Freestyle Frisbee History

 

“Ultimate came from Ivy League universities, prep schools and rich kids at summer camps, freestyle came from the street. If Frisbee had a gang they would be freestylers.” 

Flying disc freestyle, also known as freestyle Frisbee in reference to the trademarked brand name, is a sport and performing art characterized by creative, acrobatic, and athletic maneuvers with a flying disc. Freestyle is performed individually or more commonly in groups, both competitively and recreationally.

The Freestyle Players Association (FPA) is the governing body of freestyle, “dedicated to the growth of freestyle disc play as a lifetime recreation and competitive sport. The organization is involved in international tournaments and rankings as well as education grants and promotional activities. Every year, the FPA holds a world championship with divisions in Open Pairs, Mixed Pairs, Open Co-op, and Women’s Pairs.

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Ken Westerfield, freestyle and disc sports pioneer, 1960s-70s.

Freestyle –  the First Frisbee Play.

“Play catch, invent games. To fly, flip away backhanded; flat flip flies straight; tilted flip curves-experiment!” – Wham-O Frisbee.

The inscription on the back of all the Frisbees from the mid-1960s, giving instruction for the original playing intention for the Frisbee flying disc invention.  These were the first words to define the first Frisbee play that would later be known as “freestyle” and promoted as a flying disc for experimenting with different ways of throwing and catching. Many disc sports like guts, disc golf and ultimate began by slightly changing competitive priorities and rules of similar ball sports and replacing the ball with a flying disc. The fact that these new disc sports can be played and enjoyed at any skill level by players with even introductory basic disc skills is key in their growing popularity. Freestyle is considered the hardest disc handling discipline with a play that is completely unique to the flying disc. Throw and catch freestyle (pre-nail delay) predates all of the disc sports with early freestyle specialist inventing and developing all of the throwing techniques that are used in today’s popular disc sports.

“All disc sports are rooted in early freestyle play. No disc sport plays at a higher level of handling skill than freestyle, therefore it stands to reason that any disc sport requiring any degree of disc handling skill could be greatly advantaged by having skill in freestyle.” – FrisbeeGuru.

 In the 1960s, a few of these recreational Frisbee players were able to take freestyle to an expert skill level and begin presenting the Frisbee as more than a toy. Freestyle competitions and the touring freestyle performers in the 1970s was the beginning of showing people that the Frisbee was more than just a beach recreation. The growing popularity of competitive disc sports like gut’s, ultimate and disc golf are excellent flying disc sports but as a skilled recreation/sports activity, there’s nothing more uniquely self-challenging to playing with a flying disc than freestyle in every way. Freestyle, like its name, is somewhat undefined with the type of play evolving and changing since the 1960s. Today’s freestyle play depends on personal preference, conditions of where you are playing or whom you are playing with. Freestyle considered the hardest discipline is sometimes used as a cross-trainer for developing throwing and catching skills for other disc sports.

Frisbee Freestyle and  Disc Sports First Athletes 1960s – 1973

“Freestyle is the Mother of all disc sports.”

With their early playing years in Michigan through the 1960s and then in Toronto beginning in 1970, Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner had developed a fast-flowing freestyle routine and already touring as Frisbee Professionals for Irwin Toy performing in cities across Canada. Ken and Jim also started annual Open Frisbee Championships in Vancouver and Toronto. On the West Coast, by the early 1970s, Victor Malafronte and John Weyand of the Berkeley Frisbee Group (BFG) had raised Frisbee tossing and catching to a delicate art form of flowing throws and receptions. Vaughn Frick, John Sappington, and Scott Dickson were doing creative trick throws and fancy Frisbee catching on the campus of the University of Michigan during that same period of time. In 1973, Dan Roddick included individual field events at his Pennsylvania and New York State Frisbee Championships. 

The IFA Newsletter brought all of these groups together in one way or another. It led Victor Malafronte to see the new freestyle event at the 1973 Canadian Open and meet Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner. In response to meeting Victor, Ken trekked out to the West Coast later that year to meet and play Frisbee with the BFG players in Berkeley. They exchanged volumes of information about Frisbee styles, techniques, and activities on Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley. Also, prior to the first freestyle competition, the 1973-74 period would bring John Kirkland, Alan Blake and John Mortimer to Toronto at different times to meet and freestyle with Kenner and Westerfield.

Frisbee Freestyle Competition

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Wham-O Professional Model Frisbee, the preferred disc for early freestyler’s.

Freestyle play prior to 1975, before the invention of the nail-delay, was a fast-moving and flowing routine of many throwing variations with spinning and leaping stylized catches off the throw, usually done on a hard surface to allow for skipping and multiple disc skipping. Early freestyle play was intense and commonly compared to martial arts and dance. The preferred disc was a Professional Model Frisbee, Wham-O’s first sport disc. It was a small but stable disc that would add to the quickness of hand manipulations to increase the fast flow of numerous trick throws and freestyle catching combinations.

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Freestyle Champion, Jo Cahow.

In 1973, Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner, wanting to see if there were other Frisbee players that could freestyle, decided to add their idea of a Frisbee freestyle competition to their 2nd Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto.  A Freestyle competition format where teams of players would perform a routine judged on a series of creative throwing and catching techniques set to music. Due to a lack of competitors, the freestyle event was canceled. Unknown to them at the time, there was the beginning of a growing Frisbee freestyle interest in the United States, Berkeley, New York, Ann Arbor, New Jersey and Chicago. In 1974, at a new tournament in New Jersey called the Octad, Dan Roddick ran an over-all competition with eight events that included a freestyle-like game called “Eastern Trick Catch”. In the fall of 1974, Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner would make another attempt at their freestyle competition at their Canadian Open Championships in Toronto. Unlike the low competitor turnout of 1973, newly energized freestylers from the U.S. assembled in Toronto to compete in this new freestyle event. In 1974, at the 3rd annual Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, Westerfield and Kenner would introduce this new event called freestyle and they won it.

The Decade Awards 1970-75 Top Freestyle Routine: Ken Westerfield/Jim Kenner Canadian Open 1974:

“Considered the greatest speed flow game of all time. Ken and Jim put on a clinic to cap off a blistering hot final by all of the teams. They featured a rhythmic and dynamic style with concise catch and throw combinations. These two gentlemen are credited with creating formal disc freestyle competition. The 1973 Canadian Open did not have freestyle as an event, the end result made history.”

Among the competing freestyle pairing were such Frisbee notable’s as Doug Corea/Jim Palmeri, John Kirkland/Jose Montalvo, Irv Kalb/Dave “Buddha” Meyers, Dan “Stork” Roddick /Bruce Koger, Tom Cleworth/John Connelly.

“The competitive freestyle art form, which began its gestation at Berkeley, Michigan, and in Toronto, was born at the Canadian Open on Sunday, August 18, 1974, at approximately 3:00 PM Eastern Daylight Savings Time.”  – Jim Palmeri 

This was the first freestyle competition. Westerfield and Kenner having won, as the world’s first Freestyle Frisbee Champions, that same year hosted and acted only as freestyle judges for the second freestyle competition, along with other Frisbee events, at their Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships, Kitsilano Beach, Vancouver, British Columbia. This is where Bill King, Jim Brown and John Anthony of early freestyle fame, made their first competitive appearance. The following year in 1975, the American Flying Disc Open (AFDO) in Rochester, New York, the Octad, in New Brunswick, New Jersey and the 1975 World Frisbee Championships, held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, adopted Westerfield and Kenner’s freestyle competition format as one of their new events. Today that same freestyle event is accepted as one of the premier events in flying disc tournaments worldwide.

Jim Kenner and Ken Westerfield were inducted into the Inaugural Pioneer Class of the FPA Freestyle Disc Hall of Fame:

“Their play, innovation and influence began in the formative years prior to competition and was critical to the origin of the competitive sport of Freestyle.”

In 1977, more State Championship tournaments got their start, specifically Arizona and Tennessee. The delay-move with the help of delay aids rapidly replaced controlled tipping as the foundation of a freestyle routine.

The NAS Tournaments in the 1970s expanded and continued to fuel the growth of freestyle. The WFC Freestyle championship became the de facto world championship of freestyle; no other competition could match its prestige. Joey Hudoklin and Richie Smit’s adroit use of the “lid,” as the Wham-O 80 mold disc was affectionately called, began the transition that eventually led to the 80-mold becoming the new standard for freestyle. Along with the use of delay aids like silicone spray and plastic nails, the 80-mold lent itself to longer delay moves due to its larger flight plate and weight, and this shifted the focus of play away from the direct catch and throw.

Discraft, founded in the late 1970s by Jim Kenner and Gail McColl in London, Ontario, later moved the company from Canada to its present location in Wixom, Michigan. Discraft introduced the Sky-Styler 160 gram freestyle disc. This disc was adopted as the standard for freestyle and replaced the Wham-O 80 mold 165 gram as the preferred disc for freestyle play from the 1980s to present day. In 1991 the Ultra-star used for ultimate was specified as the official disc for UPA tournament play and remains in wide use. In 2011, the Discraft Ultra-star was inducted into the USA Ultimate Hall of Fame for Special Merit.

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Jen’s and Erwin Velasquez. Multiple world freestyle titles.

Dave Marini started up the Freestyle Players Association in 1978, and freestyle became a sport of its own. The sport of Freestyle attracted a new generation of players such as Rob Fried, Doug Simon, Roger Meier, Peter Laubert, Krae Van Sickle, Jeff Felberbaum, John Dwork, Brad Keller, and Donnie Rhodes from New York City; and John Jewell, Brian and Matt Roberts from Los Angeles. Also new to the scene was Kevin “Skippy Jammer” Givens who would become highly influential in mentoring numerous future champions. The sport also saw the emergence of the “Coloradicals” featuring Bill Wright, Doug Brannigan and Rick Castiglia. On the women’s side of things, New York’s Sue Strait and Jane Englehart set the standard and were closely rivaled by G Rose and Laura Engle.

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Suzanne Strait. Woman’s world freestyle champion 1970s – 80s

Seattle’s Mary Lowry also began playing around this time and would eventually become one of the most influential women’s players of all time. Seattle’s Randy Silvey got his start during this era. Discraft’s introduction of the Sky-Styler disc in 1980 presented an option for Freestylers and became extremely popular as a freestyle disc, eventually replacing the 80 molds as the de facto disc of choice. The Sky-Styler weighed in at 160 grams, slightly less than the 80 molds. While it had a smaller flight plate and delay surface area, it had a deeper rim which allowed for superior brushing, rolling, rim work and wind play. It was also easier to catch than the Wham-O 80 mold. Tom Schot’s World Disc Games in Santa Cruz got its start during this period and further fueled the growth of freestyle.

Early freestylers that helped to build the foundation of the sport:

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Tom Leitner, present-day world freestyle champion.

Doug Corea, Dave Marini, Jens and Erwin Velasquez, Jeff Jorgenson, Tom Kennedy, John Weyand, Victor Malafronte, Tom Shepard, Steve Gottlieb, Johnny Jewell, John Mortimer, Gary Perlberg, Jeff Soto, Tom McRann, Danny McGinnis, Dan Roddick, Irv Kalb, Don Vaughn, Don “Rocket” Hoskins, Michael “Muck” Young, John Bird, Cyndi Birch, Michelle Pezzoli, Monika Lou, Bill King, Jim Brown, John Anthony, Tom Wingo, Krae Van Sickle, Mark Danna, Kerry Kollmar, Peter Bloeme, Freddie Haft, John Kirkland, Ken Westerfield, Mary Kathron, Gail McColl, Jim Kenner, John Connelly, Tom Cleworth, Bruce Koger, Jose Montalvo, Chou Rottman, Alan Blake, Marie Murphy, John Sappington, Scott Dickson, Vaughn Frick, Jo Cahow, “Igor” Harper, Don Cain, Ronnie Dorn, Jamie Moldt, Bill O’Dell, Gerry Lynas and Tom Monroe.

Many of these players stories can be read:  FPA Freestyle Disc Hall of Fame

A complete history of the beginning of disc sports and freestyle: Freestyle Players Association (FPA)

Articles on the benefits of freestyle as a skill trainer for other disc sports:  Ultiworld | Ultimate Rob | FrisbeeGuru

Freestyle Players Organizations: Freestyle Players Association | Frisbee Guru | World Flying Disc Federation

Early freestyle throwing techniques demonstrated by Rowan McDonnell and some new throws that could be used in ultimate: Rowan McDonnells 80 Ways to Throw a Frisbee.

Next Articles:

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Erwin Velasquez, freestyle champion 1970s-80s.

Guts Frisbee History
History of Disc Sports in Canada
History of Ultimate Frisbee
Ultimate Frisbee History in Canada
Disc Golf History in the U.S. and Canada
Home page: The History of Frisbee and Disc Sports

Note: This information was referenced and time-lined from disc sport historical and biographical articles including U.S. and Canadian Disc Sports Hall of Fame inductions, Disc Sports Player Federations and other historical resources. This article was researched, written and compiled by Frisbee and disc sports historians. The history in this document may change as events and people are added. Linking or reproduction in whole or part with proper accrediting is permitted. For more information contact: ifafw@hotmail.com

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