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The Ultimate Challenge

Pawel Janas and two other former Wildcats make their mark with Chicago’s semipro frisbee squad.

Pawel Janas Norman Timonera
Chicago Union handler Pawel Janas looks for an open cutter. Image: Norman Timonera

By Sean Hargadon
September 2, 2022

Pawel Janas and Kyle Rutledge took the Chicago Union ultimate team to the brink of frisbee greatness.

In late August the duo played in the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) championship, where the Union fell to the heavily favored New York Empire 22-14.

“It was just a blood bath,” admits Janas ’22 MS, ’22 PhD.

Still the championship appearance and a 13-2 season marked the team’s best performance in franchise history.

A four-time captain, Janas has helped transform the Union into one of the best squads in the 25-team semipro league. His main accomplishment: convincing many of the city’s elite club-level players to join the AUDL.

“In 2017, when I joined, the Union was bad, but the overall talent in Chicago was very good,” says Janas. “It was frustrating to not be competitive. I wanted the team to reflect the level of talent in Chicago. So playing for the championship this year is great, but getting to that point, climbing that mountain, was really the reward.”

Kyle Rutledge Alina Nelson

Kyle Rutledge of the Chicago Union lays out to catch a pass. Alina Nelson

Janas started playing ultimate in middle school in his hometown, Boulder, Colo. He went on to play at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where his team won the 2014 USA Ultimate collegiate championship. He joined the Union after landing in Evanston in 2016 for his doctorate in finance at the Kellogg School of Management.

A Chicago Union handler, Janas is basically the team’s quarterback. Earlier in the season he became the AUDL’s all-time assists leader.

“People congratulate me, but really it’s just a matter of how much you play,” he says humbly. “I don’t anticipate this record holding for a long time after I retire. At the beginning of every professional league, someone has to be the stat king. Once the league matures the actual good players will reveal themselves.”

Janas, now an assistant professor of economics at the California Institute of Technology, is one of three Northwestern alumni on the Union, alongside Rutledge ’19 and Will Frolich ’17. Frolich, unfortunately, missed the AUDL semifinal and championship for a long-planned family vacation, which, he says, “tells you a little bit about the experience of a semipro athlete.”

Will Frolich guards a Pittsburgh Thunderbirds thrower

The Chicago Union's Will Frolich guards a Pittsburgh Thunderbirds thrower. Credit: Norman Timonera

Frolich, who is a software implementation consultant for OpenGov Inc., started playing ultimate competitively at Northwestern. He says the game “scratched an itch for me” of combining physical activity with team camaraderie . “So I stuck with it.”

He captained the Northwestern Men’s Ultimate Team during his senior year and later played for the AUDL’s Atlanta Hustle. He joined the Union when he moved to Chicago.

He’s been impressed with the Union’s quick climb to the top of the league, which coincided with a recent brand overhaul. “They changed the team colors and logo,” he says, “and that made a difference in everyone taking it a little bit more seriously. Now there’s a bit more of a professional atmosphere.”

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