Published Apr 1, 2011 8:00 AM
Welcome to the hard-core, rough-and-tumble world of Quidditch. Think Rugby meets Dodgeball meets Laser Tag, with a splash of irony and a healthy helping of humor. The one thing J.K Rowling couldn't have imagined is that her fictitious, flying, magic game would one day become the hottest club sport on campus.
"Nerdy, but athletic!"
That's the description that keeps cropping up one bright Sunday in January, when amused passersby stop to watch the UCLA Quidditch Team scrimmage on the campus' intramural field. Players are running around with brooms between their legs, pelting each other with rubber balls and trying to throw what looks like a volleyball through one of three hoops. There's full-body contact as players try to wrestle the volleyball from each other's grasp and, in the process, knock each other to the ground. One player, dressed all in yellow, runs around the field, essentially ignored by most of the other players. It's confusing, exhausting and gloriously fun to watch.
"I'm morbidly fascinated. I think it's a really interesting combination of geekiness and athleticism that I'm sure only a few are really capable of," says Matt Young, a fourth-year design major who has stopped to watch the game with a couple of friends. "I'm just kind of blown away by this."
UCLA Quidditch: The Players
It's quirky, confusing, completely exhausting — and a spirited team of Bruins on brooms wouldn't have it any other way.
Video by Sam Karp
Tyler Calamoneri, a first-year chemical engineering major, agrees. "I think it's cool that they're following their passion. I wouldn't have the guts to go out there and play something that looks a little bizarre."
Young and Calamoneri have heard of the game before, which is what compels them to watch in the first place. But even if you're familiar with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels — from which the rules of "Muggle Quidditch" are adapted — the game at first glance looks like organized chaos.
"It's a complicated game to hear about, but when you're actually playing it, you pick it up pretty quickly," says Tom Marks, a sophomore design | media arts major who founded the UCLA Quidditch Team in the fall of 2009. "It's like water polo, rugby and dodgeball all at once. You have to learn the rules for each game, each position, each ball. But when you're actually playing it, you're only playing one position, so only a third of those rules apply to you."
Snatching the Snitch
While all the players see plenty of action, the liveliest position on the Quidditch team is undoubtedly that of the snitch runner. In Muggle Quidditch, the snitch runner tucks the "snitch" (a tennis ball in a sock) into the back of his shorts and tries to keep the two seekers from stealing the snitch away. In the Harry Potter novels, the snitch was not a person at all, but a tiny golden ball with wings. It zipped in and out of the playing area, just out of reach of the seekers. Harry, of course, was an exceptional seeker who almost always managed to catch the snitch.
"The two things a snitch needs to be able to do is, first, not get caught, and second, be as funny as possible," Marks explains. "So the snitch can steal your broom — you can't catch him while you're off your broom, of course. The snitch will hit people with bludgers. The snitch can actually grab the hoops and just run off. Acrobatics are encouraged, and the snitch will do tumbles and somersaults just to get the crowd jumping."
Sophomore Jeffrey Lin really got into the spirit of Quidditch last fall when he dressed up as a snitch for Halloween. But although that was all in fun, Lin is a slippery snitch on the field — he ran track and cross-country in high school and is extremely fast and elusive. "I'm running the L.A. Marathon this year, so it's a good way to train," he says, laughing.
In fact, some of Lin's teammates are serious athletes, and a good many play other intramural or club sports such as volleyball, softball, basketball and flag football. They agree that it's crucial to stay in shape for Quidditch, which is exhausting to play.
Asher King Abramson, a second-year psychology major, plays the beater position for UCLA but also plays tennis, flag football, softball and basketball in his spare time. He rates Quidditch as his favorite sport.
"At first, I felt kind of goofy [running around with the broom], but you get used to it eventually and it gets kind of natural by the end," he says. "It's a different way of running because you can't use both arms; you only have one hand on the broom and the other one guides you forward. So it takes a little more effort to run and you get tired pretty quickly. But you build up endurance."
Sophomore Kara Levis started off as a beater, but is working hard to stay in shape so that she can continue to play the chaser position. The physiological sciences major loves the fact that Quidditch is so physically demanding: "The first practice this year, we had about 100 people come out. I had one guy come up to me and say, 'Dude, I run like six miles a week, and after 10 minutes of this, I'm winded.' It was fantastic!"
While the snitch may be considered the fastest and most elusive player on the team, the seeker must also be fast and have an equal amount of endurance. Michael Mohlman, a fourth-year English major, started out as a seeker because nobody else wanted the position.
Muggle Quidditch 101
Looking to start your own game (or feed your morbid fascination)?
Here's a quick explanation of the sport's positions and rules.
And here's a brief history of Quidditch on campus.
"I shortly found out that I was pretty darned good at it," Mohlman says. "What I like most about it, now that it has become my primary position, is the freedom it entails. It's a lot more fun being able to run anywhere you want, rather than be confined to a field."
A self-taught graphic artist, Mohlman takes care of all the design-oriented tasks for the team; in fact, he was the talent behind UCLA's official team T-shirts. He says he used the house crests from the Harry Potter books and movies as inspiration.
Oh Yeah, It's a Sport
UCLA is an active member of the International Quidditch Association's West Region, of which Harrison Homel is director. Homel, a political science major who started the Quidditch team at Moorpark College two years ago, transferred to UCLA last September and immediately joined the team. He is in charge of the Western Regional Conference Tournament — which at press time was to have taken place in April in Santa Monica.
While Quidditch might not be dubbed "cool" by some people, that's OK with the players themselves, many of whom confess to being nerds. "I'm from Georgia and I didn't know anyone here, so I came by myself the first week," says Brennan Ross, a freshman neuroscience major. "Now I've become friends with a lot of the people on the team. It's a really good social experience because it's a bunch of people who are active, but in the same vein, they're nerdy. You need to be able to have some fun. There are a lot of nerdy people who stay in their rooms all day, but they're not my type of people. I need activity."
One of the best things about Quidditch is that it brings people of different stripes together, Homel says. "It brings the Harry Potter nerds out, and it brings out the athletes who are interested. The idea is to not have it turn into a really angry, competitive sort of sport, which is why we run with brooms between our legs. Because you can't take yourself seriously running with a broom between your legs."
The UCLA team had reason to celebrate last September, when it received official club sport status. When he started the team in 2009, Marks spent $220 of his own money to purchase brooms and balls, along with Hula Hoops and PVC piping to create the goals. He initially refused to charge members any sort of entry fee, but now that the team has attained club sport status, he is considering charging a small fee so that they can buy official jerseys. The team has its own website and is on Facebook (under Official UCLA Intercollegiate Quidditch Team).
Watching Marks conduct Quidditch practice, it's easy to see by his enthusiasm that he dearly loves the sport. So it's surprising — nay, shocking — to learn that when he first started the UCLA team, he hadn't read any of the Harry Potter books. Not one.
"I was wondering when that would come into the open," he says, laughing. "I've seen all the movies, but I had not read the books. I read the first one last summer because my team made me. When they found out last year that I hadn't read them, they almost kicked me off my own team!"
In his view, Quidditch as a game can exist on its own.
"This might sound weird, but I really think of it as a game. I don't associate it with Harry Potter that much," Marks says. "Of course, you have to, because it's based off of what J.K. Rowling wrote in this amazing story, but they're two different things in my mind. They're connected only by a source, and I think it's taken on such a life of its own that you don't need to be a fan of Harry Potter to play the sport. You don't even need to be a fan of Harry Potter to enjoy it."