Kateri and Jonah Boucher are twins. They grew up playing ultimate together in Rochester, NY and spent three years co-captaining the women’s and men’s ultimate teams at Hamilton College in New York.
In the midst of widespread conversations on gender equity, they began to wonder how their seemingly very similar experiences with college ultimate actually differed. They reached out to past teammates and coaches to help create a list of questions about their experiences at Hamilton.
“We’d be the first to tell you that being twins leaves plenty of variables besides just gender, but we think our experiences are particularly revealing nonetheless,” shared the twins. “Although our situation is unique, we believe that our responses can provide insight into widespread patterns in the ultimate community. We hope this reflection encourages community members to further consider their roles in the ultimate world too.”
When you first started playing with your college team, who were your role models and forbearers of leadership?
Kateri: I immediately think of the two women who captained the team my freshman year. One was a senior, and she became a significant ultimate role model in my life. She was part of one of the first full women’s teams at Hamilton, and I was in awe of her stories. The other one was a sophomore, and I admired her ability to foster a team culture that was both competitive and fun. I also learned from and was inspired by her confidence on the field, especially in mixed settings. At the time, I didn’t feel very connected to the men’s team captains. I came to know them better as the year went on, but I wouldn’t say I looked up to them as role models.
Jonah: At the top of the list were my three senior captains. They quickly became my friends, but still always played that big-brother role for me where I’d look up to them and seek their approval. The other upperclassmen were more quickly accessible as buddies, and were soon some of my closest friends. There were other underclassmen who I knew were interested in future team leadership, so they too were role models who helped me develop my own passion for the game and the team.
What was your experience of sharing leadership and decision-making with members of the other team?
Jonah: During my freshman year as a player and my sophomore year as a new captain, my primary goals for the men’s team were to make nationals and achieve more legitimacy as an athletic team on campus. While I valued the social closeness of the two teams, I often viewed our linked leadership structure as necessarily at odds with these goals because of differences I perceived in team interest and potential. A combination of time away from playing due to injury and feedback from my teammates about why they valued our program slowly helped me change my mind. I began to think much more about how our program’s culture and inter-team camaraderie was special, not our 3-3-1 zone or end-zone discipline. The zero-sum game mindset lingered, but I found with time that a robust relationship between the two teams off the field brought more buy-in and better results on the field too.
Kateri: Over my three years of captaining, I got the chance to work with seven different captains of the men’s team (including Jonah, with whom I captained all three of those years). I feel really lucky to have felt so respected and heard by each of them. However, I do think that the program we inherited was overall more male-dominated, and that definitely seeped into decision-making processes even as the women’s team grew and became more established. For example, the men’s team had more documentation left to them by past captains, which contributed to the fact that they were often the ones leading conversations on how to best run each season. I also think that in general the women’s team captains (myself included) were less comfortable with the technical and strategic elements of the game, so we often deferred to the men’s team captains to take the lead in planning drills or coming up with systems.
Playing mixed, were you confident you would receive the disc as much as your skill and assertiveness merited?
Kateri: In high school, I was a captain of a mixed team and one of our main handlers, so when I joined the Hamilton team I was both confident in my playing ability and quite accustomed to having the disc move through me on the field. Unfortunately, I was disappointed and frustrated by my first few mixed scrimmages at Hamilton. I felt like I was being looked off by most of the men’s team players, and I remember feeling like “just another new girl” in their eyes. As the weeks went on, I was conscious of feeling like I had to establish myself as a legitimate player in order to be acknowledged on the field. It wasn’t until the spring of that year that I started feeling more equitably recognized when playing mixed, and over the years I generally felt increasingly confident that I’d receive the disc as much as was merited.
Jonah: Yes. I pretty much always felt like I could have the first cut, take the deep shot, be primary reset, etc. if I wanted it. This was eventually the case playing open too, though.
During mixed practices or games, how often did you feel your leadership was being challenged? How much time did you feel you had to spend justifying or explaining decisions?
Jonah: During the early weeks of the fall our program decision-making was very unified, so I always felt like my actions and decisions in practice had the support of the women’s captains and thus the whole women’s team. Even at more impromptu mixed events later on like “Fun Friday” scrimmages or summer tournaments, I don’t ever remember feeling like I had to go out of my way to justify decisions about strategy or logistics. I do have a very specific memory of one mixed summer tournament where I called set plays on consecutive points that excluded all three of the women on the line. A captain of the women’s team was on the line and called me out. Needless to say, that was one decision I could not justify.
Kateri: When leading a mixed drill or scrimmage, I occasionally felt like my leadership was directly challenged by other men’s team captains and even men’s team players. Most times I felt that this was warranted – like when I forgot a drill or accidentally called a play wrong – but a few times I thought the questioning was inappropriately timed or simply undue. Even when I wasn’t being directly challenged though, I certainly felt less comfortable taking the lead in a mixed setting and I felt much more self-conscious when I did make a mistake.
Did the men’s and women’s teams show each other equal support and consideration?
Kateri: Yes and no. In many ways, I felt like both teams generally supported each other quite a bit – especially in my later years on the team. In theory and in intention, it was clear that both teams had massive amounts of support and consideration for each other. Despite that, I felt like the women’s team more explicitly and actively expressed this support. At tournaments, for example, members of the women’s team often jumped at the chance to go watch and support the men’s team. We filled their sidelines on our byes and usually even cleated up at their field so we could maximize our time with them. Although many members of the men’s team would come watch our games during their byes too, it felt like they did so with more of an obligatory attitude.
Jonah: Did the men’s team show the women’s team support and consideration? Yes: We watched games at tournaments, shared field space, made decisions together, and a few guys even made the long drive to watch them at Nationals! Was the support and consideration equal? Probably not. The women’s team was really good about watching our games. They’d come early or stay late at tournaments, and they were supportive and engaged on our sidelines. On the other hand, Chick-fil-A would draw a bigger crowd after a High Tide round than a women’s team game on the other side of the complex. I remember a few times when our team was reprimanded — by our own women’s team and once by another women’s team – for cheering that treated the game like a fun diversion rather than a serious competition. We got better over time, but often only after the imbalance was brought to our attention by women’s team captains.
For work that required members of both teams – such as coordinating travel, cooking and cleaning at group events – did you find that players of both teams were equally likely to share the responsibilities?
Jonah: While I think the leadership generally did a good job sharing logistical responsibility, the men’s team at large was notoriously less responsible when the teams were together. We were the most likely to make a mess and the least likely to clean that mess up. At tournaments, our players were willing to help, but were much tougher to mobilize and needed reminders to help cook, clean, or shop. I remember one morning at High Tide where the men’s team had the early games. We finished most of the breakfast food in our houses and left a total mess in our haste to make it to the first round. I received a very angry – and very well deserved – call from my beloved sis on our way to the fields. That degree of disrespect was anomalous, but certainly part of a larger trend.
Kateri: During our normal captaining duties (such as coordinating travel and deciding on practice plans) I think the men’s team leaders actually tended to take more initiative. But in terms of cooking and cleaning at group events, I think that members of the women’s team tended to take on more of the responsibilities. For example, especially in our first couple years at High Tide, the women did a majority of both the cooking and cleaning even though there were always more members of the men’s team at the tournament. We ended up having to talk seriously about how we could fix that, and I do think that by my senior year it felt more equitable.
Did you or any member of your team ever feel physically unsafe or uncomfortable at an ultimate social event?
Kateri: Unfortunately, yes. Over the years I’ve known of a few members of the women’s team who have experienced discomfort or harassment at an ultimate party (or immediately following one). The women ranged from first-years to senior captains, and many times their discomfort was a direct result of the actions of a men’s team member. Although the incidents I know of were relatively few and far between, they all had a significantly negative impact on the women and each time caused them to reconsider their relationship with the team. It was only in my senior year that the teams started talking more openly and systemically about these incidents.
Jonah: I never did, and – to my knowledge – neither did most of my teammates on the men’s team. It was not an issue that regularly came up in my private or group conversations until late into my junior year, when the women’s team leaders began to push us to think more critically about how our program social scene was experienced by different members of our program. I think that my fellow men’s team leaders and I were slow to understand and act on any problems because we were letting the fraternities and other men’s sports teams set the standard for behavior. Our social events may not have been perfect, but in my mind we were always leagues ahead of the hyper-masculine debauchery that I saw elsewhere. It was challenging to hear that many of the games, themes, and songs we had happily participated in for years were just as much a part of the problem. I was angry and embarrassed to learn about the extent to which a program I had so long viewed as uniquely welcoming and safe was regularly endangering the emotional safety of certain members. We had many team meetings and began working with professionals from our Counseling Center to set the foundation for future growth, but along the way had to expose the dishearteningly widespread ignorance of our Men’s team to the darker sides of our team culture.
Which sources of ultimate media did members of your team follow, and how active were they as followers?
Jonah: Over half of the men’s team would at least marginally follow the College and Club Open divisions. A handful of us were pretty serious fans, following the AUDL, women’s, and Mixed games year-round too. We’d host viewing parties for most major tournaments, typically sticking to Open games, but occasionally tuning in to see semis or finals from the other divisions. (We loved Revolution). Many of us followed the All-Star Tours pretty closely, and I remember being frustrated sometimes when even serious players on the women’s team wouldn’t be following along too.
Kateri: There were only a few members of the women’s team each year who actively followed any ultimate media. I think the most consistently popular were College and Club games (Women’s, Mixed, and Open), Facebook pages (like Ultiworld, USAU, and Skyd), elite players’ Twitter accounts, and very occasionally Reddit. During the All-Star Tour time there was definitely a more significant following of All-Star games and related social media.
Did players from your team aspire to play at the elite club or semi-professional level?
Jonah: Absolutely. A few of us played club already and fantasized incessantly about playing for elite teams when we graduated. Two of my teammates played in the AUDL, and, in addition to being the butt of plenty of jokes whenever they messed up on our field, were undoubtedly role models for our younger players who saw the opportunities that could come with just a few years of dedication.
Kateri: Although many players talked about playing ultimate post-grad, I would say that the majority didn’t seriously aspire to play at an elite competitive level. The few who did, though, definitely motivated other players and also led the charge to engage with more ultimate media.
By the end of their senior year (2016-2017), Kateri and Jonah’s teams had one of the most intertwined decision-making structures of any program they came across in college ultimate. Their central team of six – three captains per team – spent all summer and fall operating almost exclusively as a single unit, and remained in close contact even during our more independent spring season. Their Skype sessions, GroupMe messages, emails, and at-least-weekly meetings were all together. They regularly split the same field for practices, went to the same tournaments, and planned all our social events together. Kateri and Jonah confirm that it was slow, confusing, and frustrating, but without a doubt, one of most important experiences they had in college.