James Wiseman performs a few tricks at Sweet HQ in New York City. Shot and edited by Michael Russo
Name: James Wiseman
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Special Skill: Freestyle Frisbee
"I tell people freestyle disc is like hacky sack with a frisbee," says James Wiseman, two-time winner of the Frisbee Freestyle World Championships. "Or I'll say that freestyle frisbee is to ultimate frisbee as figure skating is to ice hockey. But nothing quite captures it, because it has so many unique dimensions. That's part of the magic of it."
You might think going into your third year at Columbia Law would leave little time for outside passions, but not for Wiseman. "I try to play every day, but between work and school I'm happy to get five or six days a week in," Wiseman explains. "I have that kind of sickness that any fanatic has: I just want to see how far I can go. Learning is a powerful drug."
"I have that kind of sickness that any fanatic has: I just want to see how far I can go." —James Wiseman
While every day of the week may seem excessive, freestyle moves aren't learned overnight. "It can take many, many hours for someone to get even just proficient enough in the basics," says Wiseman. "But moves that take a long time to learn are what make freestyle different."
Intrigued by the sport, we asked Wiseman to perform some of his most advanced moves for us, and to explain more in depth the inner workings of the mysterious and fascinating world of freestyle Frisbee.
Can you loosely define freestyle Frisbee for someone (ahem, us) who might have no idea what it is?
Freestyle Frisbee (also known as flying disc freestyle) is a pretty niche sport and art form. At its core, it's just a game of throw and catch. What makes it different from other disc sports is that it includes a creative element. We use various manipulations to extend the time between throwing it and catching it.
One of the most fundamental and distinguishing moves of freestyle, for example, is the nail delay. The move is performed by gliding the disc on top of the fingernail, allowing the freestyler to set up other moves, like body rolls, tips, brushes, turnovers, and, one hopes, the catch. You could even think of it as the equivalent to dribbling in basketball.
How did you first get involved with freestyle Frisbee?
I was playing a game of pickup ultimate frisbee one weekend in Zilker Park at home in Austin when I came across some freestylers who stunned me with what they were doing. It's hard to describe the magnitude of that feeling—I had held a frisbee in my hands so often but it had never occurred to me that there were so many ways of handling a frisbee out there.
Wiseman doing his thing on Central Park's Bandshell stage. Video courtesy Spread the Jam Project
I found freestyle during my last month in Texas before moving to New York for college, so an Austin freestyler gave me the number of a New York freestyler to meet up with. The first person I met at college, my friend Daniel O'Neill, was interested when I told him about freestyle, so we started playing on our own until we eventually went out to Sheep's Meadow in Central Park to meet the New York freestyle community. We steadily got more serious, and found ourselves winning tournaments—eventually claiming two world titles together. We're competing for a third in New York this Saturday.
"No matter how technically proficient I get, there are always more variables than brain power."—James Wiseman
What do you love most about freestyling?
I play my favorite game in the world with my best friends everyday. But I also love that freestyle is impossible. I've won world titles and reached the top spot of the rankings, but I can tell you, the frisbee beats me everyday. I've dropped it more than I've caught it, and no matter how technically proficient I get, there are always more variables than brain power. The disc is so volatile and unpredictable and every day the game forces me to do new things.
What's the biggest misconception about frisbeeing that you encounter?
People make a lot of judgments about freestylers, but I think people just misunderstand what we're trying to do. They think we're showing off and sometimes jeer at us or interrupt us by running in and grabbing the frisbee—but we're just playing a game with our friends.
No one is surprised when a baseball player strikes out, or a basketball player misses a shot, but when people watch freestyle, they invariably look away when the first drop happens. Maybe they are embarrassed for the person dropping it or maybe they just think they aren't very good at it, but it's hard to play for people without context. For example, I would never show someone my winning World's routines because I don't think people would be impressed by them. The first drop would happen, they would cringe, and that would be that.
"The best team can lose, and the worst team can win—skill is just something that moves the odds around."—James Wiseman
What's coming up in your future for freestyle frisbee?
I'm competing less these days as adulthood creeps in with its ensuing responsibilities, but I make every Worlds, and this year it's in Brooklyn. I've been trying to get in shape for it and I feel good about my chances, but it's always impossible to predict. The best team can lose, and the worst team can win—skill is just something that moves the odds around.
Wiseman performing a routine on a squash court. Video courtesy of Freestyle Frisbee
Want to learn more about freestyle Frisbee? Check out freestyledisc.org, watch other freestylers at youtube.com/spreadthejamproject, and keep your eyes on the Freestyle Frisbee World Championship on August 6 at McLaughlin Park in Brooklyn, New York!