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Frisbee gets very serious at the U.S. Open

On any summer weekend in Southern California, the scene is replayed thousands of times—four men and two Frisbees. The one in the baseball cap seems to be particularly good, diving outstretched to catch the disc and slicing the air with powerful throws.

But this game is no mere romp in the park. It is the final match of double disc court, one of eight events in the ninth annual U.S. Open Flying Disc Championships. And the man in the cap is no ordinary player. He is Scott Zimmerman, the world champion of flying discs.

The Wham-O company sold its first Frisbees 30 years ago, and they bore the inscription PLAY CATCH! INVENT GAMES! The U.S. Open, the biggest multievent disc tournament in the world, is the result of that exhortation. During the weeklong games, which were held in June in La Mirada, Calif., 260 athletes competed for $40,000 in prize money before more than 15,000 spectators, who got to see a wide variety of disc action. In the throw-run-catch event, competitors in track spikes chased after discs they had thrown themselves; the Discathon required a player to follow his or her disc along a designated course; in disc golf, players drove and "putted" their discs into chain baskets; and the freestyle event combined dance routines with throwing and catching skills. Double disc court is played with two Frisbees on a grass court; the object is to get both onto the other team's side at the same time. A game ends when one team has scored 15 points.

Jim Palmeri, at 45 the oldest player in this year's Open, invented double disc court in 1969. As he watched Zimmerman and Jim Herrick lose in a five-game final at the Open, Palmeri seemed amazed at the popularity of his creation. "Recently I was playing against a team from Japan," he said. "There they were, talking strategy in Japanese while I was losing at my own game!"

Though more than 50% of the U.S. Open competitors were from Southern California, international participation is on the rise. Japan's Hiroshi Oshima tied for second place in the overall competition, the highest finish ever by a non-U.S. player, and Barbro Langjuth and Brit-Marie Renstrom of Sweden scored an upset by winning the women's double disc court event.

Palmeri believes international players have an advantage in disc sports because they don't have to overcome the American perception that a Frisbee is simply a toy. "We have an image problem in the U.S.," he says. Although a disc-catching championship for dogs was held as a side event to the U.S. Open, Palmeri and many other flying disc athletes have come to feel that their canine counterparts are not the sport's best friends. "The dogs undermine the sport's credibility," Palmeri says. "What if at every U.S. Open golf tournament they brought out dogs to chase the golf balls, and that became the main attraction?"

For the human athletes, flying discs are not only the main attraction of their leisure time but, often, of their lives. Zimmerman, 25, won the 1987 overall championship for the eighth time in his nine appearances there. A native of Virginia, he has devoted 10 years to flying discs. He moved to California six years ago to be at the nucleus of his sport.

In the freestyle event, which is usually the audience favorite, Zimmerman and his partners, Herrick and Pryor Hendrix, showed what can be done with a disc. Their routine, performed to James Brown's Gravity, included behind-the-back catches, under-the-leg throws and fingertip spins that seemed to go on forever.

"I know as much about this sport as the Boston Celtics know about basketball," says Zimmerman. He would love to see the day when his sport is as popular as Larry Bird's, with salaries to match, but he isn't holding his breath. So far, the most prize money he has ever won in a single year is about $14,500. For his latest U.S. Open title he won $4,525, and even he admits there probably will come a time when his career in computer programming will take precedence over flying discs. "When I was 17, all I wanted to be was the world champion," he said. "I'd practice eight or 10 hours every day, but not any more."

This might not be the time for Zimmerman to kick back. The youngest player in this year's Open, Steve Valencia, 15, lives across the street from La Mirada Park and its disc golf course. He plays every day. "Yeah, I'd like to win the championship," Valencia says. It's clear that for him disc sports are already more than a romp in the park.



For the Open's aeronautics experts, slipping a disc is all in a day's work.

Ann Killion is a staff writer with the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times.