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Mike Bartell: Finding 'Ultimate' success on U.S. National Team

“I’m slow and tall,” says Mike Bartell, as he describes how he’s not the usual type for the position he plays in Ultimate. “Handlers are usually shortish, quick people.”

But it doesn’t seem to have gotten in his way. Bartell, an Emory College sophomore, earned a spot on the USA U20 Men's National Team that brought home the gold medal at the World Junior Ultimate Championship in Wroclaw, Poland, last month.

The championship was “amazing,” Bartell says, because of the experience but also because of his teammates.

“I played on a team with kids I’ve played against for a really long time,” he explains. “Winning something like that, that was the best part.”

Remarkably, Bartell almost didn’t make it to his national team tryout. Held in Orlando, Florida, his tryout happened to fall the same January weekend that Atlanta was expecting a snowstorm. His flight out was cancelled, so he ended up taking a Greyhound bus overnight to get to the tryouts.

“I showed up 45 minutes late for tryouts, and I felt horrible after the bus ride and one hour of sleep,” he says. “So I was actually a little bit surprised when I made the team.”

Growing up in Seattle, Bartell began playing Ultimate in sixth grade, when he realized baseball wasn’t the sport for him. He followed in his older sister’s footsteps and played on his middle school team, and he continued to compete on high school and club teams. Last year as a first-year student, he joined Emory’s Ultimate team.

Emory coach T. J. Martin says Bartell does an incredible job of leading by example.

“He may only be a sophomore, but he is one of the most talented players on the team,” he says. “He has great throws, a deep knowledge for the game, and is one our most athletic players on the field. With all this skill, though, he understands the influence he may have on the other members of the team and does a great job of wanting to get better while also making his teammates better at the same time.”

Building a strong community

Bartell says his favorite thing about Ultimate is the strong team community, which is essential for successful play.

For those who may not know, Ultimate is played on what Bartell calls a “skinny football field,” with two end zones and seven players to a side. There are two main positions: handler, the player who throws; and cutter, the player who catches. The play advances when teammates pass the disc back and forth as they move toward the end zone. Once a player catches the disc, however, he can’t move until he passes; he can only pivot as he looks for a teammate to receive his pass and continue the play.

“Ultimate is unique. I don’t know of another sport where you literally have to give up a disc or a ball in order to move. In other sports you can be selfish and keep the ball to yourself, but in Ultimate you can’t do that,” Bartell says. “You have to be able to trust your teammates. It builds a really strong bond between the players, a really strong community.”

Bartell’s love of strong community extends to his choice of college. “Going on the accepted student visit tour at Emory, I liked the community here, and that’s why I chose it,” he says. And now as an Emory student, he’s doing his part to add to the campus community the University is known for.

In addition to being involved in Outdoor Emory and the social entrepreneur organization Innovation 360, this year Bartell is serving as a sophomore adviser (SA) in Turman Hall. As an SA, he will be on hand to advise and assist 28 sophomores as they take on year two at Emory, a role he takes seriously. “I am excited to see how the hall I’m entrusted with will grow over the course of the year,” he says.

Meanwhile, as he lays the groundwork for a double major in sociology and economics, Bartell also looks forward to the upcoming Ultimate season at Emory with his characteristic focus on community and teamwork.

“We have our team goals, and this year I think we’ll have the kids to go really far,” he says. “It will be fun to work toward that with them.” 

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