Claire Desmond just wanted to make friends.
Desmond was 18 and a freshman at UC Berkeley when she first signed up to play a club sport called “ultimate.” She hoped the experience of chasing a flying disc down the field would serve as an outlet for fun and exercise, and possibly lead to some new pals along the way.
Nine years later, the first-year physician assistant (PA) student at Samuel Merritt University won a gold medal in July as a member of the U.S.A. Ultimate National Team at the in Wroclaw, Poland.
“The sport has become a big part of who I am,” Desmond said. “It’s intellectual and strategic, it relies on teamwork and communication, and it promotes a health and fitness. In a lot of ways, it’s prepared me with the skills I’ll need as a physician assistant.”
Desmond, who studied pre-med at Cal and played basketball on club teams, took to the unconventional sport quickly.
While commonly known as ultimate Frisbee, the actual name of the sport is “ultimate” because it is played with a different type of plastic disc than the more widely available Frisbee, which is a licensed brand. The sport, according to its governing body USA Ultimate, “combines the non-stop movement and athletic endurance of soccer with the aerial passing skills of football.”
A game of ultimate is played by two teams with a flying disc on a rectangular field, similar to football. The object is to score by catching a pass in the opponent’s end zone. Notably, the competition is officiated by the players on the field instead of referees and no intentional physical contact is allowed.
“Integrity and sportsmanship is the foundation of the game,” Desmond said. “It draws people who can play competitively and respect their competition at the same time.”
While Desmond may have signed up for fun, her strong skills soon led her to join the elite San Francisco Fury team at the height of the team’s championship run. For a youthful Desmond, it was much like being a rookie who earned the chance to join the Golden State Warriors’ roster.
“I learned a lot about playing at a high level by competing with the women on the Fury,” Desmond said. “Being around great athletes brings out the best in you, both as a competitor and as a person.”
As Desmond’s talent grew on the field, she traveled the globe to represent the U.S. in tournaments; she’s recognized in some parts of Columbia, Canada, Japan, and the Philippines, where the sport is mainstream and popular.
At the same time, she also shifted her professional focus away from earning a medical degree, but kept an interest in primary care. Now she’s leaning toward family medicine or orthopedics, areas where a physician’s assistant can make a difference.
“SMU has a great reputation,” Desmond said. “Ask anyone who’s looking for a PA school, and if you tell them you got into SMU, they’ll know you’re entering one of the best programs.”
After Desmond returned from Poland with her gold medal, it wasn’t long before she was swept back into PA studies. Finals awaited her and she’s now investing more time in the classroom than on the turf.
“To play ultimate well, you have to be a team player,” Desmond said. “The same can be said in healthcare. If you want positive outcomes, you’ve got to know how to work well with people.”
Image by Tino Tran Photography