When I was little, “athlete” meant the people on TV, the big names everyone knew, the people on baseball cards and football cards and on the posters I put up in my locker. And they were all men. I knew that I loved playing sports, but I felt wrong calling myself an athlete. It didn’t matter that I played organized sports yearround. It didn’t matter that I played on the varsity basketball team. My tomboy ways weren’t enough to drown out the boys who didn’t throw to me at recess or that replica jerseys could only be found in the boys’ clothing section or the student fan section in high school that came to the boys’ basketball games but not to ours. Women could play sports, but to be an athlete—to claim athletics as your identity—felt beyond me.
I still loved sports, however, so when my senior season of basketball ended I knew I needed to find a new team. On a whim, I started playing Ultimate frisbee. Within a month I was in love. In Ultimate I found a community of athletes who valued integrity, fair play and mutual respect over winning. Ultimate is a mostly self-officiated sport, and no one is making a living playing frisbee (yet), so the community is a group of people who play for their love of the game.
But as much as I love the values of Ultimate, I know that they aren’t the whole reason why I spend hours a week on the field. I play because I love competition. Not win-or-nothing, opponents-are-enemies competition, but the competition that happens when two teams are battling in a way that brings out the best in all the players. I play for the moments when you’re up 9-6 against the girls’ team from Seattle, who has been undefeated in the tournament for the past 11 years. You’re ranked second, but Seattle is such a juggernaut that every other team is a Cinderella story. You’re playing the best you ever have because you know you have to. A constant stream of noise is pouring from the sidelines. In Ultimate, there is no bench, so players who are not currently in the game run up and down along the field, yelling encouragement and advice to their teammates on the field. You have never heard sidelines so loud. You’re so close.
And then they call a timeout, change their defense and battle back. A game that had been 9-6 us ends with Seattle winning 13-10. They were going to the finals, still undefeated, and we would play for third. By the end of the game, I felt so drained— physically, mentally, emotionally—that I sat on the sideline and cried. I learned what it meant to leave it all on the field.
On the plane ride home I decided I was going to do what I had to do in order to play more games like that. I started running sprints before classes and watching games online. I started thinking of myself as an athlete. It helped that some of the best players in the sport—players of all genders— make an active effort to value women and girls in Ultimate. From initiatives like the Girls’ Ultimate Movement to a recent boycott by top players of the male-dominated semi-professional Ultimate league, high-level Ultimate players have shown their dedication to securing greater gender equity in athletics. If players from top-ranked teams respected me as an athlete, who was I to disagree?
The past two summers, I’ve played with a club team based in Boston that’s one of the top 25 women’s teams in the country. I’ve played teams from Denver, San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, DC, Columbus and even Southeast Asia. I’ve played against the people who were my heroes when I was learning how to play (and who are still my heroes now). I’ve learned to set my goals as high as I want and to value the time and dedication I give to my sport. Being a woman in sports still gives me some imposter syndrome, but now I call myself an athlete, and I believe it.
The Vassar women’s Ultimate team, unlike my summer club team, is not that competitive.
We’re a Division III team full of players who generally didn’t know anything about Ultimate before coming to college. Without a coach, my co-captain and I are the ones who guide the team in practices and games with input and help from our teammates. That’s what I love about playing here.
Our games may not have the thrill of coming so close to beating a national powerhouse (my club team lost 15-12 to the fifth-best team in the country just over a month ago), but there’s a different sort of thrill that comes from watching players take the skills and concepts we teach in drills and apply them to gameplay. And there’s a thrill that comes from hearing my teammates compliment each other, from knowing that the team I’m guiding is committed to improving and to appreciating each other. People come to Ultimate with a range of athletic backgrounds, but I know none of the women on the team have experienced the sort of validation and respect that male athletes enjoy.
I want to change that. On my team, we celebrate one another. We bring out the best in one another. We give each other the affirmations that we haven’t heard elsewhere, as women athletes in a world that puts men on a pedestal. Ultimate has taught me to value myself and my teammates, and this lesson gives me the confidence to push myself and my team to be our best and to be proud. I play Ultimate because it makes me feel like an athlete. As a captain, my goal is for my teammates to feel the same.