Next up in our Q & A Series is Elaine King. Elaine is a current PDGA BOD member, a member of the Disc Golf Hall of Fame, a 5X FPO World Champion and she has a PhD to boot.
Photo credit: Alyssa Van Lanen
1 - Wow, I mean, talk about a disc golf legend. You are a member of the Disc Golf Hall of Fame, a 5X FPO World Champion, the winner of 278 career PDGA sanctioned wins, and the list goes on and on. How did you become involved in disc golf?
It was the summer of 1983. I had recently gotten married to Eric Vandenberg and we moved to a small apartment in downtown Toronto. Eric noticed a poster advertising the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships on the Toronto Islands. He was an avid recreational frisbee thrower and was eager to attend. That was where we both saw disc golf being played for the first time. I thought it was the oddest thing, especially watching some of the players roll discs on the ground. The following weekend we were out on the Toronto Island Disc Golf Course playing with our 110g pro model frisbees. They really resisted going into the basket, especially since the course had very thick single chains at the time. However, Eric was hooked and I kept playing alongside him, and eventually started getting the hang of it.
2 - You currently serve on the PDGA Board of Directors, which appears to be your third go around on the BOD. You served in 1992/93 and then again in 1997/98. You came back again in 2017 after being appointed to the BOD and then won re-election. That's a mouthful! Does that sound about right?
My service on the Board was actually continuous from 1990 – 1999. I was first elected as Regional Director, then became Commissioner in 1993-1994 due to 2 resignations from the Board in quick succession, then returned to various positions before losing to John Houck in my 1999 bid for Commissioner.
3 - What has kept you coming back to serve as a volunteer with the PDGA?
Given my decades-long devotion to disc golf, I am inspired to ensure that the international organization keeps moving forward according to a well-designed plan. I have extensive professional training in leadership and organizational management and it is rewarding for me to be able to put these skills to use for the betterment of the sport that we all love.
4 - What has changed with the PDGA from a BOD/business perspective since the mid 90's? Everything?
The way in which work was accomplished was vastly different. Imagine trying to run an organization via writing letters and holding just one monthly teleconference (which was very expensive back then). It was slow to accomplish anything due to the time required for communication. There was only one staff member, the Administrator, and therefore much of the work of the organization was done by the Board members.
On the other hand, the goals we were pursuing were not too much different than today. The main areas of focus were rules of play, organizing the tiers of tournaments, eventually creating a Super Tour that moved geographically across the US, publishing a magazine, managing the evolving disc technology, and the pursuit of marketing. We kept in touch with disc players outside North America as best we could. I remember writing periodic newsletters to the Regional Coordinators in various countries, sharing news and asking for input.
5 - Is it easier now to compete and make a living full time as a professional disc golfer? Or is it equally hard now compared to what it was like back in the mid 90's?
From my observations I don’t think it has ever been “easy” to make a full time living as a professional disc golfer. Nowadays it is possible whereas in the 1990s it was impossible. In previous decades golfers would perhaps tour for a summer, but would typically have other employment. To me, “making a living” implies not just avoiding starvation, but having enough means to easily meet expenses and put a little money in the bank. I suspect most touring players are scraping by and a very much smaller number meet my definition.
6 - The most common question we get at the Ledgestone is, when will disc golf be shown on ESPN? When will disc golf get its big breakthrough with a big sponsor? Are we really any closer to this compared to 25 years ago? To some it feels like miles away, and others feel like we are knocking on the door step.
If you read back issues of the disc golf publications, you will see that from the early 1990’s the disc golf community felt as if the sport was going to break through the media imminently. That feeling has really not diminished over time – every year feels like this could be the year of the big media bust out.
My opinion is that disc golf is not as convenient for big media as other sports. Most spectator sports involve people staying stationary and athletes moving about in a confined space – with a few cameras you can get excellent quality coverage. Some sports like golf work well with the spread out nature of that sport, but remember that golf courses are primarily open space. Given how difficult it is to capture disc golf on film, and how many cameras would be required to capture the dynamics of a large tournament, I do not foresee disc golf on ESPN in any form except highlights in the near future. However YouTube and other streaming services will likely increase their coverage.
The Big Sponsor is another long-standing dream of disc golf. In reality, big sponsors tend to sign up when a sport has large numbers of small and medium size sponsors as well as tens to hundreds of thousands of spectators, in person or remote. There are many inspirational examples of tournaments supported by numerous small and medium sized donors and video views and subscriptions are steadily increasing, but I don’t believe we have the critical mass that we need to attract a big sponsor. We need to continue to grow the spectator base and given the difficulty of in-person viewing at most courses, it will be live or post-event coverage that will eventually grow to the point that major sponsors become interested.
7 - The COVID-19 pandemic has taken over the world and has shut the sport of disc golf down. Tournaments have been cancelled, courses have been pulled and many people's lives have been affected. Is this the greatest challenge disc golf has faced in your lifetime?
Absolutely yes. Until 2020 it would have been unthinkable to have a suspension of all events worldwide. However disc golf will be one of the first sports to resume because it is possible to achieve social distancing while playing competitive golf. PDGA Staff, Board and various committees are working together to finalize the procedures for resuming PDGA events which will include some restrictions, additional rules and guidelines. Our sport is perfectly suited to overcome this challenge quickly.
8 - You are the liaison and a member (and founding member) of the PDGA medical committee. To those players who argue that we should be playing disc golf tournaments now, what would you tell them?
COVID-19 is an example of where some people may find a clash between exercising personal freedom and acting in the best interests of society. The majority of the world population could play tournaments since the majority of people will either not get sick or not get seriously sick from COVID. The reason that we are not playing competitive disc golf, or working out at the gym, or partying at a rave club right now is that we can become infected and pass that infection along to people much more vulnerable than ourselves. These people become seriously ill, they need hospitalization and suddenly the hospitals are swamped with critically ill patients. This spills over to all aspects of medical care and prevents everyone from getting speedy medical attention for non-COVID illnesses and injuries.
9 - Some people have been saying warm weather will help slow the spread of COVID-19. Is this the opinion of the PDGA medical committee?
There has been breaking news over the last couple of days that the COVID virus has already mutated into a more contagious variant, and that variant has been the major factor in the fast spread of COVID in Italy and New York as compared to earlier spots of infection. That being the case, I don’t think the warm weather will be a significant factor in slowing the spread of the disease as it is with other coronaviruses that are not as contagious.
10 - The USWDGC was played for many years in Peoria, IL, which is now the hope of the Ledgestone event. What is your fondest memory of Peoria?
It’s hard to narrow it down to one moment. Mom and Old Man Wallis did more than anyone to successfully support and promote women’s disc golf by growing the USWDGC from being an afterthought attached to a men’s competition into a free standing event that gets bigger and better every year. They did this by treating all the women like royalty. Just about every meal was provided, player packs stuffed with fun and practical items, numerous social events, and a focus on comradery.
I also have very fond memories of ICC, the deuce-or-die course that was directly responsible for my two USWDGC titles in FPO.
11 - We have to ask, it appears you have not been back to Peoria for a while. When can we expect to see a return to Peoria?
Every year I keep thinking that this will be the year I return! I was actually signed up for Ledgestone a few years ago, and I was signed up for Pro Worlds last year (and will likely never get my air mile points back) when work commitments arose that forced me to withdraw. This year again I had planned on playing Ledgestone, but honestly I am not currently contemplating any travel plans that involve airplanes or hotels until there is a truly effective vaccine or treatment for COVID. I don’t think I am at risk of getting seriously ill, but I don’t know that for a fact.
12 - If you had to pick one place in the world to play disc golf, where are you playing?
Finland. We lived in Sweden for a year and I would love to return to Scandinavia. My husband Eric Vandenberg is a course collector who has played over 1000 courses and he would love nothing better than to play all of Finland’s courses to get his count up! I don’t count courses, but it would be fun to play lots and lots of courses.
Thank you to Elaine for taking the time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions! Still to come in our series are interviews with Paul McBeth and Dan “Stork” Roddick!