Weekend Warriors: Hana Kawai and the 'good karma' world of Ultimate Frisbee

Hana Kawai, right, plays Ultimate Frisbee for an elite-level club team and coaches the Franklin High School girls' team. Tino Tran

Rohre Titcomb has been watching Hana Kawai play Ultimate Frisbee for years. They've been teammates on Seattle Riot -- an elite-level women's club team -- since 2010 and celebrated a world club championship in 2014. They're also on this year's U.S. national team and played for the Boston Brute Squad before their Riot years.

So Titcomb, a Riot captain this season, has watched Kawai make thousands of throws, catches and defensive stops. Yet when she thinks about Kawai's impact on a game, she doesn't recall acrobatics or game-winning plays. What comes to mind is the sense of calm Kawai radiates on the field and the intuitive way she collaborates with teammates. It's substance, not flash.

"She's a very steady and consistent energy on the field," Titcomb says. "She's very casual. Like, if you watch her play, you might not see her making big, athletic plays in a way that you would see posterized by the media. But if you watch her, she's always doing the right thing."

Not that she isn't a good athlete with terrific skills, because she is. She was selected to the national all-club second team in 2014 and first team in 2015 by the website Ultiworld. Titcomb calls her "a world-class defender" able to shut down even the best cutters (receivers). She can jump and throw with the best.

But it's her intelligent approach to the game that sets her apart, Titcomb says.

"It's fun to play with her because she's going to attack and be dangerous a lot of different ways if she's got the disc in her hand," Titcomb. "The disc never stops with her. She keeps it moving."

Ultimate Frisbee was born in the 1960s and is a bit like a seven-on-seven mash-up of football and basketball. It's played on a grassy, 70-yard by 40-yard rectangle with end zones like a football field. The disc is advanced by passing only; players can't run with the Frisbee. A team scores a point when a player catches the disc in the end zone. Teams switch possessions whenever there's an incomplete pass or an interception.

When played at an elite level, it's a game of speed, grace and action filled with perfectly timed throws -- some zipped between defenders and others high and softly fading to just the right spot -- and leaping and diving catches.

Kawai, 28, who coaches a girls' ultimate program at Seattle's Franklin High School, says she immediately liked the game as a teen because she could run around, get tired and "feel like I was doing something." But after years of playing she has developed more of an appreciation for the game's flow.

"One of the things I tell [the students] is you've got 14 people and you're trying to improv a dance out there and stay out of each other's way," she says. "I really like how much improv is involved on the field and how much you have to use your instincts and timing to move the disc down the field."

Kawai didn't grow up with an interest in sports. Until she discovered Ultimate in high school, she was a "book nerd." But when friends at her school in Seattle -- where Ultimate is extremely popular -- invited her to play she gave it a try. She fell for it and was good, too.

She played at Brown University in Rhode Island -- where she studied education policy and ethnic studies -- and in Boston before returning to the Pacific Northwest. Ultimate has become far more than just a sport to her. In addition to coaching at Franklin, Kawai incorporates Ultimate into her nonprofit program to help young girls, and has a network of friends built through the game.

She doesn't have dreams of pulling down a big paycheck or having a traditional career. Kawai, who shares a house with three other people, three chickens and a cat, says she simply wants to live sustainably and do work that helps others and aligns with her values.

Kawai calls her work life "a hodgepodge of things," but all her jobs are tied together by her passion to help young people and to promote social justice -- often with a dash of Ultimate thrown in. She has been a high school coach since 2010, mentoring girls from a diverse student body, many of whom come from economically challenged homes in which English isn't the primary language. The school's club program has grown from what started as a roster of about 15 that couldn't win a game, to 45 and a berth in last year's state semifinals.

Until late last year, Kawai was a meal program coordinator for Teen Feed, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless teens get food, shelter and healthcare access. And in 2010, she co-founded the All Girl Everything Ultimate Program (AGE UP), a community-building and leadership organization that brings together girls from middle school and high school with Seattle women mentors (many of whom are Ultimate athletes) in workshops that address social issues. The girls also are introduced to Ultimate Frisbee.

To Kawai, the sport is a great educational tool because of its culture. It's played without a referee -- even at the highest levels -- so players have to call their own fouls and work out disagreements. She sees that as a plus for the kids in AGE UP. She thinks the referee-free concept teaches kids useful life lessons. The no-ref idea is part of what USA Ultimate calls "spirit of the game." It also includes respect for opponents and "joy of play."

"In the heat of the moment a young person has to take a breath, listen and solve something that may feel like a really big deal in that second," she says.

Kawai has been recognized for her off-field efforts, earning the Creativity Award in 2015 from Without Limits, a national organization that promotes the spread and development of the women's game. In honoring her, Without Limits cited her years of coaching, AGE UP work and contributions across Seattle, noting: "Hana is committed to diversity and increased access in our sport, and we can all learn from her dedication to social justice."

Seattle Riot won national club titles in 2004 and 2005 and world championships in 2002 and 2014. In 2014, Riot won the U.S. Open Championships, the Northwest Regionals and finished third in the National Club Championships while also going undefeated to win the world title in Lecco, Italy, beating teams from Russia, Denmark, Singapore, Finland, Canada, Japan and the United States.

The sport is noncontact, but that doesn't mean it's injury-free. In college, Kawai suffered two shoulder injuries (from diving for catches) that required surgery. To play at a high level also requires being fit. She runs a couple of times per week, lifts weights two to three times a week and plays half-court versions of the game to stay sharp between club practices.

The season runs roughly from April to October, with Riot traveling to tournaments across the United States and Canada. The team holds long practices on the weekend and gathers at other times midweek. All the years have left Kawai with a few aches and pains, but nothing serious. She's still excited to play and teach others, and she says she owes the game so much. She has learned support and logistics from coaching and helping manage the Riot, become comfortable speaking in public and gained confidence from playing. She immediately felt at home on an Ultimate field.

"It was, what can my body do?" she says. "Not what do I look like or all this other bulls--- that comes with patriarchy and sexism and stuff."

Plus, she can compete like crazy but still be part of a respectful community. The rules of Ultimate demand it and the unrefereed games require it.The game has its own karma.

"The community is small enough that if you cheat once or you bring [bad] sportsmanship, people know, people remember and you leave a bad taste in everybody's mouth," she says. "Thinking long term about your relationships with other teams and what you're representing, all that, I've had some really good experiences playing very high-level games where people are like, 'Yeah, I fouled you. No contest.' It's cool people can do that."