known simply as “ultimate.”

For those unfamiliar with the sport, it’s beautifully simple – as one might expect, having been devised by a bunch of kids equipped with little more than a disc and empty afternoons. The rules are something of a hybrid of football and basketball. The goal is the get the disc into the end zone, and running with it is not allowed. Once it’s caught, a player must stop and pass to a teammate on a drive to the goal, all the while keeping the disc from the opposing defense.

“I wanted to be involved in sports in some way,” said Michael Kiyoi, who plays for the Los Angeles Aviators, the local team in the American Ultimate Disc League. While majoring in music at UCLA, he joined a club team to play ultimate, but admitted he wasn’t exactly enamored from the outset.

“I didn’t like it at first, but I had purchased a nice set of cleats, so I thought I would stick it out.”

“Once you experience the atmosphere, you’ll be a fan,” said Kiyoi of the Aviators’ games. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

The Aviators will play their final regular season home game at 7 p.m. this Saturday, at Occidental College. They’ll face the San Jose Spiders, and if last week’s match was any indication, there should be a fairly large and enthusiastic crowd on hand.

“Meeting people is probably the best part of the game,” said Kiyoi, a graduate of San Marcos High School and a four-year ultimate pro. “We played a game a couple of weeks ago, and a dad brought his two sons who had never heard of the sport. They loved it, and now they have season tickets.”

Tom Doi grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, and has made playing for the Aviators a central component to his new life in Los Angeles.

“I have a sister who lives here, and I wanted a change of pace, a chance to check out something new,” explained Doi, who moved to Southern California around six months ago.

“Playing ultimate for me started as a way to meet people, because frisbee is basically the same everywhere,” he said.

Doi played baseball in high school, but he reached a point where he felt burned out, so he found himself considering other activities.

“I was looking for a sport in which I thought I might be able to excel, and ultimate has been a game that I found I can play well and also get to meet a lot of people.”

Doi has jockeyed the disc in New Zealand and Australia, and he said wherever he goes, there is a uniform sense of community, a key to the success of the AUDL. The Aviators regularly partner with Viva L.A., a local women’s club, and the teams conduct events for kids.

Ultimate has a potent mix of action and acrobatics that consistently pleases crowds. The flight of a disc doesn’t always follow a straight path, such as with a baseball or football, but often takes an arcing, boomerang trajectory. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, making for some tense moments as players wait for its descent.

Long passes, jumping catches in the air, and diving defense are what makes the game exciting, explained Aviators assistant coach Satoru Ishii. Originally from Tokyo, Ishii was at one point a tennis coach who became involved with the Buzz Bullets, a Japanese ultimate club that won a pair of national championships.

“When I was a freshman, I wanted to be No. 1 in any sport,” Ishii explained. “I looked to minor sports, including lacrosse, cricket, squash, but I found ultimate frisbee was the most fun.”

Ishii is also the U.S. representative for Club Jr., the top supplier of ultimate disc sporting goods in Japan. He said he consistently stresses the value of practice and drive to the Aviators players.

The AUDL boasts 24 teams in the U.S. and Canada, and is one of two professional leagues that began playing in 2013. The other, Major League Ultimate, folded last year.

Kiyoi said the AUDL has thrived not only on the strength of the sport, but also because of its community involvement, and the sense of pure fun at the matches.

“Once you experience the atmosphere, you’ll be a fan,” he said. “It’s a great way to spend an evening with a lot of really fun people.”

The L.A. Aviators play the two-time AUDL champion San Jose Spiders this Saturday at 7 p.m., at Jack Kemp Stadium, on the Occidental College campus. Tickets start at $8 with kids age 10 and under free. For more information, visit

Still somewhat new to L.A., Tom Doi (left) has experience playing ultimate in Australia and New Zealand. (Photo by ANNIE NGO)

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