While searching for some new women’s ultimate footage to watch during my rest day, I came across something I wasn’t expecting. The video was a highlight reel made by a former rival college team with a caption that read “WARNING: Contains WOMEN’S ULTIMATE, not real ultimate.” Three minutes and thirty-four seconds later I sat there, aghast, trying to figure out why the men in that video said such horrible things about their female teammates. My first instinct was to write an angry response about gender inequality, using words like “sexist” and “oppressive gender stereotypes”. I quickly decided this wasn’t a good strategy because instead of the open discussion I wanted, it would only lead to closed and defensive responses. While strategizing a new approach, I started to think about the reasons why I play women’s ultimate, and realized that the great things I see in this division, some people just simply see differently. Maybe, instead of shouting in anger, all I need to do is explain what I see.
I want to say that I’ve had a very enjoyable nine years playing ultimate with men. I met my husband and some of my best friends playing in college, and am incredibly grateful for the things I learned from my male teammates on Barrio. Unfortunately, I’ve also heard my fair share of offensive remarks during the same span. They ranged from the blatantly painful “women can’t jump” to the subtle “oh, I should have realized I was throwing to a girl, I would have made it easier for you.” Male players have told me “if women were better athletes maybe I would throw to them” and that they would surely be one of the best female players in the sport if they just got a sex change.
Hearing these kinds of things hurts no matter the tone or context. I feel disrespected and pushed aside as a secondary athlete, and it makes me wonder why ultimate, one of the most inclusive and supportive sports, could still have people who truly believe that women have no equal place in its community. The great things I see in women’s ultimate and in female athletes, they see as unimportant and inferior: what they see, I see differently.
They see a game with multiple turnovers and long points. In the video, two of the guys laugh about a particularly long point played between two women’s teams. I see fourteen women who will battle for as long as it takes to score a goal. Once, as a freshman at a tournament in Pennsylvania, I played point that lasted 40 minutes. Our team of ten women tied the game when hard cap blew, and the next point would be the difference between advancing to semis and going home. The fields were so cold and muddy after two days of torrential rain that one of my teammates lost her cleat in the mud and didn’t even realize it. Turn after turn and with fingers and the disc caked in dirt, each team struggled to throw accurately while cutters slipped and fell repeatedly as they tried to get open. I was so tired I was barely running anymore, ready to give up and call it quits. Then my captain made a huge layout D right as her offender was about to catch the disc to end the game. It was one of the most awe-inspiring moments of my college ultimate career. If she could do that forty minutes after we pulled the disc, I could keep going until the game finished. Even though we eventually lost, if I’m ever tired while playing a point I remember that moment and tell myself, “I can keep going.”
They see women who are less athletic. I see smart players who must perfectly time their cuts to open space, taking into account their speed and positioning, and then throw themselves horizontally if the disc is out of reach. One of the smartest plays I have ever seen was made by Miranda Roth in the 2005 College Championship game when she played with the University of Washington. While running deep, she saw her thrower’s huck start to drift away on her right. She would never reach it in time if she continued to run it down because the blading disc was speeding away from her. Within a split second of realizing this, she made an incredible play by twisting her body, launching it both up and out to catch the disc at waist height. I keep repeating that clip over and over again because of how hard that catch was. The disc wasn’t gently floating straight out in front of her, but rather it was plummeting, furiously blading out of reach. And she still caught it.
They see a boring game of fundamentals. I see a spectacular dance between handlers and cutters, offenders and defenders, moving the disc upfield and downfield and sideline to sideline. Every throw and every catch is a chance for something unexpected and great to happen. Throwers must accurately calculate their trajectories in order to hit the intended targets without allowing the defense a chance to contest the catch. Watching Japan’s throws and handler movements in the 2012 World Ultimate & Guts Championship Women’s Final is mesmerizing, and just when you think nothing can stop them, out of thin air, a United States defender lays out huge to block the catch. That isn’t just fundamentals, that’s great ultimate.
I understand there will always be differences in opinions about women’s ultimate. I don’t speak on behalf of every female ultimate player out there, and I am sure some will completely disagree with me. I understand that the Women’s Division has to increase the quantity and quality of players, but so does Men’s, Mixed, and Masters. I am sure our ideas for which path to take will be discussed, disputed, and defended. I can’t ask you to change the way you view women’s ultimate or female athletes. All I can ask is for you to take a moment and see what I see.