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Wright On: All walks of life in on fun at disc golf tourney

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald
    Chris Gonzalez came to Saturday’s disc golf tournament from Minnesota. “Going to these (disc golf tournaments), always feels a little like a family reunion or something,” he said. “You meet friends you played with before, you make new friends, it’s just a great thing.”
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald
    Maria Vicente participates in the Big Island Open disc golf tournament Saturday at Naniloa Golf Course. The key, she said, is not to swing your arms too hard. “I couldn’t get it to go very far when I started,” she said, “and then I learned that you need to really pivot with your hips, the arm (motion) has to be in sync and if you do that right, it will go a lot farther.”

In one foursome there were professionals from Minnesota, Alaska, Oregon and Nevada, all men.

In the next group were three women, two from the Big Island and one from Washington State, each of them fully involved, consumed by the competition and the camaraderie.

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This isn’t like most sporting endeavors, this is a crossroads, where sporting technique intersects with social consciousness.

In the final analysis, it might be the camaraderie, the feeling of being involved and accepted, that serves as the connective tissue for the dozen groups of competitors that gathered over the weekend at Naniloa Golf Course for the 19th annual Big Island Open, a sanctioned tournament held under the rules of the Professional Disc Golf Association.

In a sense, it’s the big time for people who played with a Frisbee and thought they wanted a little more than simply flipping a disc to see how far it would go.

Others got involved for other reasons.

“What’s there not to like?” said Nancy Morgan of Spokane, Washington. “It’s a walk in the park and every once in a while you pick up a disc and throw it. Who doesn’t like a walk in the park?”

That makes it all sound pretty simple, but 10 years ago, when she started down this competitive path, Morgan admits she had more than a walk in the park in mind.

“I met a guy named Steve Simmons (also in the competition), when I had only been playing with (discs) for about three months,” she said. “I really liked the guy and I thought, ‘If I’m ever going to be able to hang out with this guy, I’m going to need to learn more about this, that’s what got me started.”

And so it all ended in marital bliss, right?

“No way,” Morgan said, laughing out loud. “We had both done that twice and we weren’t looking to make it three; we live in sin these days, it’s more fun this way.”

Morgan was surely enjoying the course in a morning dappled with sunshine breaking in shafts of light through the trees ringing the course as her threesome worked its way around.

“It’s been 10 years,” she said, “and I still hear his words from back when I started. He would say, ‘Low and straight, low and straight, low and straight,’ I heard it so much, every time I was ready to tee off or take any kind of shot, it’s still in my head, and that’s a good thing.”

Morgan plays a safer, more conservative game, using her boyfriend’s advice to keep her disc in what would be considered the middle of a fairway, not reaching the distances of some others while managing to mostly stay out of trouble in the rough.

One of her partners, Debralynn Wana, has quickly become one of the top women players on the Big Island, and for as much fun as she has had, for the competitions she has won — Wana claimed the state women’s championship here in September — she maintains it’s not about the winning.

“All of that is nice,” Wana said, “but the real truth is that once you get involved in this? Once you just show up and start? This is an inclusive sport to the point that most people starting out don’t understand.

“You are suddenly part of a family,” she said, “really, a part of it. Nobody cares where you came from, what your gender is, what your nationality or whatever is, everybody is glad to have you, new people are celebrated.

“You can’t escape the feeling of being a part of something where everyone really sort of gets along, and there’s no judgment.”

That seems to be the case on the men’s side of the sport, as well. Why else would Chris Gonzalez, 55, a pro from Minnesota, fly to Hilo for the third year in a row, just for this weekend?

“Not everybody gets it,” he said, “but I’m a guy who grew up in California, throwing the Frisbee around every day. I played high school hockey and then fell into it again and found out about these competitions.

“Going to these (disc golf tournaments), always feels a little like a family reunion or something,” he said. “You meet friends you played with before, you make new friends, it’s just a great thing. I guess maybe after you do this you must either get it or not get it, and it seems like most people just get it.”

Anyone who has ever attended or reported on a major golf tournament recognizes the difference almost immediately. Stay out of the competitors’ way, obviously, don’t stand in front of them when they line up a 20-foot pitch to the chain basket into which the disc must fall, just as a golf ball tumbles into a hole.

There are similarities, of course, but in disc golf competitions like this, players are happy to chat with journalists between shots, nothing is roped off, everyone is open and available and they all seem to enjoy a discussion about the sport.

“Just being here is cool for me,” said Jake Haskin from Anchorage. “We play all year round but we used metal cleats and just play in the snow. It’s basically the same game, you can still get in work on your technique even in the snow.”

Remember tossing the Frisbee back in the day? Most of us tried to see how far we could toss it, we would swing the arm back and swing it forward as hard as we could. Bad technique.

“The best thing I learned,” said Maria Vicente, originally from Massachusetts, but a four-year resident of the Big Island, “was about how to get distance. I couldn’t get it to go very far when I started and then I learned that you need to really pivot with your hips, the arm (motion) has to be in synch and if you do that right, it will go a lot farther.

“Keep it low,” she said, “once it gets up in the air things happen.”

Think about swinging a baseball bat, how your feet are placed, knees slightly bent, a bit of a windup and a swing that involves the torso twisting up and then uncoiling all in a smooth motion with the arm.

“Simple,” said Ben Dowdy of Camby, Oregon, who opened his comments by offering thanks to the state for sending his Marcus Mariota to his UO alma mater, “it’s about repetition, there’s a learning curve but it isn’t too tough, it’s just a matter of working with it and getting that muscle memory going.

“You can usually tell the beginners because they are flailing away with their arms, working too hard and sort of defeating the purpose,” he said. “But it’s not like it’s work, it’s fun, once you start and fall into the family we have here, you just want to keep coming back and doing it some more.”

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And they will, as they always have, next year when the Big Island Open celebrates its 20th renewal.

Tips? Whistleblowers? Comments? Contact Bart at barttribuneherald@gmail.com