ULTIMATE THRILL: Spirit Lake native Lori Eich wins second ultimate frisbee world championship for Team USA
Dubai is known as a city of riches.
For Spirit Lake native Lori Eich, her recent visit to the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates resulted in gold.
As a member of Team USA, Eich won her second career world championship in ultimate frisbee on March 12 at the 2015 World Championships of Beach Ultimate in the mixed masters division. Her first world championship came in 2012 while competing for Team USA in the women's masters division at the World Ultimate and Guts Championships in Sakai, Japan.
There, her squad held off Team Canada 15-13 in the title match. This time around, the Americans battled unpredictable winds and turnovers to best the Canadians 9-5 in the final.
In her 15th season playing competitive ultimate, Eich said this championship was more of a culmination of hard work than anything.
"I feel like any time you win it always feels so final," she said. "It's just like you work so hard leading up to this moment, and then you win and it makes all of that work worthwhile. The culmination of all of the effort and time and work was enough. Knowing that your best was as good as you needed to be, or better than you needed to be, is great. Winning is fun. In Japan, that final was really close. It was a nail-biter. We took an early lead against Canada and they were storming back in the second half. We were able to squeeze out that final goal and take the championship. The fact that they were threatening late, that win felt a little more dramatic. Canada had also beat us in pool play in Japan, so that win felt a little more sweet, but the win in Dubai was very satisfying. It's just really nice to come out on top."
Eich got her start in ultimate as a 15-year-old at a summer camp at Stanford University in California. She said a camp counselor introduced her fellow campers to the sport, which she decided to play competitively at the collegiate level while attending MIT, a Division III school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She played five years as an undergrad and graduate student at MIT, and helped lead her team to five consecutive national tournament appearances and a runner-up finish in 2003, her senior year. Upon graduation, she went into the national club circuit playing for a coed team in Boston before moving to San Francisco. There, she played for Bay Area mixed ultimate powerhouse Mischief, winning the national championship in 2006. She then moved to Chicago -- where she currently resides, working in software -- and competed for the local women's team which placed as high as sixth nationally. Two years ago, she decided to leave the Chicago squad to rejoin Mischief, who she currently plays for at national tournaments.
Traditionally played on grass fields the equivalent size of a soccer field, ultimate frisbee was recently adapted to the beach. The size of the playing area was reduced to around 2/3 the traditional size and each team is represented by five players as opposed to seven on grass.
Eich said the sand surface creates additional challenges, but her training leading up to the tournament allowed her to meet the demands.
Whether in Chicago or back home in Spirit Lake, Eich does sprint training at Athletic Republic and also does CrossFit. She says the combination of the two has allowed her to get the most out of her body even after more than a decade of competition.
"I've been playing for 15 years, so I've got the training thing down," Eich said. "When I first started, I was just doing a track workout every week and spending some time in the weight room. Now, my track workouts are these crazy treadmill workouts. I do some agility training on the side and CrossFit is basically my weight training. Even with a smaller field, beach ultimate feels more physically demanding. Regardless, I felt extremely well-prepared for the physical demands of this tournament. My typical weekly training schedule for the three months leading up to the tournament included two intense sprinting workouts, one heavy deadlift workout, one to two CrossFit workouts, and one to two mobility/warmup sessions."
She said speed and agility are particularly important in ultimate.
"I was always a big fan of track and sprinting, so what I think I like most about the sport is it's a series of footraces for me," she said. "I'm just trying to get open. Being able to fake-out your opponent and pull away from them with speed is a pretty huge asset."
In Dubai, Eich put her speed to the test against teams from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany -- and a fictional nation called Currier Island, which was made of athletes from different countries. Her squad was dominant throughout the tournament, outscoring their opponents by a combined 70 goals in nine games.
On their route to the semifinals, Team USA defeated Germany 13-8, Great Britain 13-3, Currier Island 13-4, Canada 13-5 and Australia 13-4. They beat Canada a second time 13-4 and Australia a second time 13-8 to earn a spot in the semifinal against Germany, whom they demolished 13-2 before beating Canada in the championship match despite playing in unfavorable conditions.
"The weather was great the first three days of play. It wasn't too hot and there wasn't a lot of wind. It made for some really good ultimate because you get to really see the skills of the athletes," Eich said. "That said, when the weather turns you can see the insane skills that come out. The wind picked up on the last two days of play in the semifinals and finals. In the finals especially, it was just horrendous, swirling, unpredictable winds. Our strategy throughout the tournament was more of moving the disc around and hitting the open player instead of the Hail Mary pass, if you will. That changed in the finals because the wind was such a huge factor. We were expecting the other team to turn it over a lot, so we figured we would have plenty of chances to get the disc back if we turned it over. That ended up being in our advantage. We had a lot of people making some extremely heroic plays in the finals. They were diving and catching discs just inches off the ground. That was really fun to watch."
While Team USA appeared to dominate throughout the tournament, Eich -- who totaled five assists and six goals in the nine games -- said the contests felt much closer than the scores represented.
"None of the games felt like we were just rolling over these teams," she said. "Every game felt close and I don't feel like I had an easy time at any game, I was working really hard. We just happened to come out on top."
The highlight of the tournament for Eich came against Australia, as she executed her first career layout defensive block and caught a layout goal.
"Pretty much everyone figures out how to do this in their first year of playing, but for me it's not a thing. Maybe my tendency toward self-preservation is why I'm still playing after 15 years," she said. "I was covering a really fast girl. I was right with her and I saw the disc coming her way. I made up my mind that I was going to get the block and I went for it. I dove and got it and it was super exciting. That same game, I also caught a layout goal which was the game point for that contest. That was my personal highlight, maybe of my whole career."
More important to Eich than winning the championship were the connections she made with athletes from around the globe.
"You end up being on the beach with all of these international players and you get to meet everybody. The best part of the international competition is making friends with people from all over the world," she said. "The actual competition part of ultimate is secondary to me at this point because I've been playing for so long. I used to get nervous when I'd get on the field, and it just isn't a thing anymore. I think that comes with age and experience. One of the biggest reasons I still play is, yeah the game is fun and I love the sport, but I just love all of the connections I get to make."
One unique aspect of international competition that Eich enjoys most is the lack of officiating. Athletes are called upon to call their own fouls and resolve their own disputes.
"The biggest thing that the international governing body emphasizes is the spirit of the game," she said. "After the game, everyone huddles up and we all talk about how the game was for them. If it was particularly unspirited, you talk about it then and you say why it wasn't fun for you. There's a lot of openness and honesty. If it was a fun tournament, we'll all go have a beer afterwards or something. That experience with the international team compared to the national club experience is very noble, I think, and a very special part of the team."
That positive experience is what keeps Eich coming back to the sport year after year. While she is currently winning the battle against Father Time, she knows the end of her career is near.
"I'm playing with Mischief again this coming season ... I feel like they tricked me into it," she said. "It's really hard to quit while you're ahead. I think two years ago was probably the best year for me athletically, but I'm going to chase that for one more year to see if I can get back to where I was at. I don't know. It's hard. People talk about retirement and then they keep talking about it for like five years. I'm all in for this year, but it might be my last. I don't know. Every time you say that, then you keep playing. This might be my last year competitively, but I'm still going to play in fun tournaments for the next few years. They also just started a national beach division, so that might be what I do in retirement is just play beach instead of grass. It's a little more forgiving to the body."
As she enters the twilight of her playing career, Eich said she never expected ultimate frisbee to take her to the places she's been and she is looking forward to watching the sport continue to evolve.
"I didn't even know ultimate frisbee existed outside of college," she said. "I knew that my mom played tennis when I was growing up, but the idea that I could compete outside of my city or town at anything was great. It still kind of an unknown sport, so it's easier to play at the highest level because the mega-athletes aren't playing it yet. It's definitely a growing sport. The national governing body is becoming more official. The national championship event is even getting coverage on ESPN, which is really cool. The fact that it's getting any sort of national spotlight at all is really fun for everyone involved. At the college level, there are a lot of really athletic players coming up through the system. It's great to see them get some recognition nationally. It's fun to see the sport evolve."