Tom Carroll’s Love of Ultimate Approaches 30 Years
Ultimate—a flying-disc sport that is commonly referred to by many as “ultimate Frisbee,” but does not actually involve use of the trademarked discs manufactured by Wham-O—is a non-contact sport in which teams of seven compete. “The flow of the game is probably most similar to soccer,” said Carroll. “It’s played on a field that’s the same length as a soccer field, but half the width … When you catch the disc, you have to stop running, but at all other times you’re running out of your mind. There is an end zone at either end of the field, and if you catch the disc in the end zone, you score.”
Carroll first picked up a disc as a freshman at the University of Richmond in 1994 and was instantly hooked. During graduate school, he still had some college eligibility, so he played for Princeton University. That team went to the national championships and finished 15th in the country. He then played club ultimate in Philadelphia for roughly 10 years before joining the Black Cans, a team based in Washington, D.C., in 2018.
Over the years, he has traveled extensively for tournaments and championships alike. In 2022, the Black Cans finished third at the world championships in Ireland. In his time playing beach ultimate for the Horned Melons, the team traveled to Italy for the World Cup of Beach Ultimate, which they won five times between 2001 and 2015.
“I love to play sports. It’s a big part of my life,” said Carroll. “When I’m talking to students who play sports, one of the pieces of advice I give them is, ‘You want to participate in sports for the rest of your life probably and so you have to find a way to do that. You have to make it a priority in your life. You have to find a sport that you can keep playing, which for a lot of athletes might mean picking a new sport.’”
It’s ultimate’s warm and welcoming community that has kept Carroll in his cleats for so long. “When you play at a big international tournament or at the national championships in the U.S., after every game, there’s a thing called a spirit circle where the two teams come together, put their arms around each other in a big circle, and congratulate each other, win or lose,” said Carroll. “It’s just a great way to immediately leave all of the wonderful competitive aspects and any arguments … behind and come back together as a community, recognizing that even when you’re on opposite teams, you’re pulling for each other to succeed as athletes.”
Asked about his career highlights on the field, Carroll recalled a photo from a semifinal game in the 2021 national championships. “[I was in] full extension, laying out in the air. It looks like I caught it, but I actually didn’t catch it. But it’s a great picture because it exemplifies what you really care about in athletics: the effort you put into making something happen. And it doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail. I laid out for that disc. I didn’t catch it. It would have been an important goal for my team. But my teammates were just excited for me and picked me up. No one blames you when you make a mistake, as long as you’re doing the hard work to train and be part of the team.”
He encourages a similar approach in the classroom. “I refer to quizzes as opportunities to fail because when you fail, you learn something,” said Carroll. “It’s about the effort that you put in and not about the result that you achieve. I think the same is true in many parts of life.”