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Thomas Gilbert sets sail to a career in disc golf

Did you know that Sudbury is home to a very legitimate disc golf course?

Did you even know that disc golf existed, as a sport?

If you answered no to one or both of these questions, chances are slight that you might be aware that the top ranked disc golf player in the entire country actually attends Laurentian University.

Given the distinctive nature of his particular athletic pursuit, it is easier for 21 year old Toronto native Thomas Gilbert to fly a little under the radar, despite his height (6'5") and the fact that the young man has accumulated almost $ 28,000 in winnings on the PDGA (Professional Disc Golf Association) circuit, largely over the course of the past two years.

"I played a lot of sports, was on several different school teams growing up, and I was kind of competitive in most everything, but I never really focused too hard on a single sport - until disc golf," stated the young man enrolled in the Sport & Physical Education program at L.U.

And though a general knowledge of golf might prove helpful, mostly in terms of understanding how to navigate your shot placement on par threes, fours and fives, golf is not necessarily the breeding ground for those who can walk in and demonstrate immediate competency in disc golf.

"I played a little golf, when I was young, but I played ultimate frisbee in high school and middle school, which was what kind of transitioned me to disc golf," said Gilbert. "I've played ultimate since I was in grade six. Ultimate frisbee is a very fast paced sport, whereas disc golf allows you to take your time and try and throw the shot exactly where you want."

"I think disc golf is a lot more about the placement of shots."

Take a moment to check out the You Tube offering from the 2019 Canadian Disc Golf Championship - Gilbert would finish third to 2017 US champion Nate Sexton and 2019 world champion Paul McBeth in Bonshaw, PEI - and it quickly becomes apparent why placement is critical.

"With a frisbee, you get to shape your shots a little more and manipulate what the object is doing," said Gilbert. "In disc golf, even more than in ultimate or something like baseball, you can see even more potential with your shots."

At its core, that statement is one that almost every single adult in Sudbury can relate to. Few and far between, I suspect, are those who have never, ever taken a moment to try and propel a frisbee in flight. Yet the gap is absolutely cavernous between what the average person can achieve, with disc in hand, versus the magic that is created when Gilbert and those of his ilk set sail to the sphere.

"A lot of the skill relates to the amount of spin that you can put on a disc, or the release angles that you can use to shape your shots, to get it to go exactly where you want it to land," he explained. "You develop the confidence in your skill to throw it out there and let the spin and speed of the disc manoeuvre it in the exact way that you had planned."

After being introduced to the game just four years ago, Gilbert quickly climbed the ranks. From local leagues on to regional events and eventually national championships, the mid-level javelin thrower in high-school proved an ultra quick study.

"The main thing I am known for, probably in all of Canada, is my distance," he suggested. "I'm one of the top five longest throwing players in the entire world. That gives me a big advantage on those longer holes. It also makes it easier for me to throw it over obstacles. I might throw it about 100 feet over a bunch of trees and get it to land 400 feet away, right beside the target."

"I can take those trees out of play. And I am able to hit my lines on a much higher percentage than most."

And when it comes time for a little introspection, delving into the physiology that separates Gilbert from many of the very best of the 6000 to 8000 players who will take part in at least one PDGA tournament per year (Gilbert finished 20th in the year end rankings in 2019), the university student turns to a rudimentary knowledge of physics.

"The main advantage with my height is with longer levers, though it's way more about technique and the ability to generate speed, more than just size," he said. "I think I can whip it a little more than some players just because I have longer arms. Then again, the best disc golf player in the world is 5'8"."

In many ways, talk of a competition will mirror the conversation one might have with a competitive golfer. Small wonder, given that at the professional level, athletes will carry an array of discs that range from distance drivers, fairway drivers, midranges and putters, each one configured somewhat differently.

"Things like wind, elevation, heat can all manipulate a disc a certain way, even more than a golf ball, just because it's such a large surface area compared to a golf ball," explained Gilbert. "Most of the holes are based on being able to drive the green on your first or second shot. It's a much more powerful throw when you are at the tee, so you will use your entire body to build up a lot more power, trying to throw it 200 yards or more."

"With shorter shots (putts), you might use your upper body to be a little more accurate, aligning yourself with the target, the basket, a lot more regularly."

Having competed right across North America, Gilbert lists the Toronto Island course as his favourite in Canada and the Milo McIver course in Oregon as his favourite in the States, even though the Winthrop Gold Course in Rockhill (South Carolina) has served as host of the US nationals for well over a decade and might be considered the equivalent of Augusta for golfers.

Regardless of the course, Thomas Gilbert remains captivated by the very core of the sport that he adores.

"I just think it's really cool to watch an object fly through the air," he said.

And fly it will, once launched into orbit by the unassuming local post-secondary student.

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