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 regarding 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 pairs or 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.

Freestyle – the First Frisbee Play.

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

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

This is the inscription on the back of all the Frisbee’s from the mid-1960s, giving instructions for the original playing intent 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. Disc sports like guts, disc golf and ultimate are disc sports modeled after similar ball sports that replaces the ball with a ‘flying disc’. 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. Freestyling with a flying disc is a skill-set created by throwing and catching challenges and accomplishing goals that a player sets for themselves. Freestyle doesn’t have to be competitive to be challenging and is considered the hardest disc handling discipline in disc sports. Throw and catch freestyle (pre-nail delay) is unique to the flying disc and predates all of the modern disc sports with early freestyle specialist inventing and developing all the throwing techniques that are used in all of 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.

Every disc sport has elements of early throw and catch freestyle play. In the beginning, if a freestyler took on a new disc sport, they came in with an advantage to players with no freestyle experience.

In the 1960s, a few of these early recreational Frisbee players  took freestyle to an advanced skill level and begin presenting the Frisbee as more than just a toy. Freestyle competitions and the touring freestyle performers in the 1970s was the beginning of showing people that Frisbee play could be more than a park or 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 disc handling activity, there’s nothing more uniquely self-challenging to playing with a flying disc than freestyle in every way. Freestyle, like its name, is 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 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.”

By the 1960s, while Frisbee was still considered a toy and a fad, Frisbee’s first skilled athletes were appearing and getting noticed.

With their early playing years in Michigan through the 1960s, Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner (Discraft) prior to the introduction of the first disc sports and having no Frisbee mentors, developed a fast-flowing freestyle routine of smooth throwing and spectacular trick catching. Moving to Canada and touring as Frisbee Professionals in the early 1970s for a variety of companies including Molson Brewery and Irwin Toy, they performed in cities across Canada and the US. Ken and Jim also directed early Open Frisbee Championships in Vancouver, BC and Toronto, ON. 

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Victor Malafronte, Hall of Fame, freestyle pioneer.

On the West Coast in California, Victor Malafronte and John Z 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 Canadian Open (1973) and to meet Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner. It would be the first time Ken and Jim would see someone else that could play with a Frisbee on their level. 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. Exchanging volumes of information about Frisbee styles, techniques, and activities on Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley with Victor Malafronte, John Z Weyand, Monica Lou and Roger Barrett. The IFA and its newsletter helped the University of Michigan guys get in contact with the Humbly Guts Team and to get involved with the IFT, where they met even more Frisbee players like John Connelly, Alan Blake, and Tom Cleworth of the Highland Avenue Aces guts team. Kerry Kollmar was clearly the most influential early freestyler in New York. The exchange of ideas about creative throwing and catching grew substantially during this 1968-1973 period of time. In 1973, Dan “Stork” Roddick met Spyder Wills at Laguna Beach for some Frisbee play and was highly influenced by the graceful and beautiful style that Spyder showed. 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 Jim Kenner and Ken Westerfield.

Frisbee Freestyle Competition.

“Frisbee freestyle and spirituality are a natural, it’s all about being in the zone.”

Freestyle play in the 1960s and prior to 1975, before the invention of the nail-delay, was a fast-moving and flowing routine of many freestyle 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. 

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

“Freestyle competition is between you and the disc.” Early freestyle play was intense and commonly compared to martial arts and dance. The preferred disc for the first freestylers was the 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.

Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner were two of disc sports first freestylers and the architects for competitive freestyle. Ken and Jim began their freestyle play on Michigan beaches during their high school years, 1963-65. During their senior year, they used to ride their motorcycles to local beaches with other friends and spend most of their days playing Frisbee on the beach.

“When I began playing, there was no such thing as “getting good” at playing Frisbee, it wasn’t even considered a sport, it was just a toy you threw for fun. I remember the first day I realized I could control the direction of the throw, the next logical move for me was to try catching it in different ways. Once I got to a certain skill level of this free-form style of throwing and catching and what seemed like endless possibilities, that was it, I knew I was experiencing something that was pretty great.” – Ken Westerfield – Freestyle Players Hall of Fame.

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. Because of a lack of competitors, the freestyle event was canceled.

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Jo Cahow, Hall of Fame freestyle and disc sports champion

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 (FPA History of Freestyle)

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The first poster to advertise a freestyle event. 1974 Vancouver, BC, Canada.

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. Ken and Jim included freestyle competition with the 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 played in flying disc tournaments worldwide.

Jim Kenner and Ken Westerfield were inducted into the Inaugural  Pioneer Class 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 because of its larger flight plate and weight, and this shifted the focus of play away from the direct catch and throw.

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Gail McColl, World Champion, Hall of Fame and “First Woman’ of Freestyle.”

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 the present. 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.

Touring Frisbee Freestyle Shows in the 1970s.

Freestyle, being the first Frisbee play, was new and exciting. Some of the top players of the 1970s created Frisbee shows. These Frisbee performers would travel throughout the U.S. and Canada performing at fairs, universities, shopping malls and professional sporting events. This was the very beginning of showing the possibilities of playing with a flying disc. Frisbee shows were giving the public a glimpse of what would soon become known as disc sports. Some famous touring Frisbee shows were. Frisbee South, Good Times Professional Frisbee Show, The Spinning Bees, The Air Aces, Flying Aces and The Jammers. Wham-O and Irwin Toy organized several international tours. There were also sponsored Frisbee shows for major American and Canadian companies like Coca-Cola, Orange Crush, Copper Tone, Molson, Labatt, Budweiser, Lee Jeans and a tour with the Harlem Globetrotters. These shows would reach millions of people in every city and small town across North American and eventually the World. The early Frisbee freestyle shows deserve a lot of credit through their performances and publicity with bringing about the awareness of this new age of flying disc sports.

Freestyle Becomes the First Popular Disc Sport in the 1970s-80s.

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Jens and Erwin Velasquez. Multiple world freestyle titles

“Freestyle doesn’t have to have organized competitions between players to be physically challenging and rewarding, the real competition is between the player and the disc.”

Dave Marini started up the Freestyle Players Association in 1978, and freestyle became a regulated 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.

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.

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Suzanne Strait. Woman’s World Freestyle Champion, 1970s – 80s.

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 Also Helped to Create and Build the Foundation for All the Disc Sports.

“As new disc sports came into play, there were no disc golfers, ultimate players and freestylers, they were ‘Frisbee players’ that played disc sports.”

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, Chau 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.

The history of many of these players can be read at: Disc Golf Hall of Fame,    Ultimate Hall of Fame   and   FPA Freestyle Disc Hall of Fame.

Freestyle Early Play and Ultimate Beginnings.

Guts, disc golf and ultimate, replacing the ball with a flying disc, all have rules and playing strategies very similar to long-established ball sports. All disc sports and early freestyle-play share a common history.  Inscribed on the underside of all the Frisbees since the 1960s, to ‘PLAY CATCH’ and ‘EXPERIMENT’ with different ways of throwing and catching, ‘freestyle’ was Frisbee’s first play.92359231_504147253804216_6844692579938729984_o (2) Throwing variety and catching the Frisbee behind the back and various other ways, in the beginning, were techniques that would show the possibilities of using the Frisbee as a sporting implement in future sports. Freestylers became disc sports first excellent disc athletes. Every disc sport, including disc golf and ultimate, uses what were originally known as freestyle throwing techniques. The early introduction of ultimate was played as a backhand passing, two-hand catching camp activity by Kass and Silver with friends in high school. Many of ultimate’s earliest promoters called Johnny Appleseeds became excellent disc athletes and along with very accomplished freestylers in the 1970s began promoting ultimate as a new disc sport.

Freestyle play and freestyle competitions were the most popular events in all the tournaments through the 1970s. When players would take a break from freestyling, they would play other disc sports like disc golf and pick-up ultimate. Although the athleticism of early ultimate players was excellent, having an entire team skilled in forehands and other advanced throws was nearly impossible. Freestylers, prior to all the disc sports and through their playing evolution, invented and developed all of the advanced throwing techniques used in today’s disc sports. Freestylers, having skill in all the throwing techniques, were most of the best overall disc athletes and early excellent ultimate handlers, introducing the big throwing techniques that make disc sports the fun throwing and passing games they are today.

Note:  Some of the information in this article was referenced from the Freestyle Players Association

History and awards: Decade Awards

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

Articles on freestyle cross-training:  Ultiworld | Ultimate Rob | FrisbeeGuru

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

Some early freestyle throwing techniques and some new throws demonstrated by AUDL ultimate great, Rowan McDonnell: 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 Frisbee and Disc Sports in Canada
History of Ultimate Frisbee
Ultimate Frisbee History in Canada
Disc Golf History
History of Disc Golf in 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 linked crediting is permitted (discsportshistory.com). For more information, contact: discsports@hotmail.com

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