Women in Ultimate: The Beginning

(This is the 1st entry in a series examining women in ultimate.)

What does it mean to be a female athlete? Being a female athlete means getting up early and staying up late. It means running workouts in the dark. It means braving all sorts of weather. It means a constant compulsion to get better, push harder, go farther. It means bruises. Blood, sweat, and sometimes tears. It means aches and pains and a hideous sunburn. It means hard work, discipline, sacrifice, and weird looks from other people. It means accepting challenges and leading even when it’s hard.
— Kami Groom, Brute Squad

Picture this.

The year is 1996 and one of the greatest coaches of all time, Pat Summit, has just polished off her 4th championship with the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team. Her father, someone she calls one of the true idols of her life, comes up to her and gives her a hug. She’s 43 years old and this is the first time he ever embraced her so.

“This is so you can’t keep saying I never hugged you,” he whispers to her.

Talk about resiliency in the face of adversity.

When Summit began her legendary career as Lady Vols head coach in 1974, there were around 16,000 female athletes in college sports. Today, there are more than 200,000.

Women in sports have come a long way in 42 years. Nashville has, as well. And, so, too, has ultimate frisbee.

I’d like to point to the opening quote from Kami Groom and note that just as easily could apply to athletes of any gender.

Disclaimer alert: I am a male. I have never understood—nor will I—what it’s like to be a female athlete. It’s something I write about from a different perspective—and with great trepidation due to the sensitivity of the issue. I have a great respect for athletes of all genders—my 1st sporting love was women’s basketball at Vanderbilt. But, I think shying away from talking about important and potentially controversial issues does nothing towards furthering understanding and acceptance in society as a whole.

Thus, this column was born.

Over the next months, we at the Lantern will be bringing you a “Women in Ultimate” series aimed at highlighting women in ultimate, promoting the growth of women in ultimate—particularly with regards to Nashville’s perspective-- , and introducing you to some of the key stakeholders in expanding women in the ultimate community in the Nashville area.

Nashville is home to one of the fastest growing ultimate communities and one of the primary factors in that is the strength of its women. For this series, the Lantern spoke with a handful of those individuals to get their take on the pulse of women in ultimate in Nashville and talk about their expectations for it in the future.

I’d also like to echo a piece of Taylor Kanemori’s article in Skyd from 2013 when she talked about her purpose: “I write this coming from a place of hope.” Taylor talked about how much the inclusive nature of ultimate meant to her in general, how it made the sport the great entity it is today. She also talked about the need for a conversation, rather than an argument, surrounding equality with regards to voices in the community and respect.

The most common themes among those we had the pleasure of talking with: community and sexism.

A majority of ultimate players ascribe community as the biggest draw the ultimate has as a sport. Every single one of the half dozen players we interviewed for this piece mentioned community as a huge part of their love for ultimate. As Belmont University and Encore player and former soccer enthusiast Julie Hilton put it, “Everyone is so encouraging to others. I’ve never felt this much a part of a family with any other sport.” Or take Emily Harrell, former Nashville Ultimate Machine (NUM) board member and current Encore extraordinaire, who notes that “spirit and community” are why she has stayed interested.

It’s a big part of why the sport continues to grow at such a rapid pace. Grassroots movements like the All-Star Ultimate Tour and Without Limits do a wonderful job promoting the growth of women in ultimate. Click on the links to check out their fantastic websites and events. The All-Star tour is coming to Atlanta August 3rd and Raleigh on August 5th . Without Limits offers a fantastic Women’s College Ultimate Resources Manual, offering stories of players and teams nationwide as well as encouragement and advice to others on starting up a team themselves. The goal of these and other movements support what Heather Gardner, captain of Nashville’s Encore, feels are necessary steps in continuing to grow women’s ultimate. “The underlying ideas are… expose people to the idea that ultimate is a competitive athletic option where women can be successful regardless of age, background, or prior experience…share strategies or techniques of successful women’s teams (or individual athletes)… [and] generate broader opportunities for people to learn and play.”

And that’s what we here at the Lantern would like to do over the course of this series.

There are opportunities in middle Tennessee for women to get involved in ultimate, be it at high school, in NUM leagues, or at the club level, where the Encore, Hairy Otter, and Trash Pandas all operate.

The bad news: sports are an inherently sexist entity.

Let’s just get this conversation started, unpleasant though it may be.

How long have women been allowed to play sports in school? What is the difference in perception between the best women’s and men’s athletes—for this I like to compare the fame of a LeBron James to, say, Brittney Griner—and what does that disparity say about how resilient those female athletes that have succeeded have been?

LeBron gets idolized for his all-world athleticism and ability. Brittney gets marginalized and humiliated. We talk about King James’ court vision and toughness. We talk about Griner being bullied for her size growing up.

It’s both shameful—and archaic—that the primary difference in being revered and condemned in sports is sexism.

Luckily, one thing that sets apart ultimate is that it is a sport that’s growing up in a more accepting, more progressive world than have the ‘big four’ major sports.

There’s still a lot of work to do! As Christina “Flex” Effertz, another of Encore’s talented ilk, put it, “I think there are still a lot of barriers to overcome, including latent sexism in society and sports arenas in particular.”

While that’s certainly true, I point to one of my sports icons, Pat Summit, who showed that resiliency through adversity can make a great deal possible and make a difference in the world of sports.

-Lyman Surface

If you would like to join in the conversation or talk with the Lantern about this series, please comment below or contact me at jlymansurface@gmail.com. Any and all with the desire to join in this discourse are welcome.