Robert Rauch was an 18-year-old freshman at Williams College in Massachusetts when he began playing Ultimate Frisbee. Ultimate was just a decade old at the time, and a classmate had discovered the sport at nearby Hampshire.
Rauch, a Chappaqua resident known in the disc community by the nickname ‘Nob,’ spent the next two decades on the Ultimate field and the last three decades advancing the sport on the administrative side. He’s played in the first Ultimate world championship, met his wife on the field, and twice served as president of the World Flying Disc Federation, the position he holds today. His current mission–which he has made a focus of his current term as WFDF president–is to get the sport into the summer Olympics. “That would be a milestone that I could rest my laurels on,” Rauch tells Inside Press.
Rauch began his career on the Ultimate field in 1976. He had played high school soccer in Connecticut and was looking for a new field sport to try out. With Ultimate, everything clicked; it involved even more running than his former pastime with the added intensity of non-stop action. At the same time, the sport retained a measure of mellow “zaniness,” with referees unnecessary and players making their own calls.
“It is not ‘win at all costs,’” he explains. “You need to respect your opponent. You need to excel within the rules of the game.”
Rauch spent the rest of his college years playing for a club team. After graduating from college, he moved to Chicago for work and played for Windy City, a local team there. In 1982, he played in his first U.S. National Championship.
And then, this: Rauch helped bring Windy City back to the National Championship the following year, this time winning the title. The win qualified the team for the first WFDF World Ultimate Championship Tournaments, held in Gothenburg, Sweden, where Windy City became the tournament’s inaugural world champions.
Rauch went on to win four more world championships and five more national titles, also playing for teams in Boston and New York. In 1994, he won the title as a member of the U.S. All-Star team.
Rauch’s contributions on the administrative side have left a mark on the sport–and in 2006, they earned him induction into the Ultimate Hall of Fame. By the mid-1980s, Rauch believed Ultimate and other disc sports were growing rapidly but the bodies governing the sport had failed to keep up. Rauch, who earned his Master’s degree in finance and international business from Northwestern University and is now partner at $6 billion investment firm Gramercy Financial Group, felt a “sense of duty.”
“The people who were involved were very well-meaning but really didn’t have any business acumen,” Rauch recalls. “I felt that if the organization was going to keep up with the level of competition, it really needed to up its game.”
Rauch was elected as the national director of the Ultimate Players Association in 1987, serving in that position until 1990. He also took over as chair of the Ultimate committee for the World Flying Disc Federation, then as the federation’s president in 1992.
Rauch focused on beefing up the sport’s organizational makeup.
He raised dues at the UPA (now called USA Ultimate), leading revenues to nearly triple. He took a number of additional steps to increase the sport’s legitimacy–he set up an 800 number, for example, and established an insurance program.
“It was was bringing in more enthusiastic people within the infrastructure of the organization,” Rauch says. “It was getting financial resources.”
Already working long hours for his day job, Rauch’s disc-related activities–done without pay–amounted nearly to having a second full-time commitment. After his first of three children was born in 1994, Rauch–whose playing days were largely behind him due to a knee injury–took a break from the sport to focus on his career and his family. In 1995 he moved with his wife–Katie Shields Rauch, whom he first met at the 1989 World Championships–and 1-year-old daughter to Chappaqua.
All In The Family
All three of Rauch’s children graduated from Horace Greeley High School. His oldest daughter, Kristen, graduated from Greeley in 2012 and played Ultimate at the University of Delaware, where she graduated in 2016. Her sister, Gwen, is now the captain of her club team at Penn State after graduating from Greeley in 2015. Rauch’s son and youngest child, Erik, graduated from Greeley last fall and is considering taking up Ultimate at Northeastern.
During his first term as WFDF president, Rauch submitted disc sports as candidates to the International World Games Association. Rauch calls IWGA the ‘minor leagues’ of the Olympics–sports that are popular across the globe but not featured in the Olympics take part in their own quadrennial exhibition. World Games sports range from billiards to lacrosse and sport climbing. In 2001, flying disc was introduced as a World Games sport.
Rauch ran again for president of WFDF in 2011 and has served in the position since. In his current term, he has focused largely on paving the way for disc to become an Olympic sport. In May 2013, the International Olympic Committee provisionally recognized disc as a sport, with the full recognition coming two years later. Disc is now one of 37 sports recognized by the IOC but not featured in the Olympic games.
Until recently, the path to the Olympics was significantly more difficult.
Every summer games featured 28 sports, so in order for a new sport to make it, an established pastime had to get the ax. But starting in 2020, the games will include several “floating” sports, in which new sports will be eligible each year based in part on the host city. “Our view is that our best path is probably through this host city designation,” says Rauch.
With disc sports popular in more than 100 countries from Canada to the Middle East, and Ultimate now featured on ESPN networks, Rauch believes inclusion in the Olympics would be a natural final step in his decades-long quest to bring the sport to the world stage.
“I’m trying to finish the job I started,” he acknowledges.