GIBSON CITY - GCMS Elementary School physical education teacher Mike Schwenk spends his weekends a little different from most.
From May through October, the 26-year-old travels the U.S. competing for the Chicago Machine Ultimate Frisbee team, and most recently he ended his season on ESPN at the national tournament in Texas.
A founding member of Eastern Illinois’ club team, Reaper, Schwenk got his start in the sport as a college freshman.
As a way to stay active, Schwenk decided to get some friends together to form a team and knew immediately it was something he wanted to do competitively.
“Fortunately, there was a group of guys who felt similarly to me at Eastern,” Schwenk said.
After his senior season, Schwenk caught the attention of Chicago Machine’s captains, earning an invite to attend a combine the squad holds every spring with a few area teams.
Schwenk had a solid tryout and was offered an invitation to join the team, but originally had to turn it down because he was living in Washington, Ill. and wasn’t sure he could afford the travel every other weekend.
When GCMS hired Schwenk the following year, he committed to playing for Machine in the summer of 2013.
Schwenk then took 2014 off to work and plan his wedding before rejoining the team again this year for what would be his second and most accomplished season.
Throughout the year, teams earn rankings based on results from tournaments, and Machine earned a bid to nationals to represent the Great Lakes Region along with a Michigan team, High Five.
At regionals, Machine and High Five outplayed teams from Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky to take the top two spots needed to advance.
High Five defeated Machine in the championship, and Machine then had to defeat another Chicago squad to advance to nationals.
At nationals in Texas, Chicago Machine entered a pool play format as the eight seed along with top-seed Revolver from San Francisco, 12-seed Philadelphia Patrol and 13-seed Madison Club.
Machine lost to all three and were reseeded to a fairly low ranking for the single elimination rounds.
“Going 0-3 on day one was very depressing especially since I knew personally I could have played better, as well as the team,” Schwenk said.
The squad regrouped and used an improved defensive stance to upset defending champion Johnny Bravo from Denver 15-13.
Next in line was Ring of Fire, who eliminated Machine the year before and were 12-0 in the squads’ matchup history.
After a slow start, Machine picked things up and edged Ring of Fire 15-14 to advance to the final four.
“It felt good to beat Bravo, but the feeling after we beat Ring was unbelievable,” Schwenk said. “It was the first time Machine made it to the semifinals at nationals, and for many of my teammates it was their seventh or eighth year playing with Machine, so they had been disappointed at nationals too many times.”
The final four matchup against San Francisco Revolver, the No. 1 seed and heavily favored tournament foe, was nationally televised on ESPN.
With a decent crowd that bought vuvuzelas to cheer on the squads, the sound and atmosphere under the lights was similar to that of a world cup match.
“During warm ups I had to calm myself down a few times to stay focused so that I wasn't just running around aimlessly,” Schwenk said. “On the field it was hard to hear teammates unless you were right next to them, and even then at times you had to yell for them to hear you.”
A number of Schwenk’s friends and family members texted him throughout the day, sending encouragement about how excited they were to watch the game.
For part of the matchup, Schwenk was assigned the task of defending the best Ultimate player in the world, something he said was “definitely a challenge, but a fun one none the less.”
“Growing up it was a dream of mine to be a professional athlete, like any other boy who played sports, and I guess this is as close as I'll get,” Schwenk said. “I never would have thought that Ultimate Frisbee would be the reason I was on ESPN.”
When Machine failed to convert their first two points, Revolver used an early lead to send Machine home with a 15-11 loss and third place overall finish.
“The experience of going to club nationals this year was the best Ultimate experience I have had,” Schwenk said. “On the plane ride down I had a flight with a current college senior who has played Ultimate since middle school, and he kept repeating that we were playing at club nationals, the best tournament in the world. For someone who has played there it was nice to have someone who was more excited than I was to remind me that it was a special event and to enjoy it.”
Revolver wound up winning the championship, giving more satisfaction to Schwenk and Chicago Machine for their efforts in the elimination rounds.
“We at least lost to the champions,” Schwenk said.
For anyone who would like to watch the final four game, head to ESPN.com and click the “watch” tab and search for it.
That game, and a few others, are also featured on YouTube.