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Zambia Disc Golf Comes Of Age In 2020 As Eagles Wings Returns


Junior disc golfers train and compete daily at the Macha Disc Golf Course. Photo: Esther Schultz 

Imagine a place where, every day, the disc golf course is packed with kids eager to learn the game. Imagine that every day a full-time professional on staff trains these kids, one age group at a time, instilling technique as well as dedication and discipline. 

One could ask: Is this place home to a future world champion?

The Macha Mission sits on several thousand acres of rural church land in the Southern Province of Zambia and is home to a regional hospital, a church, multiple schools, 2,000 residents, and – as of 2016 – the country’s first disc golf course. That was when Hannah and Dustin Leatherman, with the help of a PDGA Marco Polo Grant and equipment donations from Innova Champion Discs, led a delegation from Eagles Wings, a division of the Push the Rock global sports ministry, to introduce disc golf as part of the organization’s after-school program.

Three hours by car to the nearest city, and five hours to the capital, visitors can feel as if they’ve entered a whole new world. “I think the drive in from the airport is really eye-opening,” Hannah Leatherman told UDisc in 2018 about her first trip to Macha. “Seeing how people live there — the places that they live in. Most people are just walking along these long dirt roads. It takes a long time to get anywhere and there are really poor living conditions — unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

Like many African nations, Zambia has been hit hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is believed to be responsible for half of the country’s 1.2 million orphaned children — a staggering number for a population of just over 14 million living in an area roughly the size of the state of Texas. The pace of life is slow; there are no restaurants, no movie theatres. Outside of school, there is very little to structure the lives of Macha’s youth, so when Push the Rock arrived and began offering after-school programs in soccer, basketball, and volleyball, they were meeting a vital need.

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Enjoying some friends and refreshments on the streets of Macha, Zambia. Photo: Esther Schultz

Soccer is far and away the most popular sport in Zambia, as it is throughout most of Africa, but those who can’t keep up with the physical demands of the sport are left out. With plenty of suitable land at their disposal, the PTR staff came to believe that disc golf would fit in as a great accessible alternative for players of all ages and physical abilities. “They have limited options,” Hannah Leatherman told UDisc. “If you’re athletic, you can play soccer or other fast-paced sports, but if you’re not as athletic or older or too young, you can’t get involved because you don’t have the athleticism. But disc golf is a recreational activity anyone can do and various groupings of people can do — and families can do it together.”  

By the time the Eagles Wings team arrived in May 2016, work had already begun clearing land for a proposed nine-hole course. One of the major challenges facing the project was delivering baskets to the remote location; it was determined that shipping baskets was not an option because of a high likelihood of theft, and a decision was made to fabricate the baskets locally.

Another concern was how to bring heavy equipment like chainsaws through customs in order to clear fairways. This, too, turned out to be less of an issue than originally thought, as a team of five or six local staff members were able to do the job using only slashers, axes, and machetes. Over three days the team from Eagles Wings, along with their PTR Zambia counterparts, constructed a beginner-friendly nine-hole course complete with baskets, two sets of tees (beginner and advanced), hand-painted tee signs, and a course sign. The venue was centrally located, with a high-traffic footpath running through the middle that ensured a good deal of visibility to the new sport.

If there was any question about how disc golf would be received by the community in Macha, it was quickly put to rest as Hannah, Dustin and company began running clinics and giving instruction on the basic skills of the game. Their first clinic brought out over 100 kids between the ages of four and 18, and more in-depth instruction was given to the PTR Zambia staff who would be responsible for continuing to teach the game and maintain the course once the Eagles Wings mission departed.

“The staff caught on quick and were very eager to get better, and to compete with one another,” Dustin Leatherman said. “Later in the week as we did clinics, this same staff would assist, translate, and at times lead the teaching. It was awesome to see them get involved and exciting to know that teaching would go on long after we left.”

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The first disc golf clinic in Macha brought out more than 100 kids eager to learn. Photo: Eagles Wings Disc Golf

Soon after they returned home from Zambia the Leathermans began receiving reports of just how popular disc golf was already becoming. “There have been multiple hole-in-one shots and negative score lines already,” reported PTR missionaries Eric and Corie Thuma. “We’ve also seen a local school put in their own three-hole course after their students learned and enjoyed the game so much. We can’t say enough good things about a sport we knew very little about, but have since grown to love.”

Eagles Wings Returns for the 2019 Zambia Open

In October 2016, just a few months after Eagles Wings returned from its first trip to Macha, several Zambia staff members attended a global PTR gathering in New Jersey. It just so happened that Hannah and Dustin Leatherman were running a nearby charity C-tier event, the 2016 Camp Tecumseh TAKEOVER, and Elem Katambo, one of the visitors from PTR Zambia, took the opportunity to participate in his first PDGA event. Two years later, with help from Eagles Wings and event organizers John Luetzow and Yohannes Desalegn, Katambo traveled from Zambia to Ethiopia to participate in the first PDGA event in Africa — the 2018 Ethiopian Open — and became the first Zambian PDGA member along the way.

Inspired by this experience, Katambo returned to Macha eager to improve his game and grow the sport in Zambia. He proposed an expansion of the course to a full 18-holes and initiated a push toward the country’s first PDGA-sanctioned event. Plans were soon underway for the 2019 Zambia Open, which, along with the 2nd Annual Ethiopian Open, would represent the beginnings of an African Disc Golf Tour.

Joining the Eagles Wings delegation for their return to Macha in January 2019 was Esther Schultz, an accomplished FPO player, who was brought on as the organization’s first disc golf intern. Not only would she join the group for their 10-day mission to install the back nine of the course and run the sanctioned event, but she would be staying behind in Macha for three months in order to teach and develop disc golf programs and help ensure that disc golf would continue to take root.

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Eagles Wings Disc returns to Macha for the 2019 Zambia Open. From left to right: Dustin Leatherman, Hannah Leatherman, and Esther Schultz. Photo: Eagles Wings Disc Golf

Schultz quickly noticed that life in the remote African village was far different than anything she had experienced at home. “I love it,” she wrote in her travel blog. “I am obviously still trying to figure everything out but there are a few key things that I quickly respected the people of Macha for. First is that they almost always acknowledge everyone. Whether it is a simple wave or asking how you’ve been, people fully acknowledge other people. Another thing is that the people of Macha are really hard working. They see what needs to be done and they do it.”

Schultz was also impressed by how popular disc golf had already become, especially among kids. “I was shocked when I first stepped foot on the course and heard the sound of chains and a bunch of small boys making noise,” she continued. “Even in the U.S. where disc golf is becoming very popular, you don’t often if ever see that many small kids playing on the course.”

The original nine holes had been designed for beginners and was largely situated on an open plot with few trees or obstacles; the back nine, by contrast, would be cut through thick jungle and include a 440-foot par-4 to challenge the rapidly improving skills of Macha’s disc golf community. More difficult still were the working conditions presented by Zambia’s rainy season, which, combined with the thick bush, made clearing fairways to complete the course even more challenging. It took a huge effort from the Eagles Wings team working alongside a volunteer crew of locals to get the course ready in time for the tournament, but they got the job done.

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Volunteers and staffers work to clear the fairways the back nine using hand tools. Photo: Esther Schultz

On the Friday before the Zambia Open, more than 50 juniors took part in a qualifier round that provided an opportunity to check out the new course and earn a chance to participate in the main event. On the day of the tournament, players brimming with excitement showed up two hours early to register. Fifty-two players, including 15 junior qualifiers, competed in the first-ever sanctioned event in Zambia.

One of the players was Wilborn Munkombwe, who had been honing his game since the course was first installed in 2016 and now came out to shoot a blazing 955-rated second round to win the MA1 division. Munkombwe had already come to the attention of the Eagles Wings staff earlier in the week as a hard worker who had taken a leadership role among the local volunteers clearing trees on the back nine.

“We had this group of young guys, late teens and early 20s, and Wilborn was in his late 20s, so he was leading them,” Schultz recounted. “He brought discs with him and would throw the fairways while we were clearing them. He would see the line and take his discs and throw them. We saw that, and we saw him interact with the other guys and saw that he was a leader, and that he loves disc golf — and he’s good.”

It quickly became apparent that Munkombwe would play an important role in the future of the Zambian disc golf initiative, and before departing Macha the Leathermans hired him to become the first full-time staff member for Eagles Wings in Zambia. During the remainder of her three-month stay, Schultz worked with Munkombwe to figure out what the future of disc golf would look like in Macha. “It looks very different from what it looks like here in the U.S.,” she said. “We didn’t want to change what they already had, so we tried to figure out what works with them.”

“They had an after-school program where kids come every day from 3:00 - 5:30 pm, and there were different training setups with soccer, basketball and volleyball,” she continued. “Before we got there, disc golf wasn’t an everyday thing — you played disc golf when you wanted to. Wilborn and I worked to figure out which age groups would train every day, and we came up with trainings and activities that they could do during that time. We’d do ring of fire putting, backhand training, sidearm training and a bunch of different games. They’d get really excited about it. This was just after the first Zambian Open, so they saw what playing a tournament would look like — how you could really take disc golf seriously.

"I remember one day we had more kids training for disc golf than we had training for soccer, and I was just so proud because soccer is their thing," Schultz concluded. "The kids were so excited to come and throw.”

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Students come out to train with "Coach" Wilborn every day as part of the after-school program. Photo: Esther Schultz

Schultz spent much of her remaining time in Zambia working alongside Munkombwe, encouraging him and teaching him as much as she could about the sport. She even wrote out a detailed manual that explained various rules and games, and they began a Monday night bag tag league for adults, which quickly became popular.

“A lot of the older guys were really getting into it,” Schultz said. “They’d be so happy that they shot their personal best or got the number-one tag.”

By the end of her internship, Schultz was confident that with Munkombwe at the helm disc golf in Zambia was in good hands. “Wilborn is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, and he’s just so excited to teach disc golf,” she said. “He plays almost every day. I was a little worried about him when I was there because he was training people on Saturdays and Sundays, and those are his days off. This is his job, but he loves it so much.”

Zambia Disc Golf Comes of Age

Eagles Wings returned to Macha for the third time in February 2020 with a crew of 12 volunteers, 200 discs, players packs donated by Innova Champion Discs and Zing Minis, and materials to build two new baskets.

“One of our goals with this trip was to upgrade and improve the baskets that were built in 2016,” Dustin Leatherman said. “Those baskets were made with wash bins and had eight chains to catch. This year we were able to build a 28-chain basket and teach the local staff how to make them. We completed five baskets while we were there, and they will complete the remainder of the 18 in the coming weeks. We were also fortunate to bring membership packs for the 31 PDGA members there and some extra discs and shirts compliments of the PDGA.”

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Posing after a long day's work next to an upgraded basket. Photo: Eagles Wings Disc Golf

The disc golf community had grown substantially during the course of a year with “Coach” Wilborn working full-time. His days were split between maintaining the course in the morning and training players in the afternoon, and his private lessons had become so popular that he eventually had to set a limit of two lessons per person, after which students were asked to train with other players.

When Schultz arrived back in Macha with the rest of the Eagles Wings crew in February, Munkombwe greeted her as if she was a sister returning after a long absence. He immediately began to tell them about one of the local juniors — a 13-year-old named Mutolo, who had reportedly shot the course record and was becoming known as something of a disc golf phenom. “This small boy beat me,” he repeatedly exclaimed.

Unfortunately, Mutolo had been away from Macha, as well as disc golf, for over three months. A PTR staffer made a special, unplanned trip out to the boarding school where he had been staying and brought him and a few other juniors back just in time for the tournament. The stage was set for an epic performance.

“Mutolo wasn’t practicing putting. He wasn’t doing fieldwork — none of that,” Schultz recalled. “He just came out for this tournament and he beat me. He won the junior division. He’s just a little beast.”

“And it’s not just him,” she continued. “So many kids out here are so, so good. And without the things we feel like we need, you know? Like, in order to play good you have to spend hours practice putting. You have to have the right shoes, the right discs — this mindset that we have, that these kids don’t see. Mutolo’s not thinking, ‘I haven’t played in three months, I’m probably not going to do well.’ He thinks, ‘I want to win this.’ So he does. It’s just so cool to see this other side of disc golf, a different point of view.”

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Junior disc golfers in Macha show that you don't need all of the best gear to be a great player. Photo: Esther Schultz

This year the kid’s qualifier tournament boasted more than 100 players. The Zambia Open itself had a full field of 73 competitors and could have included more had there been more room. A second course is already under discussion and is one of Eagles Wings' goals as the organization eyes a fourth Zambia trip in 2021. What is clear is that disc golf has found a home in Macha and is rapidly approaching — if it isn’t already there — a point where the sport becomes self-propagating in the African nation.

For her part, Schultz is excited to see the talent that emerges from Macha as more kids get introduced to the sport.

“I could see the best disc golfers in the world coming out of Zambia,” she predicts. “Where else in the world are kids coming every day to be trained in disc golf?”

Comments

Great article! Thanks for writing such an in-depth piece Mr. Rothstein. I hope more people will join us for the future Zambia Opens! It will be an experience you'll never forget! If you're hoping to see what the course looks like, or see how good young Mutolo is, you can watch coverage of this year's Zambia Open here: https://bit.ly/ZambiaOpen2020.

Submitted by EddieBTrue on

So very thankful for the efforts by all involved. To me, DG is THE sport for the masses; because of the very items mentioned in this article. You don't have to be tall, fast, of certain age groups, overly athletic (although it can certainly help) and, perhaps greatest of all, affluent financially (as it largely takes for ball golf). Very thankful for our sport!

Submitted by Chadsmo on

The PDGA should NOT be helping push a religious agenda under the guise of growing the sport. As a 10+ year member I would love to know why this is acceptable.

Submitted by wsfaplau on

Seriously?
Writing an article about growing the sport internationally is unacceptably pushing a religious agenda?
I’m not seeing it

Great job by all involved, in my opinion.
I will continue to support this effort

Submitted by Chadsmo on

This is straight from Eagles Wings website. It’s a religious organisation pushing their religion on others and using disc golf as the way to do so. It could JUST be about disc golf but it isn’t.

ABOUT EAGLES WINGS

Eagles Wings Disc Golf is a division of Push The Rock that will carry out the vision and mission of Push The Rock using the emerging sport of disc golf. Although some may be unaware of this sport it is estimated that there are now over 2 million disc golfers who play regularly at 8,000 courses around the world with over 4,000 tournaments held annually. There has been no major Christian influence within the sport – until Eagles Wings began in 2015. We look forward to filling this void and plan to launch several exciting initiatives.

So how do we plan to fill this void? We have settled on four areas of focus, and look forward to sharing specific details in the very near future. These focus areas include:

We mentor and disciple youth, adults, and families by creating opportunities to learn, play, and compete in the sport of disc golf.
We seek opportunities to bless the existing disc golf community.
We connect Christian disc golfers around the world and provide training on how to use the sport of disc golf as a ministry avenue.
We help churches, ministries, and missionaries build courses and utilize them for ministry.

Submitted by wsfaplau on

So is the problem that Eagles Wings growing and promoting the sport internationally or that the PDGA website wrote an article about it on their website?
I suspect your issue is that the PDGA dared write about them.
Are there any other groups of disc golfers growing the sport and bringing the sport to people who have very little that you also oppose the PDGA writing about?
Lots of PDGA events raise lots of money for charity, the PDGA writes about many of them.
The PDGA is full of people who love to play and love to help others.
I think it’s great the PDGA promotes that.

Just my opinion, you have a different opinion, that’s ok, but I support people helping the fledgling Zambia disc golfers, whatever organization they are from.

Submitted by Chadsmo on

I’m all for growing the sport without an agenda , which is unfortunately what they are doing. As for the PDGA thing , I personally don’t agree with a governing body using resources of any sort to promote a non secular organisation. It is what it is , I just don’t agree with it in a moral level.

Submitted by birgit on

Wonderful project and one can definitely see how enthousiastic the Zambian players are about disc golf. Even though a not religious person I appreciate all the efforts and work of Eagles Wings Disc Golf in Zambia with plenty of people in Macha benefitting a lot.
I keep my fingers crossed that disc golf is sustainable in Macha and hopefully the sport can grow also in other places of the country.

Submitted by EddieBTrue on

I understand Chadsmo' contention. However, there's a few things which should be considered. 1) Just because the USA has an Establishment Cause, doesn't mean it applies in other countries. 2) Just like Salvation Army (or many other such relief groups) centers, it's up to people to come to them willingly, not by force. 3) Although the article was published by the PDGA there wasn't any attempt I noticed by the writer to 'push' any religious narrative beyond the simply stated fact of how it happened to be a religious organization/group who was a sponsor..

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