For the fifth consecutive year, local Washington, DC players will lead an Ultimate Frisbee clinic in Panama City, Panama. Breeze captain Rowan McDonnell and Virginia High School Coach of the Year Cody Johnston will coach almost 200 youth participants during a two-week clinic that culminates with the start of Panama City’s summer league. The clinic and summer league is sponsored by The City of Knowledge, a community formed for the purpose of business, academic, scientific and humanitarian collaboration.
Key players from the DC Ultimate community have worked with Panama Ultimate since 2013, when Breeze handler Jonathan Neeley made his inaugural trip. A year later, he returned with 2014-2015 Breeze player (and current gameday DJ) Francisco Hazera, Scandal’s Allison Maddux, as well as area players Laura Perkins and Ken McWilliams. Neeley and Hazera returned in 2015, accompanied by Scandal’s Shino Yoshen.
“I got lucky enough to get the chance to coach in Mexico City right after the club season ended in 2012, and one of the coaches I was there with told me she was going to Panama in January and the organization wanted another coach,” says Neeley. “I jumped at the chance, and from there, I fell in love with the community there. The scene is full of wonderful people who gave me a chance to sharpen my coaching skills and who taught me a whole lot about how to share and how to learn.”
Last year, Neeley handed coaching duties off to McDonnell, one of the area’s most dedicated and talented coaches.
The Panama Ultimate scene welcomed me in with an eagerness to learn and enthusiasm for the sport,” says McDonnell. “They absolutely love Ultimate. The clinic will end at 8pm, and by 8:05 there will be a pick up game running until the lights shut off.”
Carolina Porras, the Panama Ultimate Association’s vice president, says players and coaches there have benefitted from the connection to players in Washington, D.C. “It has been great. The clinic has become the best way to welcome new players to the community, as well as giving active players new drills to implement in their training. The coaches have given us a model of training structure and strategy,” she says.
That structure and strategy was missing in the early days of Panama Ultimate, when Ultimate was considered just a hobby. Now, Porras notes, that the younger generation is gravitating to a more competitive route, eager to make a name for themselves in international tournaments.
Last July, a National Mixed team traveled to the United States to compete against the best teams in the world. Panama showed the competition how much they have embraced not just the sport, but the spirit of Ultimate. They beat out USAU Club Champion’s Slow White for “Most Spirited,” and tallied the highest spirit score among all three divisions.
“Winning most spirited was a surprise, because there great teams with excellent spirit,” reflected Harold Henry, a member of team Panama. “For Panama, it was a great achievement and urges us to promote Ultimate emphasizing that the foundation of Ultimate is the spirit of play.”
Passion for Ultimate is spreading throughout Panama. According to Porras, interest in the sport has grown exponentially over the last five years. From its casual beginning, “Ultimate is now perceived as a competitive sport that requires training and physical conditioning,” she says. Further highlighting this commitment, Jonathan “Goose” Helton, a 2016 Breeze player, and Tim Morrill, a Breeze strength and conditioning coach, recently completed a strength and conditioning seminar in Panama.
Neeley and McDonnell have both seen the spread of talent and knowledge first hand. “In the three years I was there, the average talent and commitment level jumped each time I went back,” says Neeley. “One of my favorite parts of the whole experience was teaching something one year, then coming back and seeing individual players, from middle school to their 50s, who had mastered themselves and could teach it to others.”
McDonnell agrees with Neeley’s assessment of the growing talent pool. “Look for a few of their top players to compete in AUDL very shortly.”
Rowan McDonnell, Jonathan Neeley, Cody Johnston and Libby Chamberlin contributed to this story