Number of Female Ultimate Frisbee Players Jumps Sky-High

The sun beats down on the two teams as they glare at each other across the field. Taking deep breaths, with sweat dripping down their foreheads, they wait until a ‘whoosh’ cuts the silence. A white disc catches the sunlight and blinds the onlookers before it hits the ground, the signal for the game to begin. Broken fingers, sprained ankles, heat stroke, and knee injuries don’t stop these players.

After the game, the team changes out of their dirt-covered cleats and grass-stained jerseys into clean shirts, skirts, and shoes. They re-apply makeup and clean their hands with hand sanitizer.

They are the Stuyvesant Sticky Fingers, the Girls Ultimate Frisbee team at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School. Most sports – including Ultimate Frisbee – typically focus on male athletes. However, in recent years, the number of female Ultimate Frisbee players has skyrocketed and the limelight is shifting from men to women.

“Being an athlete is less assumed to be a male occupation now that more women are asserting themselves,” said Sticky Fingers team member Nancy Ko. “And because Ultimate is a relatively new sport, the Ultimate community is flexible enough to recognize that.”

This seven-on-seven non-contact game requires speed, endurance, passing and end-zone scoring skills like those used in soccer and football, which has traditionally attracted many male athletes to the game. Once a player catches the disc, he or she must stop and will have 10 seconds to pass it to a teammate. A team scores by catching a pass in the opposing team’s end zone.

The USA Ultimate governs the sport of Ultimate Frisbee in the United States and has over 34,000 members, according to their 2011 statistics. Since 2000, total membership has increased over 206 percent. In 2009, total female membership was 9,744 and in 2011 it was 10,881—over an 11.6 percent increase. Females made up nearly a third of the organization’s total members in 2010.

Leila Selchaif, 16, has been playing on the Bard Barians of Bard High School Early College for two years. For her first year on the team, Selchaif was the only girl on the team. All of her fellow teammates were boys.

“It made me more competitive. It gave me more incentive to show I have what it takes. People gave me the same chances as guys,” said Selchaif.

In her second year, the number of girls on the team rose to five.

Selchaif and her friend Nina would practice tossing at lunch and it interested other girls. However, those girls did not want to join the boys’ team.

“[They were] intimidated by the boys because they were not as good,” said Selchaf.

Still, Selchaif is planning to start an all-female Ultimate team in her school this coming September. She has been getting positive feedback from the school and fellow students.

“Ultimate Frisbee is gaining a wider audience than compared to five to ten years ago,” said Selchaif.

“Ultimate is one of the fastest growing sports in the world,” said Leila Tunnell in an e-mail. Tunnell was co-captain for UNC Pleidaes (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and won the Callahan Award in 2011. The Callahan Award is an annual award given to the best male and female college Ultimate players. It honors physical skills and talent, sportsmanship, and leadership.

“I think this increase in female players is a result of this general growth as well as the efforts of various leagues, organizations and players all over the country working hard to start more women’s programs and recruit more female athletes,” Tunnell said. “[O]rganizations such as USA Ultimate and Without Limits work hard to promote and grow women’s ultimate at all levels.”

USA Ultimate has a Women’s Outreach Program which supports, develops materials and activities, and designs programs to increase the number of women who love and play ultimate. They offer coaching workshops, women’s clinic kits, events calendars, and college team development kits aimed at female coaches and coaches of female teams.

“Any increase in membership is a good sign and we are encouraged by the continued growth,” said Andy Lee, 36, director of Marketing and Communications for USA Ultimate, in an e-mail, “But we would like to see some more dramatic increases in the number of women playing organized competitive Ultimate.”

Isaiah Bryant, 27, who plays for the Connecticut Constitution, said the increase of female players is due to better training of coaches, which helps recruitment. USA Ultimate offers a Coaching Development Program where to become a coach, they must undergo a background screening and pass Level I and II programs where they learn how to introduce Ultimate to new players, manage effective practices and team management skills.

The increase in the number of girls interested in Ultimate Frisbee has caught the attention of boys as well, Bryant says.

“Females are a growing market for Ultimate Frisbee,” Bryant said. “This increase of female players is great because it also recruits guys.”

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