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Benefield: Frisbee no casual lawn game for Santa Rosa athlete

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Two world championships. Six national championships. Three collegiate championships.

Lauren Casey of Santa Rosa could be the biggest name in a sport you have only vague knowledge of.

Casey, a member of the Bay Area-based Fury, one of the preeminent ultimate Frisbee club teams in the world, is one of the growing sport’s brightest stars. Few athletes have won more titles and accolades in the sport of ultimate Frisbee than Casey.

Last weekend Fury won the USA Ultimate regional tournament in Morgan Hill to earn a ticket to the national tournament in October.

Casey has played at the highest level for more than a decade. Ask about the sport and her place in it and you are likely to hear more about the beauty of the game and the unique spirit of competition among even the most elite teams than you are about her personal trophy case.

“It’s self-motivated,” she said. “There are no scholarships in it. People show up because they want to. People invest a lot in it.”

But the payback, Casey has learned over her decade in the game, is bountiful.

The game has allowed Casey, 31, whose day job is climate protection program manager at the Regional Climate Protection Authority, to travel the world. Her team won the world competition in Vancouver in 2008 and in Prague in 2010. She’s competed in Japan and this summer traveled to Italy, where Fury came up short in the worlds.

Casey, who is contemplating the end of her sterling career as a player, has long been a coach of the game. She leads the Sonoma State women’s team and has traveled to Colombia and Israel through the Ultimate Peace program to teach younger players not only the rules of the game but the spirit behind it.

“Ultimate is particularly well-suited to that,” she said of the bridge-building sports camps she has helped run internationally. “You have to learn to calm your temper. You have to learn to communicate. You have to learn to empathize.”

Question why she spends most weekends traveling to play for hours on end with little reward outside the tight-knit Frisbee community and Casey talks of the joys of being physically strong and mentally balanced. It’s travel, athletics, friends and leadership. And it’s a blast.

“It’s not just a local community for me; it’s an international community,” she said.

“Ultimate is on my resume,” the Stanford grad said. “The leadership and team skills that I have gained in ultimate are very valuable in my professional career.”

Whereas she sees dysfunctional teams in her working world, ultimate has shown her how to build a “self-directed, self-run and very successful program.”

Casey only had a casual association with Frisbee when she enrolled at Stanford. An athlete, the sport found her.

“They recruit athletes and then teach them to play,” she said.

“I played soccer and volleyball in high school,” she said. “Division I athletics were out of reach for me, but ultimate was a club sport there.”

Don’t read “club sport” to mean casual. This isn’t the Frisbee you can play with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand and a disc in the other.

In this game you’ll see athletes in laid out, Superman flight to snag the disc before it hits the ground. Players go full gas for 90 minutes. Not fit? You will likely sit.

On its face, the game is simple. Seven players on each side on a field that stretches 70 yards. End zones are 20 yards deep and teams earn a point for catching the disc in that area. Players can throw in any direction but can’t run with it once they catch it. Drop the disc? It’s a turnover. Teams typically play to 15 points. And contact is not allowed.

“It’s very similar to other field sports in terms of the athleticism of the play, the physicality of it,” she said. “You are throwing something around and getting to chase something down.”

While the obvious perks are few compared to scholarship or even semi-pro sports, the payback is rich.

What they are getting, what Casey gets, is a community of athletes who revel in the physical demands of the sport while actively celebrating the ways in which it’s different from your average game. Picture this: entire tournaments with no refs. You don’t get fans in the numbers that, say, a basketball game will draw, but you will get the team you just played very likely rooting you on in the next game.

“It’s self-officiated, which also enhances that idea of community,” she said. “You are expected to self regulate. You are expected not to cheat. You are expected to respect your opponent in that they are not cheating.”

Casey is big on this part. She’s big on civility in the heat of battle, big on respect for opponents and for the spirit of the game. She wears the enthusiasm on her sleeve so much that in 2012 she was voted by her fellow athletes as the winner of the national Kathy Pufahl Spirit Award, which honors both competition and contribution to the sport as a whole.

As she contemplates the end of her playing career in the coming years and turns her attention to the development of youth ultimate, Casey calls that award the most meaningful.

“I love the process of working with a group of people,” she said. “I love the family of people I have through ultimate.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield

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