Ultimate frisbee as a tool for social change
This is a guest post for 99 Days of Ultimate, a conversation held over 99 days that provides a platform for people to speak about a range of womxn’s experiences in ultimate frisbee. My friend Carolyn is this week’s moderator, and as an American living (and playing) in Scotland, she wanted to profile some of the differences between playing ultimate in the US and abroad. I spent a year in Cambodia before moving to Boston, which is also when I started playing frisbee more seriously. Part of the reason I became so passionate about frisbee that year is that I saw firsthand frisbee’s power to affect local change, and specifically in the context of gender equity. After returning from Cambodia, I joined MIT’s women’s ultimate frisbee team as one of the few graduate students on the team. Playing and becoming friends with the undergrads solidified my belief in the power of frisbee to drive social change and push gender equity forward.
In undergrad, I had played ultimate during my semester abroad in Australia, but had never been able to find time to fully commit to it back at my home university. When I moved to Cambodia for a gap year before graduate school, I knew I wanted to give the sport a real try. In Phnom Penh, I joined the local frisbee community, playing pick-up twice a week, going to a few tournaments with the local, expat-heavy team, and attending my first ever hat tournaments (including the best hat tournament in the world, the Big Phat Phnom Penh Hat). I played with older expats who would bring their kids to pickup as well as tourists traveling through for just a few days. My middle-aged teammates would consistently not only out-play but also out-party 23-year-old me – this, I decided, was a sport I’d be happy to commit to well into my adult life. I traveled to tournaments around Southeast Asia where I was automatically welcomed into an incredible community that I knew would exist anywhere I went in the world. From these experiences, I saw that frisbee was a fun and personally enriching activity. More important than the pleasures that playing ultimate gave me, I also saw firsthand this sport’s power to transform local communities.
In Phnom Penh, there was a growing group of local Cambodian boys from poor neighborhoods who had joined the expat-dominated ultimate frisbee scene. They had been introduced to the sport through a summer camp run by a Seattle-based nonprofit called the Youth Ultimate Project, and had decided to stick with the sport in between the camps. Throughout the year, I watched them grow from immature, hot-headed players into skilled and thoughtful athletes. Their English skills skyrocketed from their constant exposure to foreigners, and their leadership skills bloomed as we passed on the responsibilities of mentoring the younger players and leading practices.
Meanwhile, a Peace Corps Volunteer in nearby Kampong Cham was working her frisbee magic with a group of young women. We hosted a few joint clinics between the Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham ultimate players, and these two days of leading drills and coaching the Cambodian players were among my favorite in the whole year. In Cambodia, women are expected to be quiet, modest, and shy. They are not expected to sprint and yell and dive after flying discs – but these young women in Kampong Cham did. Watching them play was a joy on so many levels: their enthusiasm was infectious, and the social implications of these women out-playing their male counterparts gave me chills.
Through my brief experience playing with these Cambodian men and women, I saw how ultimate frisbee could be used to pave the way for a more equal society. The boys matured and became leaders in their communities, and the women are continuing to train and dive after discs in spite of the societal expectations place on them. I’m happy to report that both groups of players are still going strong, five years later. In fact, there are now enough men and women players that Cambodia routinely fields full Cambodian-majority teams at international frisbee tournaments. Just typing that sentence fills me with indescribable joy and pride, and I can’t wait to get back to Cambodia to play with them again.
More broadly, I noticed a parallel between the transformation of these shy Cambodian women into sprinting and hucking beasts and my own personal journey. As a woman in STEM who had always excelled at “non-traditional” activities like math and science, I had never doubted the equality of women and had always had higher baseline levels of feminism than many of my peers. In Cambodia, I realized that supporting women’s sports and supporting women in STEM weren’t actually all that different – both empower women to kick ass and succeed in areas where they’re not traditionally expected to. And through this success, women also become more empowered to pursue other activities they may have not originally though possible or appropriate for them.
After returning from Cambodia to start grad school at MIT, I joined sMITe, the women’s ultimate frisbee team there. I played with sMITe through my entire PhD, and saw a similar sort of growth in my teammates that I had first witnessed in Cambodia. Many of my teammates joined the team as first years, when most were young, shy, nerdy, and often not very athletic. They started their frisbee journey too hesitant to run through discs, call their own fouls, or yell loudly for someone to clear. But by the time they graduated, these same women were bellowing at the rookies to run deep, calling plays for high-stakes points, and bringing morale up for the entire team at heartbreaking moments. Being there to witness this transformation was a deep joy and honor, and one of the highlights of my graduate school experience. (They were still nerdy though, obviously.)
Together, these experiences are why I’m passionate about continuing to not only play frisbee, but also harness it as the tool for social change that I know it can be. The fact that ultimate is a self-officiated and co-ed game that is so fun and beginner-friendly and that does not require expensive equipment to play further increases its potential to have global impact. I hope that our community’s conversation about the future of the sport in the US includes the fact that it is also a global sport, and that the stakes and potential impact may be very different at home than abroad.