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East Lyme native carves out career in Ultimate Frisbee

East Lyme — Matt “Rowan” McDonnell remembers the first time he saw an Ultimate Frisbee game.

It was 2011 and the East Lyme native was 22 years old and a soon-to-be senior at Eastern Connecticut State University, where he majored in psychology. He was standing at the Civic Triangle park in Waterford, watching his younger brother, Chad, play a sport McDonnell had barely heard of.

“I didn’t even know what it was, but I felt immediately hooked. The first thing I saw was this kid throw it 70 yards, and I was like wow, I want to do that,” McDonnell said by phone interview last week.

Having played almost every sport imaginable since he was 5 (soccer, baseball, basketball, tennis, lacrosse, etc.), McDonnell couldn’t help but challenge himself to learn how to throw a Frisbee with such ease and strength. So he started practicing on his own, throwing a Frisbee in his backyard and into a makeshift net he set up in his garage. Soon, he was hooked.

The sport is now known as Ultimate, and seven years later, McDonnell is one of the top players in the country. As the star and captain of his semi-professional team, the DC Breeze, in Washington, D.C., where he now lives, McDonnell was recently selected as the most valuable player in the 23-team American Ultimate Disc League, which is the equivalent of the NBA or MLB for Ultimate. 

McDonnell is also a co-founder of the American Ultimate Academy, which he established in 2017 — an Ultimate training school that offers national camps for high school-aged athletes.

Besides those achievements — much of which he readily attributes to his childhood growing up in East Lyme — McDonnell has managed to carve out a career for himself based entirely around Ultimate, a still-growing alternative sport.

The sport, which tends to attract highly educated athletes, combines elements of soccer, basketball, football and netball and is played on an outdoor field. It requires speed and agility as well as the ability to jump. It is a non-contact sport and is known for its high degree of sportsmanship and is often played without referees. And though the sport is still gaining in popularity, it has been around since 1968.

“(Ultimate) is super fun and there is always something you can be practicing and perfecting. I was naturally attracted to it because it’s always a challenge," McDonnell said. "I’m always trying to throw a little bit better, always trying to understand what’s happening on the field, anticipating the plays. It’s the cerebral IQ side of the game that I love. Seeing what’s happening and making decisions from that.”

And though McDonnell was always athletically inclined (his father described him last week as a 6-year-old T-ball player unafraid to dive for ground balls), the path to becoming an elite Ultimate player wasn’t always that of least resistance.

Besides having to continually focus on advancing his own athleticism, McDonnell also deliberately made several financial and professional sacrifices to advance his athletic and career goals over the last seven years.

For example, he chose not to work a full-time job after graduating in 2012, but instead chose a variety of part-time jobs (pizza delivery as well as dog walking, to name a few) while living in East Lyme, Boston and D.C.

“It gave me the flexibility I needed at the time,” he said. “All I knew is that I wanted to play Ultimate.”

It was during these years, as well, that McDonnell endured ups and downs as an aspiring Ultimate player. Starting out small, McDonnell first joined the Southeastern CT Ultimate Frisbee League, the same group his brother played with the summer before. Soon thereafter, he landed a spot on Boston’s elite Ultimate team, Boston Ironside, in 2013 — a notable achievement considering McDonnell had just started playing the sport two years earlier. It also required McDonnell to commute to Boston every weekend for games.

After moving to Boston in 2014 to be closer to the team, McDonnell did not make the team during tryout.

He called it "a blessing in disguise” because it forced him to join what he described as the city’s “second best” Ultimate team, Boston Garuda.

“It was almost a setback, but it ended up making me a lot better. On the new team I had a new role. I wouldn’t have played that much had I stayed on (Ironside),” McDonnell said, explaining how it prepared him for the move up to the elite Ultimate teams found in the Washington, D.C. area.

When McDonnell moved there in 2015 to live in “the hub city for Ultimate,” he continued to deliver food, this time, by bicycle — a part-time job that helped him stay in shape while giving him time to coach several youth leagues, as well as the women’s Ultimate team at American University.

On the side, McDonnell also worked with several parks and recreation departments throughout the D.C. metro area, setting up youth and adult Ultimate leagues and camps, all while playing for two Ultimate teams in D.C. simultaneously, attending weekly practices and playing in games and tournaments around the country.

“Shaping my life around a fringe sport was never easy,” McDonnell said. “But I purposely chose to do that because I figured, if I kept getting my name out there, and if I kept coaching and gaining experience for myself, it would eventually allow me to make a career out of Ultimate.”

And even though McDonnell has achieved a considerable amount of success thus far, he still remembers the town he came from, East Lyme — a place that shaped him as an athlete. McDonnell pointed out his high school basketball and tennis coaches, as well as his father, who coached him on many youth recreation sports teams, as figures who taught him lessons of playing fairly and playing for the love of the sport. 

“The sports I played and the experiences I gained from playing in East Lyme perfectly prepared me to become an Ultimate player,” McDonnell said. “Basketball helped with my jumping, and tennis was a natural crossover sport to help me develop my throws."

Now, with the future bright ahead of him, McDonnell said he has two goals — to make the U.S. national team that will play in the 2020 world championships in the Netherlands and to continue spreading his love for the game to anyone willing to learn, including in the town where he grew up.

"I would love to set up a youth league in East Lyme," McDonnell said. "It would be amazing to bring this sport back to the town where it all began for me."

m.biekert@theday.com

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