Walking back from the Forrest Hills T-stop in Jamaica Plain I passed a guy walking the opposite way. He was wearing a Johnny Bravo jersey so naturally I ignored normal social cues and blurted out “Johnny Bravo!” In a more natural response, this guy looked both ways and said “…yea…so you play Ultimate?” Needless to say, an overeager Timmer jumped on the opportunity to meet another player around my area. He said he played for Boston and I responded that I play for Colt. It wasn’t until we got to Boston Invitational a few weeks later that I realized 1) he played for Boston Ironside, 2) I was now playing against him and 3) he’s better than me.
Wisconsin Hodags, Madison Club, Boston Ironside, Madison Radicals. That’s one hell of a resume to have under your belt. Tom “Animal” Annen has been playing competitively for over a decade now at the top levels of college, Club, and professional. A handler most of the time, he is a competitive, but collected quarterback behind the disc. He agreed quickly to sit down and talk Ultimate, Nationals, and how I’m not actually as awkward as my first impression showed.
We met up at Alden and Harlow in Harvard Square, a restaurant you honestly wouldn’t spot if you were walking by…but when you get in it’s a high-class bar and restaurant. I was quick to notice I was indeed under dressed for this location, but the host’s name was Tim and he made about five jokes too many about us sharing a name..okay it was two..and I made the other three. Tom and I sat by the kitchen, we ordered a couple of beers, and we got to talking Ultimate.
Tim: First off, can you give me a rundown of your Ultimate history?
Animal: Sure! I played one year in high school for Madison West High School. When I got to college I played for the University of Wisconsin Hodags for five years. At the same time I was playing for the Madison Club team for those same five years and then I played for Madison Club for four more years after college. So that’s nine years with Madison Club. Then in 2014 I played for Machine from Chicago. And then for the last three years I’ve played with Boston Ironside. Oh and for the Madison Radicals the last five years.
Tim: You got started in high school. How did that come to be?
Animal: My brother is seven years older than me and he played in high school so when I was a fifth grader he took me to high school practices so I guess I learned how to throw and play Ultimate when I was in fifth grade. I played with him for a couple of years while he was a sophomore through senior. As soon as he graduated, I didn’t really play Ultimate too much until I was a sophomore in high school and I played summer league for a couple years because I played soccer in high school. And then my senior year I switched from soccer to lacrosse and Ultimate.
Tim: In college did you strictly only play Hodags or did you continue to play soccer or lacrosse?
Animal: I played indoor soccer, but that was just off-season stuff. College was ALL Hodags. It was too big of a commitment. The off-season was Madison Club so I played Hodags in season and Madison Club off-season.
Tim: Most Ultimate players have seen “Blue Print”, so we have a good idea of what you guys did to get ready for your seasons. What is something about the Hodags that set you up for success in the future?
Animal: Personally? I guess the team dynamic. I was with a group of guys on Hodags who were all super athletic dudes and it just happened that there were a couple classes all in a row of guys who were just super committed to winning and training. We had a couple guys who were ahead of the game in Ultimate specific training and so we did a lot more strength training and running five days out of the week or something. So one day would be running, another day would be plyometric stuff, another day would be agility. We did those three workouts and then we’d have two practices on the weekends. Like I mentioned, those guys knew how to train. They were training for Ultimate in the way that people are training nowadays. We were doing that stuff back in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 so we were definitely ahead of the game.
Tim: Now that it’s just club, do you find yourself putting the same amount of time into training and workouts or has that kind of died down?
Animal: Yea. It’s different now because of Club and life and right now I’m in school so it’s more difficult, but a few years ago when I was just working and able to train, well I was trying to train as much as possible, it’s a little bit different because you don’t have a team around you, but I was trying to train as much as I did in college, maybe a little bit smarter. Things changed on how to train as I got older and I learned more, but generally the mentality was still always there.
Tim: Schedule-wise, how often now do you find yourself splitting time between skills practices and workouts?
Animal: Well right now it’s been kinda bad just because I’ve been so busy with school and all, but on a year where I am fully invested and have all the time I’m probably trying to be in the gym lifting two to three times a week. I’m doing a running workout or something like it at least once a week. And then practicing twice a week. And if possible I’ll be out throwing another time in the week. That would be the ideal situation.
Tim: What do you think now has been the toughest part for you having to balance school with Ultimate? What is your life vs Ultimate balance?
Animal: Right now? I’m burying $150,000 into school and I am 31 years old and I changed careers so I am focused on school. I just gotta get through this. I chose this path, that’s what I’m doing, and so that’s taking priority. And there were guys who I went to college with or who are on the club team who are like that. They just don’t put as much time and effort into their club team. And you know that and you see it and it kind of annoys you, but you understand it more in club versus in college it was super annoying. Like undergrad I was ALL in, school was second. I had teammates who didn’t show up as much to the workouts or to practice and you knew who they were. You knew who was there, who was doing what they needed to. But then you get into club and it’s a little bit different. Right now, I’m trying to get through school and I just changed careers so things are just different for me now.
Tim: Last year, you guys won a National Championship, what was last year time commitment-wise?
Animal: So with Ironside, we practice about four hours Saturdays and four hours Sundays and last year we did it most weekends from July 1st to Nationals, whenever that was, end of September, early October, besides tournaments. Last year’s Ironside team was stacked! I mean, top to bottom it was stacked and stacked to win. To win Club Nationals, it’s more than just..it takes luck, but you also just have to be a stacked team. Look at Revolver. Revolver is a stacked team top to bottom. Ironside last year was stacked top to bottom. To beat Revolver we won on universe, we were on offense, we had to have Beau turf the disc. We turned it over and had Beau turf the disc. It takes some luck like that. In college it’s a little different. Coaches can help you win more and you still need..a top college team to win Nationals is gonna need mostly upperclassmen who put in a ton of effort. Most teams have a good coach. When I was in college there weren’t as many coaches.
Workouts with Ironside..we had one team workout on Wednesday which we still do this year and then there was another workout on Mondays that some people went to and then other than that you were suppose to do stuff on your own.
Tim: One thing I’ve noticed on club teams I’ve been on is when it comes to practices, players will play hard-ish, but it’s always been tough to keep high intensity. What’s it like with an elite level team?
Animal: I mean, that’s with every team. Every team it’s hard to bring 100% intensity to practice, but I think the higher level of team, the further they’ll make it to nationals, the more likely they’ll be bringing that intensity to practices. There are still practices where that’s not happening for some reason or another. Maybe it is there, but people are just playing bad that day, that’s an argument to be made, but then some days everything is working and it’s like “Yea! We’re all trying that much harder”, but that’s me. There are days where my mind is somewhere else other than practice, but for the most part I’ve always enjoyed practice. I try to be there in the moment and there’s some days where I just play terrible. You hop in the game, you throw three turnovers right away, but I don’t take that as I’m playing worse, it just means I threw a few turnovers right off the bat. It’s gonna happen.
Tim: When was the first year you made it to Club Nationals?
Animal: 2009..it took a while. My first club season was 2005. It was a growing process. The first year, I was a freshman in college in 2004/2005 and the Madison Club team fell apart so then in 2005 when I joined the team it was like fifteen Hodags and three other club dudes. It was super fun and awesome for the college guys, but that was the team that year. And then for the next five years there were more Hodags and a few more club guys and the personnel kept changing, the college guys kept getting better and then by 2009 we had been playing together for a while. We had been in the game to go multiple years before that and we finally just put it all together and made it. And with Club Nationals in Sarasota..once you go…you just..you need to go every year. I don’t know. Sarasota is..it’s a special place. It’s just so much fun. You get a beach house and Sarasota’s beach is awesome. The old format was sweet. Not being in Sarasota just doesn’t feel the same. Texas was fine, it was a good complex. Rockford..just didn’t feel like Nationals. Next year I bet San Diego will be nice, hopefully.
Tim: Do you remember what it was like the first year you made it to Nationals?
Animal: Yea! We crushed that year at Regionals. We won four games and we were into Nationals. We just rolled through Regionals and we were there. It was super exciting. We were all just super pumped that we were going. I remember going to Nationals and I’m sure a lot of the guys were feeling the same thing besides a few guys who had already been, but we were all just super nervous to be there. It’s a different beast at Nationals. If you’ve never been there then you’re kinda scared, you’re nervous, you’re worried about messing up, the game just feels faster at Nationals. Everyone is in peak form.
Tim: Now you have tournaments like the pro flight and U.S. Open which are major tournaments in the year. Do teams play differently at Nationals from when you see them earlier in the year?
Animal: Yes! Teams definitely play differently. Personnel-wise not everyone is at every tournament. Teams are playing different lines. Like Revolver this year. The O-line they played at Nationals was not the same as they played at U.S. Open. They were moving guys around a bunch. It depends on the team though. Some teams pick a line and they stick with it throughout the whole year. But yea, teams are trying different things, not showing certain sets. Nationals, you’re hoping everyone is healthy and ready to play.
Tim: So obviously the elephant in the room of playing for these teams has nothing to do with the game itself, but the cost. How much do you think people can expect to spend on a Nationals year?
Animal: I think in college I would budget about $2000 a year…maybe $2500, but I think we figured it to be about $2000 to play. We would have to travel to 2 or 3 tournaments plus Nationals. So that’s with Wisconsin, that’s what a top college program can expect. Club I’d say is pretty similar, about $2000, but really it changes. A lot of times tournaments are just in random places so it’s harder to get to. You gotta fly into a city then drive two hours to Randomville. Ultimate is not a cheap sport. It’s cheap to play, yea, but playing it competitively..but really playing any sport at that higher, competitive level, you have to pay a lot. When you were a little kid playing on a top travel soccer team, your parents were paying tons of money to travel all over the place. So you just gotta take that into consideration. You either have to budget or find a team that will help you pay for things along the way. That’s what I like about pro Ultimate..you don’t have to pay for that.
Tim: You’ve been a familiar face on the Madison Radicals for years now, how do you think the AUDL is affecting the club scene?
Animal: Younger kids are looking to play pro more than they are club. It’s just, they see it on Sportscenter all the time, it’s on all the time now. So they see that and they want to be on that. Overall I would still say Club is better. But I also play in the Mid West division which is the worst division, but one thing I like about the other divisions is the players are spread out and the kind of annoying part about the club players is top players go to the same city and play. Like Revolver, another great player goes to them and they win a championship. Oh good job buddy, they would have won without you, it doesn’t mean anything at that point. I think it’s nicer when the talent level is spread out and it’s more even among the teams. It’s more fun. That’s why I liked the older format of Nationals where everyone made pre-quarters because any one game, any team can beat another team. Where a top team like Revolver or Ironside can lose to whoever the sixteen seed is. It’s a one game scenario, who knows what will happen. Those guys could just have a bad day. It feels like March Madness.
Tim: What are your thoughts on Dallas basically buying an AUDL championship a couple years ago then?
Animal: It’s cool for those guys like Beau, Jimmy, Cassidy, Kurt, because they legit got paid to play Ultimate. All their travel was paid for and jerseys so that’s cool for them. But still I think that Dallas team was beatable, they weren’t a “stacked” team. Top to bottom I wouldn’t say they were stacked. And honestly it’s the guys that no one knew who can be thanked for winning. They were just some guys playing in Randomville, Texas who were in games to go to Nationals but may have not made the cut or whatever. But it’s like that in any sport. You have the “celebrities” but then you have the guys who never get talked about who are just as athletic but don’t get the hype as much. Of all the Club teams I’ve been on, I wouldn’t say there is much difference talent wise. I think it comes down more to how much effort you put in and how much you believe you are going to win.
I think mentality is very important. Teams come up against a team like Ironside or Revolver and they mentally fold before the game even starts. They expect to lose and so even though it could be a close game, mentality can keep a team from winning. And that comes with experience.
Tim: Last question, what is one piece of advice you would give to someone trying to make that leap to Nationals for the first time?
Animal: Well I have two things. Throw every day. Purposely throw every day like you are in a game situation. And play on the best team you can play on where you can learn and get a decent amount of reps.
We talked for a little while longer joking about past seasons and where the next steps for him will be as school comes to close. He’ll be heading back to Wisconsin ending his stint with Ironside for now. I want to give a big thank you to Tom for taking the time out of his days to throw, workout, and talk to me about Ultimate and for giving me a ton of great advice as I start my life up in Boston. Crazy the connections you can make by walking with your head up.
And yes, when we left the restaurant the host made one more joke about our names…Tom looked concerned.