• Anna Fisher Lopez

The Callahan award is nothing new, but this year it may be more important than ever

For some of us, the Callahan award just means we finally get to watch some new ultimate footage. But for the nominees, the shortened season and a new rule change have pushed the award to a new level of significance. 

Daniel Thai // UltiPhotos

Alexa Yadama (left), Callahan nominee from the University of Washington, embraces her teammates.


A year ago, the Callahan award wasn’t even on Alexa Yadama’s radar. She had stumbled onto ultimate during her freshman year at the University of Washington, thinking it was an intramural sport after seeing a poster for the team in her dorm room. During her first few years on the team, she focused on learning all she could from the older players and immersed herself in Seattle’s ultimate community. But ascending to the level of the players she most admired by being Element’s 2020 Callahan nominee? “The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind,” she says. 


Three-and-a-half years later, the two-time captain is culminating her college career with a Callahan nomination, putting her into consideration for the most coveted award in college ultimate. “It means a lot to me,” she says. “I feel honored that my team would vote for me to represent Element in this way.”



The Callahan’s Evolution: From Google Groups to YouTube


In 1996, longtime coach Charles Kerr founded the Callahan award to commemorate Henry Callahan, one of the earliest ultimate players who helped bring the sport to the University of Oregon in 1978. Unlike a traditional MVP award, Callahan winners aren’t just rewarded for their on-field achievements. Criteria for nomination include not just “superior skill and athleticism,” but also “outstanding sportsmanship, leadership and dedication to ultimate.” 


By including these traits, Kerr ensured that each year’s Callahan winners represent the integrity, civility, and camaraderie integral to the Spirit of the Game that is unique to the sport of ultimate. Every year, participating college teams nominate one player, and college players from each division vote for the player in their division whom they believe best exemplifies these qualities. 


Even under normal circumstances, just receiving the Callahan nomination is an honor. This year, however, the 25-year-old award has experienced new growth and taken on a unique significance. 


Ironically, the cancellation of this year’s spring season may have accelerated the evolution of the Callahan award. Schools often include a “Callahan video” when submitting their nominations, a compilation of the player’s top moments from the season. In 2019, 30 teams in the women’s division and 41 in the men’s submitted nomination videos; in 2020 that number leapt to 33 women’s teams and 53 men’s teams, an increase of more than 20% It seems likely that this increase in videos was influenced by two factors directly linked to the season’s cancellation: an abundance of free time during which to edit videos, and an increased desire to highlight the achievements of a senior who didn’t get the chance to showcase them in person.


“It’s something that I had dreamed about since I was in high school.”

This isn’t to say that this is the biggest year ever for the Callahan award; in fact, it’s far from it. Back in 2004, there were a whopping 124 candidates to choose from — 73 in the men’s division and 51 in the women’s division. Keep in mind though, this was back when YouTube wasn’t even around yet. If you weren’t familiar with a player, there wasn’t much to go on besides the height and weight listed next to their name on the nomination list. In some cases a slightly more detailed player bio could be found, like this one for Sarah Brown Jones, the first-ever woman Callahan nominee, but resources were mostly limited. The number of nominees may have been greater a decade ago than it is now, but the award likely didn’t reach far beyond players and coaches who were already tight-knit in the college ultimate scene. 


Now, the video is almost synonymous with the nomination. A school doesn’t just announce their nominee, they trumpet them by proudly displaying their player’s top throws, best defensive plays, and funniest moments. 


The growth of entertaining, accessible Callahan videos reflects the evolution of the award as it continues to reach wider audiences. Videos from high-profile nominees routinely garner tens of thousands of views, with videos from well-known winners like Jimmy Mickle and Dylan Freechild even reaching into the hundreds of thousands of views. 


Although Callahan videos are seen and loved by thousands, they are often the most meaningful on a personal level level, especially to players who may not have been expecting it. “I was honestly shocked that my team would even put together a video,” Jessica Sourbeer, Penn State’s first woman nominee since 2004, says. “It’s something that I had honestly dreamed about… since I was in high school.” 

Rodney Chen // UltiPhotos

Kaitlyn Weaver (left), Callahan nominee and finalist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, celebrates with her team


Increasing publicity surrounding the award also fuels the expansion of a school’s entire ultimate program, helping it achieve a national stage and more widespread recognition. This year, Emma Massey became the first nominee ever from the University of Vermont’s women’s ultimate team. She sees the award not as a personal achievement, but as an important step in growing and promoting women’s ultimate at her school. “Me receiving it was… the last thing I was worried about because our program got to grow and put our name on the map,” Massey says. “It’s the first year that UVM really [got] to showcase their talent.”


Even to nominees who play for historically strong ultimate programs, the award reaches beyond individual achievements. For Kaitlyn Weaver, the nominee from University of California, Santa Barbara and a finalist for this year’s award, the nomination was never just about her.  “It means the world, just being able to represent my team, [the Burning Skirts],” she says. “I’m just really glad I get to exemplify what it means to be a Skirt.”



An old award takes on a new meaning


Last year’s Callahan winners were in a very different position than this year’s will be. Jack Verzuh had just come off of a victory against UNC in the semifinal game of the D-I College Championships when they learned that they had won the award, and Matt Gouchoe-Hanas was hours away from a decisive win over Cal-Poly Slo to advance to the championship game when he got the news. 


This year’s winners will not have played an ultimate game in months. Their team will not have had the chance to advance through Sectionals and Regionals, hoping for an opportunity to prove themselves on a national stage. The season was pulled out from under some teams before they had a chance to compete in a single spring tournament. 


“Our team had so much potential that didn’t get to be realized.”

Because this year’s season was all but cancelled, USA Ultimate, who organizes the award, had to change how college players are allowed to consider the nominees when casting their votes. In a normal year, the Callahan award is won by the player who most deserves it based on their play and leadership during that specific season. No matter how spectacularly a player may have performed during their freshman year, if they are a senior when they are nominated then their senior season is the only one which voters can take into consideration. 


If voters were limited to considering a player’s current season, they wouldn’t have a lot to go on. For this reason, USA Ultimate eliminated that restriction, announcing for 202o only, voters are free to consider the nominee’s entire college career when making their selections. An award that once denoted a season’s top player has become an analysis of a player’s entire college ultimate history, start to finish. 


Even though this year’s Callahan award may mean more than ever to the players who win it, it’s no replacement for the lost season. “[Our team] had so much potential that didn't fully get to be realized or recognized,” Hallie Dunham, Stanford University’s nominee, says. “With the nomination, I think I personally got a bit of that national stage recognition for myself, which is nice, but at the same time it kind of made me sad because my teammates still didn't get that.”



“Closure, in a sense”


College seniors this year didn’t get what they had expected. Four years of hard work culminated in a spring season that fell apart in a matter of days. Teams were working hard toward their postseason goals, only to see them thrown out of the window. 


“No team is able to come away from the season with a really strong regionals performance or a certain place at nationals that they had set out as a team goal,” Margo Urheim, Tuft University’s nominee and a finalist for the award, says. “And so I think the Callahan award is kind of filling that place of postseason goals.” 


Because seniors didn’t get the final season they deserved, this year’s Callahan may be the most important one yet. They didn’t get to culminate their college ultimate experience with an appearance at regionals or nationals, but the Callahan nomination allows them to be recognized for the training, leadership, and support that they have dedicated to their team throughout their career. 

Rodney Chen // UltiPhotos

Margo Urheim (#3), Callahan nominee and finalist from Tufts University, celebrates with her team at the Stanford Invite, which this year was some teams' final spring tournament.


For seniors heartbroken over the untimely end of their last year with their team, the nomination provides some small solace. “It means more to seniors this year than before,” Samantha Guidry, Rutgers University’s nominee, says. “Instead of having regionals or nationals or sectionals, the Callahan nomination is their closure, in a sense.”


The Callahan award can’t give the nominees their season back. But even though college ultimate as we know it has disappeared, the award hasn’t lost its significance; in fact, it’s done quite the opposite. In a year where nothing can be predicted, during a season that can at times seem devoid of any positivity, the Callahan award has provided the nominees — and all of us — with something rare and invaluable: a sense of normalcy. 



Special thanks to the Pitt Men’s Ultimate team for providing a database of historical statistics related to the Callahan award, an instrumental resource in the writing of this story. 


Questions, comments, or concerns? Email the writer at annafisherlopez@gmail.com.

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