On May 31, 2012, I traveled to Mexico to play in the 2012 Mexico National Ultimate Championships with Malaki UFC, a team who flew me down a year ago to coach them and teach them more about the game of ultimate.
I arrived in Querétaro around 7pm and didn’t have much time as we had a practice at 8pm. As is usual in Querétaro, which I learned last year, is that fields are hard to find (since soccer is so huge) and when you do get a field, you never know the quality of it. The field we had was a small soccer field with artificial turf, high fence on all 4 sides and lights for when it got dark. Not bad actually. We had around 10 guys show up – standard for Malaki since many of the players are 16-18, live at home and don’t have a car so it’s hard for them to get to practice. Last year we always carpooled and this year was no exception. We had a full truck and every car that showed up was full too. The first practice was good – we ran through the vertical stack and worked on our Zone offense in anticipation of many teams at Nationals running a zone. I taught them how to attack the cup and move the disc up the field instead of dumping and swinging which I find a much better way to run and beat zone. We also did a lot of throwing and throughout the practice, it was clear how much they had improved in the year since I had been there.
That night, we were going to get some wings at Wings Army but there was a long wait so we instead went out for “Gourmet Tacos” as Victor called them. They were delicious and we also had some Mexican beer. Yum.
The next day was meant to just be a chill day. Carter and Thomas flew in from Oregon and so after meeting them and taking a nap, we all headed to downtown Querétaro. Victor had a doctor’s appointment so the 3 of us hung out at a restaurant, watching some soccer and waiting for Victor to finish. We then went home, got our stuff and went off to practice. This field was also artificial turf but it was super windy and dusty. We had around 8 guys and ran a very similar practice to Thursday night. We took it a bit easy knowing we had to get on the bus at 2am for Guadalajara. After practice, we all went out for some tacos at this small hole in the wall place close to Victor’s house that Carter had been to a bunch last year when he lived in Querétaro. They were delicious and my mouth is watering just thinking of them now. We went home to try and nap for a bit and then took a cab to the bus. Our team, along with Valhalla, would share the bus, which was basically a Greyhound bus, on the roughly 6 hour bus ride to Guadalajara. I tried to sleep as much as I could since our first game was at 11am so we wouldn’t have much of a break once we got there.
Upon arriving around 9:30am, we had to check in, get our jerseys and had to the fields to warm up. The national championships were held at the University of Guadalajara, so I was hoping the fields would be nice – I wasn’t disappointed. They felt like a mix between grass and artificial turf. They were flat, grippy and somewhat soft so it was perfect. The way the schedule worked was that we had 3 games on Saturday (full round robin) and then Sunday would be quarters, semis and finals. There was 12 teams from each of the regions in Mexico and we went in ranked 6th. The top team was undoubtedly Fenix – 4 time National Champions so our plan was to win all our games and take them on in finals.
Our 3 games on Saturday went as planned although the first game was closer than I expected. At one point it was 8-7 but we scored a few in the row to finish the game off. Our second game we were never challenged and the 3rd game was against Valhalla, the top team from Querétaro and our bus mates. We went on a 9-0 run and ended up trouncing them 13-3 which was pretty surprising to everyone. One of the main issues I had was that there was no field food except for a bag of oranges. I didn’t get to eat breakfast and with no lunch either, I was starving and my body was feeling the lack of nutrition. With only a canteen to eat from I had a coke and bag of chips. At that point I just needed sugar to get me through the last game until we could eat.
But, eating wouldn’t happen for a bit longer. After our last game, we all went jumping off the diving towers into a pool. Great way to finish the day of playing! The best part was when Pibe, who is a 16 or 17 year old Malakos and future superstar, walked all the way to the top and the 10 metre platform. For the next hour, he would get close to the edge, think about jumping and then would back away. We teased him, we encouraged him, we taunted him…but none of it worked. Finally, as we were all walking away, he went down to the lower town (2.5 metres) and jumped off. He then jumped off the 6 metre tower too, then walked right back up to the 10 metre…walked to the edge…and waved at us, No no!. It was entertaining to say the least.
That night we feasted…I ate so much food and drank so much liquid but I needed it and was trying to plan for the next day, not knowing how much I would get to eat. We went to bed pretty early since our first game was at 9am. Waking up, we grabbed all of our stuff since we wouldn’t be back to the hotel and went to the restaurant to get some breakfast. I was in heaven being able to eat some food before playing! Plus I wasn’t sure when the next time I would get to eat would be. Our quarter final game was against the team we had beaten in our first game by a few points so we knew it was going to be a battle. They actually went up early on but we fought our way back and won in the end. Onto semis against a tough team who had some real athletes but in the end they just couldn’t hang with us and we closed them out 15-10.
The final was exactly as we had hoped for – against Fenix – a team who was older and more experienced than Malaki. Most of the guys were just happy they had gotten that far since they had never expected that – after all this was the first year playing for a lot of these kids (most of whom were 16-19) and so to beat these older teams was really exciting for them. Having Carter, Thomas and myself was a big help for sure but still, the kids played amazing and deserved every win we had.
The final would start badly for us and I think Fenix went up 6-0. We made some mistakes, you could see our nerves for sure and they took half 8-2. We came out much differently in the second half and although Fenix won, we tied them 7-7 in the second half. We learned a lot from that game and the smiles on our faces showed how happy we were with the silver medal.
After getting our medals we hung around, taking pictures with our teammates, talking to some of the players on the other teams and I had some guys come up from the other teams asking me how I pulled the disc so far, or telling me how they liked my website so that was really cool. After jumping in the pool one last time, we got on the bus and started the long trip home to Querétaro. We stopped for more tacos in Guadalajara, which were delicious, and just at some random place attached to a gas station. I also had some horchata, which is basically cinnamon rice water – and it’s soooo delicious! I slept most of the way back to Querétaro and when we got home, Victor, Carter, Thomas and myself chatted for a bit but I was exhausted and went to bed.
We had to catch the bus from Querétaro to the airport at 9:30am so we had some quick breakfast when we woke up, was handed a lunch bag from Victor’s mom (who is amazing and so loving) and then went to the bus station. The flight home was without incident and it was so great to be home, sunburnt and tired
I had an incredible time and I’m so grateful for Victor inviting me down to play with Malaki. A few things that really stood out which are different from tournaments (especially nationals) in Canada:
1. Nutrition: as I mentioned earlier, there was no field food other than oranges. There was water but in order to play at your highest level, you need proper nutrition. All the tournaments in Canada, especially Nationals, have a lot of food for the players and so it’s never an issue to be hungry while you’re playing. Next time I’d like to see there be more healthy food for players or at least some more accessible places.
2. Post game chat: Most post games chats involve the team sitting down and talking about how they played, what they can change, some good and bad parts of their play. However, I was totally surprised how it worked in Mexico…there was a spirit circle after each game where the MVP and Spirit MVP’s were chosen. After that, each captain would talk about their team, and although I don’t really understand Spanish, I was able to understand what was going on, based on a few words they said and from asking Thomas who understands Spanish. Basically the captain would make an excuse for his team’s play, apologize for things they did bad or what not and talk about how they wish they had played a better game or given us a better game. We talked about how although we won, we were sorry that we didn’t play as well as we should have and what we need to work on. In one of the games, the other team made a few comments about a few calls we had made – in particular I had called a pick that their team didn’t think was so they made a comment about it. What I didn’t like about it was the negativity of it and it didn’t seem like they were really that positive and encouraging of the other team. That could be a culture difference, I’m not sure. Just wasn’t something I was expecting.
3. Exposure: This was the national championship yet, other than the medals we got on Sunday, you wouldn’t know it. There was no signs, no discs with the tournament logo on it, no swag, no tents, nothing that would indicate that it was nationals. I suppose part of that is because ultimate is newer in Mexico but I also would think it’s because they aren’t as organized as the USA or Canada is with a board and members and member dues, etc. Soccer is so huge in Mexico that it’s hard to compete with any sport but I think they could do a better job at raising the profile just with a few little things.
4. Camaraderie: I found the players amongst the teams to be more friendly then in Canada and the US. I find the Mexican culture more open and friendly in general so it would obviously be reflected in sports as well but it’s something I really like. When you say hi to something, you grab their hand, give them a hug and grab their hand again. It’s very personal, and it creates a bond automatically I find. In Canada and the US there’s not really a generally accepted greeting in our culture – some people shake hands, some fist pound, some hug. But I like that there is a generally accepted greeting in Mexico.
Overall, I had an incredible time. I went to play this time but I found that I came back with a greater perspective on life than I was expecting. I’m grateful for the opportunities I have in Canada but I also know that there are things which could be done better. I’m so thankful to Victor and my Malaki brothers and I hope to see them again soon!
Rob McLeod aka Ultimate Rob