1 – The Legend
Back when I first decided to try out for Riot, I watched a lot of highlight videos of Riot and Fury. They were pretty much the only women’s highlights available, and I quickly got to know the familiar faces.
Having played on an open team in college, I did not have a great deal of experience with the women’s ultimate community. The women in these videos were talented and aloof, and, in my overly active imagination, they were also fierce opponents locked in an epic power struggle over the hearts and minds of young ultimate players everywhere.
There were two standouts on both teams who seemed diametrically opposed. On the Seattle side, Miranda Roth led the intimidating Riots with swagger and athleticism, and on the San Francisco side, Gwen Ambler led the stoic Furies with her characteristic humility and magical unicorn* powers. This monumental clash between the two teams of course meant that Gwen and Miranda could never get along in real life**. As I prepared for tryouts in 2008, I wondered if I would ever get to see the two battle in real-time.
*Epic battles always involve unicorns.
**In reality, Gwen and Miranda were very good friends and roommates.
2 – The Coach
After getting cut from Riot tryouts in 2008, I was a little nervous about trying out for the second club women’s team in Seattle, Viva. I had just discovered I wasn’t as awesome and talented as I imagined myself to be (FYI, playing open does not give you all the preparation you need for playing against women) and I had a lot to learn.
When I found out that both Ben Wiggins and Gwen Ambler (who was working on transitioning to Seattle from San Francisco) were coaching the team, my nebulous worries solidified into a solid mass of nerves centered on the impending judgment of two of the greatest minds in ultimate.
Tryouts passed in a blur, but I muddled my way onto the team. I spent the majority of my time in fan girl mode when the magical, perfect, unicorn leader came to practices and tournaments. Though I learned a great deal, I don’t have many tangible memories of interacting with Gwen (or Ben for that matter). My most vivid memory is of Gwen offering me hand warmers during a torrential downpour at Northwest Regionals.
Though Viva did not perform particularly well that season, I learned from two of the best minds in the game. I also cheered wildly (I’m close to vomiting as I write this) when Fury made their nine-point run to come from behind and beat Riot at the 2008 Club Championships. The magical, perfect, unicorn leader led the charge.
3 – The Competition
In 2009, I tried out for Riot again. This time, her Seattle move complete, Gwen was part of the tryout pool. I did not feel good about this development. The tryouts had a rough idea surrounding the number of spots available, and Gwen trying out meant that 1 of 2 potential cutter spots was spoken for.
Tryouts again passed in a blur. Riot’s favorite drills usually consisted of very tall people, Gwen included, marking up on me and me trying to throw around them (“breakmark” they called it).
Naturally, Gwen made Riot that season (I did not), and I was forced to acknowledge that my magical, perfect, unicorn leader had joined the ranks of evil. How terrible.
4 – The Captain
I finally made Riot in 2010, also officially joining the ranks of good (see what I did there?). For the next five years, Gwen would be my teammate and leader, and would help mold Riot into the team we are today.
Teams change from year to year, but every year that I have played on Riot, Gwen has been my captain. Given the changing face of the team, from specific skills to personalities to levels of competitiveness, I find it incredibly impressive (and rare… out of curiosity, how many other teams have a captain stay in that role for multiple years?) that Gwen’s position as captain remained a constant.
On the surface, one could assume that Riot simply placed Gwen in a position of power because it was easy. No resume could compare, and she wanted it. But, as with most things, Riot discussed the decision at length.
Gwen’s experience and desire to be in leadership worked in tandem with her competitive drive, her meticulous knowledge of USAU deadlines, her incredible knack for organizing ultimate tournaments/clinics/tryouts, and her unwavering attention to whatever she happens to be working on (to the point of forgetting to eat). She’s played on winning teams from college (Superfly) to club (Fury, Riot) to national teams (the 2009 U.S. World Games team).
5 – The Orator
Gwen’s role as a leader on any team she plays on is a given. As a leader, she is often put in the position of speaking during team meetings, explaining drills at practices, and providing inspirational speeches during huddles.
As much as Gwen excels at everything she does, I will say that her eloquence in the huddle somewhat resembles that of drunk Leslie Knope.
In 2010, we lost to Fury in the semifinals of the World Ultimate Club Championships. As we cried in our huddle after the loss, Gwen told us to take those tears and “bottle them up for always.” We did, Gwen. We did.
6 – The Advocate
It’s always been somewhat difficult to find in-depth writing about women’s ultimate. Coverage is exponentially better now, but my first exposure to the online ultimate world consisted of perusing through blogs and RSD. The most in-depth blog about women’s ultimate I came across was written by Gwen. That’s where I got to know Gwen the Advocate.
As her teammate, I’ve had an up close look at Gwen as a leader, supporter, and promoter of ultimate in general, and women’s ultimate in particular. She led panels for USAU. She flew out to board meetings to help design the future of our sport. She organized a women’s league in Seattle that has grown in popularity each year, and now requires you to register in the first few hours if you have any hope of securing a spot.
Having known her now for several years, I suspect that her notoriety stems simply, and powerfully, from her love of the game.
About a month ago, I attended a women’s 5v5 hat tournament, organized by a woman that I met at Women’s Winter League. On each team I recognized a handful of Riots and Undergrounders, but the majority of the women playing were faces I had only seen in passing at pick-up or during winter league. A couple of years ago, I don’t think an event like this, with this particular skill level and attendance, would have been possible.
While Gwen’s league was just one more opportunity for women to play, I believe it’s greater impact was the creation of a single network for all of the female ultimate players in Seattle. Organizing mini, pick-up, and hat tournaments for women has never been so easy.
7 – The Champion
In 2014, Gwen helped lead Riot to a gold medal victory at the World Ultimate Club Championships in Lecco, Italy. Prior to this win, Shannon O’Malley was the only player on the team who had previously won a gold medal with Riot (at the UPA National Championships in 2005).
For me, the coolest thing about Gwen’s legacy is that she experienced first-hand two of the greatest stories in women’s ultimate in the past decade: She played with Fury at the beginning of their 7-year gold medal streak, and she played with Riot at the end of our cursed run of second and third place finishes. And she was never just a face passing through, hopping from roster to roster. She was integral to the teams she played on. She made a difference. She led. She changed the game.
8 – The End?
Gwen announced her retirement from club ultimate at the end of the 2014 season.
Though we saw this coming for a while, Riot never quite accepted the idea that Gwen would be completely done with club ultimate. Coaching seemed like the logical next step, and various Riots worked diligently to convince Gwen to assistant coach with Andy in 2015 (while some tried to convince her to play).
Was this the end? I still don’t have a clear answer. When talking to some of my teammates, we came up with various hypotheses about what Gwen might be doing this season. Maybe coaching? Maybe streamlining our statistics? Maybe providing strategic input throughout the season?
The moment I settled on a scenario that seemed most likely – the assistant coach route – Gwen showed up as a tryout at the 2015 Combine.
I know I shouldn’t get my hopes up… but I will say that she made it to the invite-only tryout pool.