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The trouble with practicing by the full moon," Manny Rodriguez was explaining from his Tucson home about this time last year, "is that I can't really see what's happening. I can only hear the chomp." At 4:30 each morning, Rodriguez and his partner, Pawcolo—a blue heeler-Catahoula mix—had been taking advantage of the cool of the night and the light of the moon to get in some practice for the national finals.
To the north in Cave Creek, a few miles from Phoenix, Bill Watters confided that his title-contending mutt, Air Major, of Miller Lite TV commercial fame, was "listening to Floyd the piano tuner tune the piano." Watters said he was "bummed" because one of his three commercials had been pulled right in the middle of training. "It was the one where Major retrieves a bikini top," he said. Was Major bummed? "Naw, he's just sitting looking at the piano with his ears bouncing up and down."
California state champ Scooter McCammon, as owner Lou reported for the benefit of a caller, was taking a night off "because the dog looked at me like, Man, I am sick of your voice." Scooter, a red-eyed Australian shepherd, had dozed off while watching a 1979 Tina Louise movie, Friendships, Secrets and Lies.
Two time zones to the east in Lawrence, Kans., Chris Breit, a crew member on a Union Pacific freight train, was getting ready to take a break on his overnight run. He was not allowed to bring his whippet, Mattie, with him on the train. But when Breit got to the turnaround, up near the Nebraska border, he walked out into a field and practiced their routine alone. "People always look at me funny," Breit said. "Like, Can't you find anybody to play with?"
And up in Yakima, Wash., Zulu the Border collie mix, overweight and gimping on three legs, was nevertheless getting ready. Never mind that she had recently injured her artificial hip while becoming an unplanned parent to the neighboring cocker spaniel's puppies. Zulu, the underdog of underdogs, was also a finalist headed east.
All across America the well-groomed nails of 13 regional-champion athletes were clicking nervously on kitchen linoleum as the in-flight kennels came out of basements. The only athletes who scratch more than baseball players were soon to be on their way to Washington, D.C., where, on Oct. 13 on the Mall, four world-class judges would determine the 1990 recipient of the Lander Cup, given each year at the Come 'N Get It Canine Frisbee Championships—an event still known to most competitors by its original name, The Ashley Whippet Invitational. What furry titlist would be in demand to soar across the turf at halftimes of NFL games? To travel to Berlin during August 1991 and show Frisbee fetching to 66,000 dazzled Germans at halftime of the preseason game between the 49ers and the Bears?
Last year more than 10,000—yes, 10,000—dogs competed for the title. There were 106 local and six regional finals. This year a field of more than 12,000 has already been winnowed for the 17th annual Canine Frisbee invitational, which will be on Sept. 28 in Washington, D.C.
There are rules (this is the only sport with pooper-scooper timeouts) and statistics: longest catch—Martha Fay, a black Lab, 111 yards, 1976, Wilmette, Ill.; longest vault—Ashley Whippet himself, 40 feet, 1977, the Rose Bowl; highest unassisted jump—the legendary Ashley Whippet again, 9'3", 1975, the Orange Bowl.
But the Ashley Whippet—the event, not the dog—is not a contest of absolutes. To win, a team—one human, one dog—must perform one routine of required catches and two freestyle programs that are judged for showmanship, agility, difficulty and execution.
It takes practice, talent, planning and sacrifice to make it to the Canine Frisbee finals, as Pawcolo, Scooter, Air Major, Zulu and Chris Breit could attest. But every so often a natural appears. Out of nowhere last year came Hannah, a four-year-old black Labrador, to leap and bound her way through the regional competitions and into the finals. Well, Hannah actually came out of Cranesville, Pa., where her 6'6" steelworker owner, Tad Bowen, had only begun to let her compete the Fourth of July. He figured she might be a good Frisbee dog because, as he said, "She could jump into the back of my four-by-four with the tailgate up."