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Arts, Sports & Culture

Pittsburgh Disc Golfer Ready To Compete For Fourth World Title

Disc golfers from all over the world will flock to Pittsburgh to compete in the Professional Disc Golf Association World Championships during the first week in August. Disc golf is similar to traditional golf, only it uses Frisbee-like discs and metal baskets. 90.5 WESA brings you this profile of Pittsburgh’s own three-time disc golf world champion.

At the Fitness Factory in Shadyside, Red Whittington begins his morning workout with some cardio – 60 jumping jacks, then core.

The training regimen will build stamina and, hopefully, give him an edge over the competition, said Brendan Bagin, Whittington’s person trainer.

“He’s not going to be tired when everybody else (is),” he said. “When they’re on the 18th hole and he’s walking to the top of that hill, we want him to be where everybody else isn’t. A little step above.”

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Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA
Red Whittington works out with his personal trainer, Brendan Bagin, at the Fitness Factory in Shadyside.

Back in Friendship after his workout, Whittington, 62, whips up his second vegan "super shake" of the day — protein powder, coconut milk, frozen berries, a banana “and a dab of peanut butter, just for a little flavor.”

Whittington’s apartment is dotted with memorabilia from his 47 years of “throwing the disc,” including a promotional poster from the 1976 World Frisbee Championships.

“When I saw the 1976 World Championships on the ABC Wide World of Sports, it was a life-changing event for me,” Whittington said. “I was never the same after that.”

Whittington took up a passing interest in Frisbee as a teenager, and said he remembers his brother waking him up from a nap to tell him about the program on television.

“I was having a dream at that time about the world championships," he said. Whittington was 23 at the time. 

He imagined the contest: "If they had a world championships what would they do? Well they’d probably have a distance contest, they’d throw something up in the air and they’d time it. How long they could do that? They’d have an event called freestyle, where they do all these tricks.”

When he shuffled into the TV room and saw his dream come to life, it woke him up in another way.

“It was, I don’t know, it was meant to happen,” he said, laughing. “It was my destiny, and it just blew my mind."

"My birthday is Aug. 2, and I've gotten three real good birthday presents so far. I'm working on a fourth." — Red Whittington

From that moment, Whittington devoted his life to the sport.

“They say follow your heart; that’s where my heart is," he said. "I put my heart and soul into it.”

He worked freestyle for the first few years, until 1979 when he packed up his bicycle and discs and took a Greyhound bus to Sarasota, Fla., which at the time was a hot spot of Frisbee activity.

“Stayed down there for a couple of years and was introduced to disc golf ... in the summer of 1980," he said. "(I) started playing it regularly. Then I moved back to Pittsburgh, and I set up an object course. We hit trees near Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park."

Whittington and his fellow disc golfers lobbied the city to get a real course installed, and in 1988, the course officially opened to the public. It’s been his home course for 27 years, and he estimates he’s played 5,000 rounds there.

Whittington said he begins every round of disc golf with about half an hour of Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art which he believes keeps him centered, healthy and happy.

“Naturally the mind quiets down. It’s almost a meditative state,” he said.

According to Whittington, like traditional ball golf, disc golf is largely a mental game, so his training for the World Championship goes beyond physical fitness, nutrition and technique. He’s working with a sports performance coach, who’s helping him quiet his internal critic and build his confidence.

This all plays into what Whittington calls his pre-shot routine.

“Couple of positive affirmations I’ll say to myself (before each shot),” he said. “I’ll say focused, relaxed, confident, (committed). And commitment is the most important thing. I’ve already done my thinking; now I need to commit to my plan.”

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Credit Rebecca Devereaux / 90.5 WESA
Words of encouragement are written on the back of a disc.

On an overcast day at Schenley Park, Whittington studies his moves. Each shot varies for distance to the basket, wind speed and direction, elevation change and any obstacles, usually trees, that might be in the way.

“I’ve said these things to myself. I’m relaxed. Now I’m going to commit to the shot, wind up and go ahead and do my throw,” Whittington said.

He approaches each shot, even during practice, as if it’s the most important shot of his life, he said. Golf is a game that can be decided by just one or two strokes, he said. Like back in 1991, when Whittington won his first world championship title.

“I remember after the first round I was in the lead group,” he said. “The leader was four strokes ahead of me. He was a multiple world champion going back to 1979.”

But slowly, through five days of golf at two rounds a day, Whittington advanced on Snapper Pierson. By the last round, Whittington, then an underdog and relative unknown, had a two stroke lead.

“I had a real good friend come up to me on the very last hole ... Lavon Wolfe, he’s a hall of famer, and he said to me, ‘Don’t get greedy, you have a two stroke lead.’ And I went, ‘Oh,’ and I laid it up,” Whittington said.

He took that title and many more. A doubles world championship title in 1995. Another singles title in 1998. Whittington was deep in recollection when his phone rang.

The hospital had called to confirm an appointment. Just weeks before the world championship, Whittington booked a procedure to cure a heart condition called atrial fibrillation. He’d kept it under control with medication for five years. Then it sent him the emergency room twice, once in the middle of a tournament.

“I was having a rapid heart rate, I was also missing some beats, too. I managed to play well even though I was in that state, AFib, for about an hour -- hour and a half -- before the round was over,” he said. “But I remember trying to make my shots, and I always try to relax and get a nice deep breath before I do my shots, and it was hard to get a real deep breath.”

It was worth it, he said, to take a week or two off to mitigate the risk of going into an AFib state during the Pittsburgh bout, which takes place in the searing heat of August. He's recovering just fine, he said.

Whittington is now back to league play with the Pittsburgh Flying Disc Society and said he's looking forward to the upcoming championship.

“My birthday is Aug. 2,” Whittington said, “and I’ve gotten three real good birthday presents so far. I’m working on a fourth."