Founder of Without Limits (an organization dedicated to fostering relationships within the women’s Ultimate community), Michelle Ng has proven herself a leader and innovator in women’s Ultimate and the sport in general. Skyd is pleased to have had the opportunity to ask Michelle a some questions about the future of women’s Ultimate, her history with the sport and what she plans to do in her new position with USAU as Championship Series Manager.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get involved in Ultimate? What is your Ultimate history?
I was born and raised in San Francisco. I went to Cal for undergrad and found ultimate at an activities fair my freshman year. I had to take a couple of years off from school and when I returned, I decided to give Ultimate another try. I had hurt my right (throwing) shoulder badly, so I taught myself to play off-handed because it was the only way I could throw a flick without pain. (I still play left-handed). Over the past 7 years, I’ve captained 4 different teams and played at College Nationals (x2), Club Nationals (x2), and Worlds. There were a couple of years of painful losing in games-to-go as well. The past year or so has been especially challenging for me and has definitely renewed my gratitude for family, friends, and faith, and helped me to keep everything in perspective.
What do you appreciate about Ultimate compared to other sports?
I grew up playing baseball on the boys’ team and played all the way through high school, captaining the team my senior year. While my high school teammates were supportive and I played with lots of my rivals on summer club teams, the sense of community in Ultimate is something I haven’t experienced in any other sport.
When did you first get involved in running Ultimate tournaments?
I ran a small one-day local tournament back in 2005 for the Bay Area college women’s teams to kick off the fall season. That following spring, I ran a B-team tournament as a fundraiser for our program as well as to get our B team another tournament in their spring schedule. Since then, I’ve run about a dozen tournaments.
You’ve taken some really interesting steps in how you run your tournaments. Notably, you’ve added clinics taught by high level players. Could you elaborate on what your tournaments look like and what makes them different from any other tournament?
I run these tournaments for my friends, and players and teams I really care about, so I try to be attentive to every single detail to create an awesome experience for them. I feel personally disappointed when things don’t go perfectly, which I think has helped me hold my tournaments to a high standard (as well as lose a lot of sleep). I try to be an excellent communicator and go the extra mile for teams. For me, running these tournaments is about more than just running events; it’s about building relationships.
Over the past few years, I’ve really come to see tournaments as development opportunities. In many cases, tournaments are a huge concentration of resources with so many great players and coaches in one place. There is this huge opportunity to teach skills, share ideas, and build community. I am very fortunate to have friends and collaborators who really believe in this and who have pushed me to do more- the “extra” components of these tournaments require a huge investment of time and money, but I think they are well worth it.
You’ve been a huge advocate for women’s Ultimate. What did you experience or notice that made you decide to get more involved?
I was really fortunate and started playing Ultimate in a region that featured Gwen Ambler, Miranda Roth, and Chelsea Putnam, among many others. When you talk about people who have changed our sport for the better, those ladies would be at the top of most people’s lists. Moving to Texas and playing a couple of years in the South Region made me realize how many opportunities had just been handed to me in the Northwest. Austin is a great Ultimate city, but beyond that, there was this severe lack of opportunities in our region and that really bummed me out. I really impressed upon my team that the only way that we were going to build Texas Ultimate was to build the entire region, and I was fortunate to have teammates who bought into that and who let me do crazy things like run tournaments across the country.
I am incredibly fortunate to have a number of friends who think about Ultimate non-stop and who feed me all of their great ideas. They send me random emails and text messages with ideas and inspirational thoughts, and whenever I have something new that I’m thinking about implementing, they’re the first people I go to to vet my ideas. Gwen, Lindsey Hack, and Amber Sinicrope have been at the top of that list, and I’ve been so fortunate to work with people like Abby Stephens, Sam Huo, Carly Maconaghy, Lindsay Lang, Anna Nazarov, and Rachel Hokanson who truly are the heroes of the college women’s division and who don’t get near enough credit for the hard work they’ve put in.
Yes, I believe that like most women’s sports, women’s Ultimate is expected to be less exciting and therefore less deserving of attention than men’s Ultimate. Having played a boys’ sport all the way through high school, I’ve been on the other side of the arguments about athleticism and watchability, so I feel like I have a pretty unique perspective.
What can be done to change that perspective?
I think we need to be proud of the fact that we are women’s Ultimate players and create the opportunities we deserve. There are so many ways to get involved and to do something positive rather than just sit back and accept the way things are. You don’t need to have a grand vision or be some sort of expert; you just need to want more, and be willing to do something to achieve that.
How do you plan on improving opportunities for women’s players?
I hope to continue running events and skills clinics, and training other leaders to do the same. I also hope to serve as a connector, bringing together people from around the country who have a similar vision for women’s Ultimate so that they can share ideas, contacts, and resources.
Tell us about Without Limits. How/why was it founded? What is its mission?
I am friends with a core of Brute Squad players and last year, we (Showdown) were coordinating our fall tournament plans with their captains. The fall schedule didn’t quite work out for either one of our teams, so I jokingly told them that we should run a tournament together. My friend Sara Jacobi convinced them it was a good idea and suddenly, we were planning a 40-team tournament in Pennsylvania, this mutually inconvenient location for both of our teams. As Sara and I got deeper into planning, we realized that the things we wanted to do extended way beyond the tournament. We wanted to create a movement to grow women’s Ultimate, and we knew that would require the partnership of many of our friends and their respective teams. Without Limits was born. Sadly, Sara had to move on because she got an awesome new job, so it’s just me right now. Thankfully, I am working with some outstanding college teams and have some super collaborators such as Gwen, Lindsey, Beth Nakamura, and Lou Burruss.
What has Without Limits done for women’s Ultimate?
I’d like to think that Without Limits has created and enhanced opportunities for playing and development. In addition to running tournaments and clinics, and producing manuals, I am trying to train the players and teams I work with to understand the investment of time and energy that our sport needs. I want to help these players to think bigger than just their one tournament and to help connect them to a network of leaders who are just as invested as they are, and whom they can work together with to build our sport.
Tell us about the Without Limits Women’s Resource Manuel. What is its purpose? What went into developing it?
No matter how many tournaments I run, there are thousands of players I’m not reaching. The manual was my first attempt at doing something for those players. There are so many players on teams who can’t get even get 7 people at practice and who don’t even know that there is something beyond that muddy field they practice on. I feel like part of the problem in some parts of the country is that we’re satisfied with our personal play, our team, and our sport the way it is. We don’t aspire to be or do more because we just don’t know what else is out there. With both clinics and the manual, I want to bring the knowledge and perspectives of all of these fantastic players and coaches to these small isolated teams. As a young player, I was fortunate to have some really fantastic role models who inspired me (and who continue to inspire me) to be a better player, leader, and person. I was hoping to capture some of that in the manual.
Last year, I was planning the Roundup Division with Anna Nazarov and she suggested that we have each coach write down some thoughts / advice for the teams they were coaching. The manual grew out of that idea. I basically went to tons of people I’ve played with and against over the years and asked them to contribute. Then I compiled and proofread all of it, and printed some copies for teams with the help of a grant from USA Ultimate. I hope there is an opportunity to work on more iterations, and I have some other manual ideas I hope to work on over the next few years.
Without Limits tournaments are women’s only, do you believe this better serves women’s Ultimate? Why?
I’ve focused my efforts on the women’s division because it’s the division I play in and because it’s what I’m familiar with. The tournaments I’ve run have been built on the support of friends on other teams and because I’ve spent so much time around women’s Ultimate, I feel like I really understand the needs of the division. Part of my hesitation to venture into the open division has been that when I do something, I want to do it well. I’ve slowly been trying to gain an understanding of the open division so that when opportunity arises to get involved, I am ready to do a good job.
While running women’s tournaments allows me to concentrate all of my resources on just the women and this has been really awesome, I absolutely think there are many positive things about tournaments that host both women’s and open divisions. This year, I’m helping run several tournaments with open divisions and taking a very peripheral role in offering advice to the TDs of a couple of open tournaments. I don’t see myself being heavily involved in the open scene outside of the scope of my job at USAU, but that is mostly because I feel like there are people more competent and experienced than I am who can do a much better job at growing and developing the open division.
I had been telling myself for the past six months or so that if a job at USAU opened up in college or women’s Ultimate, that I would apply for it. It was more of this half-dream kind of thing because I was very happy in Austin and I had just invested a bunch of time and money in a graduate degree in Community & Regional Planning. When the jobs got posted, I read the Competition & Athlete Programs Manager job description and knew I had to apply because it was my dream job. I knew a lot of people would apply for the job, so I had no idea of my chances. I just concentrated on each step of the application and interview process as it came and tried not to look too far ahead. Getting the job offer was thrilling, but the decision to leave my team and my friends in Austin was a very difficult one. In the end, I took the job because I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is exactly what I was meant to do. :)
I’ve done some coverage of the college women’s division for USAU at Nationals the past couple of years, written some articles for the USAU magazine, served on some task forces, and this past summer, I went to a Competition Committee meeting. I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with almost everyone in the USAU office in some capacity on various projects over the past few years and I’ve been so impressed with how smart and driven all of them are. That was a big part of what attracted me to the job- the opportunity to work with people who are passionate about what they do and who think about the sport in really impressive ways.
What do you hope to accomplish in your new role?
Increase the quantity and quality of Ultimate being played in the college division, and beyond!
What is USAU doing right? What are they doing wrong?
I really believe in what USAU is doing, and I am so excited to have the opportunity to work there. Not speaking on behalf of the organization, but just in my personal opinion, it takes time to bring about meaningful change and I think the way that USAU is growing and developing our sport is smart and will bring about the best possible end result, even if it seems like things are moving slowly.
What do you want to see accomplished in Ultimate in the next 5 years?
I want to see the quantity and quality of Ultimate being played increase. By that I mean improvement in strategy and skills at the top level of the game, more professionalism in the way our events are marketed and organized, and the creation of additional opportunities for the middle and bottom tier teams. I think the sport is headed in a good direction and I’m very excited to be a part of everything that happens in the next decade!
What’s one thing everyone can do to improve the state of women’s Ultimate and the sport in general?
Get involved. Coach a youth team, run a skills clinic, invite your neighbor to play league, get your club team some coverage in the local newspaper. There are so many ways to do something positive. If you have an idea about how to improve our sport, make it happen.