It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, 75 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Duke lines up opposite N.C. State on a somewhat remote West Turf field, downhill from Koskinen Stadium. A few onlookers dot the sidelines, not quite sure what they're about to see. A whistle blows, immediately quieting the chatter among the teams.
"Brooms down!" the referee shouts, and all the players take a knee. "Eyes closed!" he booms, and every head drops, even the ones on the bench. The referee gives a quick nod to a player off to the side clad in a yellow shirt, yellow socks, and a peculiar yellow tail, who then takes off running and disappears. "The snitch is loose—brooms up!" the ref bellows, and the players mount their brooms and charge into the middle of the field, where a volleyball and two blue dodge balls lie, waiting to be grabbed.
Welcome to Quidditch.
Quidditch, for the uninitiated Muggles out there, is a sport based on the game from the Harry Potter books. First brought to life at Middlebury College in 2005, the sport has expanded exponentially, mostly at colleges, but also at high schools and communities around the world.
Though the players can't fly, its basic rules and jargon are straight out of Hogwarts. Chasers fight for possession of the quaffle (the volleyball) and toss it past the keeper into one of three hoops for ten points. Beaters throw bludgers (the dodge balls) at any player, forcing them to run back to their team's hoops before returning to eligible play. The seekers chase the snitch—a person with a tennis ball in a tube sock hanging out of the back of his or her pants—who can use any tactics imaginable to prevent being caught. When it's all going on at once, play roughly resembles a mishmash of rugby, dodge ball, and flag football—all done while straddling a broomstick.
After five years of competition, Quidditch became formally organized in 2010 with the incorporation of the International Quidditch Association, which recognizes more than 300 teams. Along the way, Duke joined the movement. But it didn't catch on overnight.
Mia Lehrer, a senior majoring in earth and ocean sciences, had heard about college Quidditch before her freshman year. Someone had posted an MTV video about Quidditch on the Duke Class of 2012's Facebook page, and a lengthy thread ensued about forming a team at the school, whose neo-Gothic architecture conveniently resembles Potter's Hogwarts. Lehrer, who loved all of the Harry Potter books except for the fifth (too dark), took the initiative. The first year was "disheartening," she says. "No one would come to practice," and she didn't have the time or patience that starting a new organization requires. The following year, everything would change, when Chloe Rockow came to Duke.
Rockow, an effervescent blonde who seems more suited to pompoms than broomsticks, is the team captain and president. Now a junior, she stands on the sidelines, hollering, "Bludgers down! Two bludgers down! Beaters, go after the seeker! Come on, Duke!" Three years ago, as a lonely freshman in Jarvis obsessed with Harry Potter, Rockow had contacted Lehrer about the team. "Chloe said, 'I love paperwork,' and I said, 'Hello, vice president!'" Lehrer says. By her second semester, Rockow helped Quidditch get approval for funding from the Student Organization Finance Committee. But Rockow insists that the real turning point was the following fall, when 251 students signed up at the freshman Student Activity Fair and about eighty showed up to the first practice. The rest of the money for equipment comes from personal contributions of students and families, and strong T-shirt sales.
"We get made fun of a lot less than you'd expect," Lehrer says. "Quidditch is all about having fun and not taking yourself too seriously." When the team practices on the Main West Quad, it's common to see bystanders snapping photos. Junior Rebecca Kuzemchak, Quidditch vice president, enjoys the exposure. "Usually at least one or two people will ask, are you guys real?" she laughs.
Back on the field, an N.C. State player has collided with a Blue Devil and comes crashing down. She doesn't get up. The Quidditch pitch falls silent as both team captains and the referee run over. "She got a broom to the head," Rockow tells me, but she doesn't seem too worried. Sophomore Kirsten Walther, one of Duke's players, is a lifeguard and is taking EMS classes. Walther rushes from the sidelines to assess the injury while Rockow dispatches two other team members to get ice from Wilson gym.
Her nonchalance stems from the fact that incidents like this happen somewhat frequently. At the collegiate level, Quidditch is co-ed and full contact. (IQA's coed policy is known as Title 9 ¾, meant to evoke both Harry Potter's Platform 9¾ and the gender-equity mandate Title IX.) There are no shin guards and no padding. Mouth guards are accepted, and bespectacled players can wear goggles, but that's about it. Most players can point to Quidditch-related scars and bruises, and one Duke member broke her collarbone during practice. Now students fill out waivers when they join the team. "It's like boot camp," Rockow says.
Cameron Kim, a Duke sophomore who is the director of referee development for the IQA and a self-described "huge Harry Potter nerd," admits that safety measures are a growing concern for the evolving rulebook. "Players are getting bigger, stronger, better, and smarter. The sport will just get more intense," he says.
Duke hopes to step up its game to match. At practices and games, team members constantly urge each other to play more aggressively and not be afraid to tackle. "Watching the World Cup stream last year, we were blown away by the athleticism," Rockow says. This year, twenty-eight students hopped on a bus to compete at the World Cup, held in November in New York.
The trip proved to be a bonding experience, which players say is as much of a draw as the competition. The team regularly brunches and travels together, and last year they hosted a Yule Ball in the Great Hall that welcomed visitors from Georgia to New York. "I was looking for really cool people not in the typical Duke drinking scene, and it's the best group of friends," Kuzemchak says. "Last year, things really got off the ground," she starts to say, when Rockow jumps in, "That's my favorite Quidditch pun ever!"
It's also an accomplished group off the pitch. Lehrer's senior thesis on pre-Cambrian geology will be published and presented at a conference. Kuzemchak is on the executive board of the Honor Council and received a commission from the university for a drawing and painting installation in front of the Von Canon rooms of the Bryan Center. And Rockow is a public policy TA, is the executive vice president of Duke Republicans, writes for Duke's conservative magazine, and is president of Roundtable, the largest selective living group on campus.
As the sport grows, more players are arriving with previous Quidditch experience. This year's team boasts a graduate student who played at St. Mary's College in Indiana, as well as a freshman who helped found his high school's eighty-member intramural club in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
"We're keeping the legacy alive," Kim says. "The first generation of Harry Potter readers are now young adults, and they'll soon have kids who will read and play. The sport stands on its own—more and more people are into it for the sport and less about the books."
After several tense minutes, the N.C. State player finally stands up and is walked off the field. The game resumes. A few young men have wandered over from a nearby soccer practice to watch the game. "I'd feel terrible doing that to a girl," one of them says about the tackle. "Nah, I like the co-ed physicality," another one jokes. "This looks more fun than I thought."
N.C. State goes on to win the game, and then the following game in the match. Duke looks disappointed, but Rockow isn't discouraged. After all, Quidditch is about having fun. And there's still a match against UNC-Greensboro to sharpen the team's skills before the World Cup. After a quick hands (and brooms) in, the Blue Devils line up and shake hands with the Wolfpack. They walk off the field together in the late afternoon sun, with just a hint of magic trailing in their wake.
The Harry Potter generation brings a new sport to Duke
November 30, 2011