Ryan Archibald, a nuclear engineer from Atlanta, isn’t surprised at the questions he gets. “A lot of people don’t know what it is,” he says. He’s not talking about proliferation or energy use. He’s talking about ultimate Frisbee. It’s slowly grown from a fringe sport on college campuses to an organized national league. A scrappy team based in Charleston is one of 16 heading to the national finals this weekend in Sarasota, Fla.

This year, over 10,000 athletes on 600 teams from across North America started out with the hope of reaching the promised land of Sarasota, Fla., and the 2008 Ultimate Players Association Championship. Charleston’s own El Diablo team are ready for their shot at becoming discs dominators.

“People always ask “Do you play with your dog?” says Steven Salley, a fifth grade teacher during the week and ultimate Frisbee machine on the weekend. “They get this picture of hippies throwing a Frisbee in the park.”

Ultimate is a seven-on-seven game played on a modified football field. Players pass the disc up and down the field until it is caught in the opponent’s end zone. Frisbee is commonly used in the sport’s name, but it’s officially avoided because the product is under copyright and the disc used in the game is slightly heavier and angled differently than your day-in-the-park model.

“Physically you have to have great cardiovascular endurance,” says Salley. “You have to be able to run and jump with the best of them. Football, soccer, basketball, it combines everything.”

Founded by Salley and Mike Nash in 2007, El Diablo is a group of 21 players from South Carolina and Georgia with the shared dream of winning the championship. But victory means El Diablo must venture into unfamiliar territory  not a single team member has ever qualified for the national tournament.

“We’re happy to be there, but we’re seeded dead last,” Salley says. “We would never have guessed in our wildest dreams that we’d make it.”

The guys in El Diablo surely won’t go down without a fight.

“We’re battling teams from Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago,” says Nash. “Huge markets that have hundreds of athletes to pull from.”

El Diablo’s rise to the ranks of the best in the U.S. and Canada has not been an easy one. They’ve traveled as far as Austin, Texas, to earn their spot. It has taken dedication, money, and hundreds of miles. Because of the distance between teammates, El Diablo has had to make long trips, sometimes hours, to even practice together.

“Gas, hotels, rental houses, all of our food,” says Salley. “We pay for every single bit of it except for a little bit of corporate sponsorship.”

Since the game’s inception in the late ’60s, at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., it has gone on to become a staple on college campuses. In fact, over half of the UPA’s members are college students. For most players, the passion for the game extends long after their college years, prompting hundreds of non-university leagues to pop up across the country.
“The passion is definitely real,” says Nash. “To put in the time, money and sacrifice. It’s hard to describe, but it’s so worth it.”

It’s not just the love of the game that keeps discs whirling across the world. There’s a very genuine sense of camaraderie not only between teammates but between all ultimate players. For example, players rely on self-officiating, instead of referees.

“It’s almost like a brotherhood or a family,” says Archibald.

Founded in 1979, the UPA is the governing body of the sport. Based in Boulder, Colo., its primary mission is to organize tournaments and events and raise awareness about ultimate. Its membership has nearly doubled in the past five years alone, now at 27,000 and growing.

It may see an even larger spike in membership in the near future, according to a study conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. The independent research group reported in its 2007 Sport & Fitness Participation Report that over 820,000 people played some form of ultimate Frisbee more than 25 times in the past year.

Ultimate Frisbee achieved a major milestone in its fight to raise the sport’s status in 2001, when it was included in the World Games as a full medal sport for the first time. The hope is to eventually become an Olympic event.

El Diablo is accepting donations and selling team gear to help offset travel costs and tournament registration fees. You can check out the gear here.