A sport is more than a game when it leads players to higher achievements.
The last time I saw Khalif El-Salaam he was a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Asa Mercer Middle School in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. That was seven years ago, and I was writing about the school’s Ultimate Frisbee team.
My interest was not so much the sport, but the use to which it was being put by the coach, Sam Terry, as an instrument of uplift for a group of kids who were short on opportunities.
El-Salaam is a good example of how well that has worked. He’s headed into his fourth year at the University of Washington, majoring in political science and taking a lot of economics classes, too. The Seattle native is the first in his family to attend college.
Last month, he played for the U.S. team that won the world championship for players 23 and under. And two friends, Henry Phan and Arianne Lozano, both also members of his Mercer team, were part of the team that won in London. Three from one middle school.
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Before Terry took up coaching at Mercer, Seattle was producing top players, but most of them were in private or North End schools. (Terry is a 2000 graduate of The Northwest School, which always fields good teams.) He brought more economic and racial diversity to the sport, all while giving his players something to help them grow.
El-Salaam didn’t know anything about Ultimate at first. He liked football and would toss a ball around with some other guys after school. One day the ball landed on the roof. The boys were standing around and Terry came over and asked if they’d like to use some Frisbees.
Eventually he asked if they’d like to come play with the small team he had, nothing serious, just playing around with the Frisbee. Later he and fellow coach Rex Gaoaen taught them some rules and took them to watch some top teams play. The team they joined didn’t do too well at first, but they kept getting better, and it was not because Terry pushed, but because they did.
When I visited with El-Salaam this week, he told me that before Ultimate, he didn’t have confidence that he could identify a goal and reach it. Through Ultimate, he saw the results of applying the work ethic he already had.
The Ultimate team also became a core of friends who wanted to succeed and who still push each other to achieve. That competitiveness seeped into the classroom, where they challenged each other, he said, “Who’s going to get the highest score on this test? Who’s going to do best on this math work sheet?”
They earned championships and good grades.
His family played a role in his success, too. El-Salaam’s mother (who died while he was in high school) picked Kahlif from a book of Arabic names and always told him that Kahlif El-Salaam means leader of peace, so he should behave accordingly.
After middle school, El-Salaam said, “I was going to go to Franklin (High School) because I lived nearby and my older brother was there, but Sam said I should apply to Northwest.” He said Terry told them it had really good teachers and the school would “offer opportunities that would set us up for success in the future.”
El-Salaam said he and two other Mercer students got into the school. “Northwest was amazing and I enjoyed my four years there.” He learned math and the sciences, but “also how to do mime, to dance and to paint.” And he played more Ultimate.
The Northwest School paid his tuition, so he goes back often and tries to repay the kindness with his time.
Time is something he’s learned to manage carefully. Usually, when he’s not in class or studying, he’s working (delivering pizza), or most often involved in Ultimate. He plays for a local professional team, The Rainmakers, and for a coed club team, Seattle Mixtape (formerly the Ghetto Birds) and for the UW Sundodgers. He also volunteers as a coach. (And last week the International Olympic Committee blessed the sport with its recognition, so maybe there’s an Olympic medal ahead.)
What he’s learned about balancing all that is to do what you’re doing 100 percent, because you can’t do anything well while thinking about something else.
Over the past several years, Ultimate Frisbee teams have sprung up all over Southeast Seattle. Terry co-founded another program, All Girls Everything Ultimate Program (AGE UP), and many more students have stories to tell about the lessons they learned throwing a Frisbee around.
Some of those lessons could be learned from participating in other sports, too, but Ultimate does have an unusual culture that encourages cooperative sportsmanship and fairness. Players are their own referees. They cheer good efforts by the other team. But Terry’s goals for his players off the field added something special.
A route to success is more than a game.