“I’m asking the Grinnell community to be just as proud to have us represent them.”
In a lot of ways, this article is a love letter to my [stickies], although we’re going to get a little sidetracked at first. For context, the Sticky Tongue Frogs are Grinnell’s Women’s Ultimate team, a club team made up of anyone and everyone who has decided to commit their time and energy to learning, playing, and ideally perfecting the game of Ultimate Frisbee.
Let me start this off by saying that for better or for worse, I have played many different varieties of sports. One side-effect of being an energetic child is that your parents find any and every excuse to throw you onto a field, in a pool, a rink, a dojo, or anywhere that their tired minds aren’t the ones responsible for finding some way to channel all of that raw energy for a few hours. My mom would come home and say “C’mon, Kirsten, we signed you up for a fencing day camp, time to go,” and off I went. I sprinted, skated and tumbled my way through a majority of my childhood, but the sport that stuck close to my bones like a magnet was always, always soccer. From a very young age, the soccer field was my battlefield. Every game day I had my routine, listening to Queen with my dad and putting on my shinguards, imagining them as armor.
It was me and my girls against an army of players who are just as set on that ball hitting the back of our net as we are set on placing it neatly in theirs. My value as a player was easily measured. Am I running hard enough, running fast enough, running smart enough to beat the other team at a game we had both been playing since we could walk? Soccer was my life. I reffed it, coached it, played on three teams a season just to get more touches on the ball and more time on the field. In this time, I had no idea Ultimate was a nationally competitive entity. My high school had an informal Ultimate team, but they were the kids who didn’t play “real” sports, who didn’t understand “real” teams. At my highly competitive athletic school, I’m ashamed to admit I looked down on them as much as anyone else did for their “inferior” sport.
Senior year. A bad coach, a decent year of play, but suddenly I was questioning my love for soccer. I gave it 14 years of work, scars, bruises and broken bones, and still felt like I didn’t know the game the way some girls did. I wasn’t in love anymore. I wanted to try other things, have new experiences. So I made the decision not to play varsity soccer in college. Cut to me walking around the activities fair on Mac field as a lost little first year. I put my name on the email list for anything and everything I assumed I could possibly have an interest in. Ultimate was not included in that category.
Then, one fortuitous Friday, three guys on my floor came and knocked on my door. They asked if I wanted to come play frisbee at an informal practice out on Mac Field. “It’s a beautiful day,” they argued, “just come outside, you don’t have to know how to play”. And just like that, I had a new love in my life. Love for a sport and a team that, without the gentle encouragement of three of the 10 people I happened to know on campus that first week, I would probably never have given a second thought.
Why do I love Ultimate, you ask? Is it the extra half a second of hang-time between the disc and the ground which allows you to throw yourself after a thin rim of plastic and snag it at the very last moment? Is it that if you pull off a sweet layout grab, the girl guarding you will probably give you just as much credit as your teammates do? Is it that we play in the snow, rain, wind, and any possible combination of them? Is it that we play to win, but value the sideline as much as a player?
Because the only reason to play Ultimate Frisbee is for the love of the game. There is no glory in Frisbee, except in the props of your teammates and opponents. There are no referees. There are rarely coaches. Ultimate operates on a system much like self-gov which we call the “spirit of the game.” There’s no point in cheating or taking a dirty shot at an opponent. That ruins the game for everyone. You are your own opponent. The only thing keeping you from grabbing that disc is your own physical limitations. Now, last year at DIII Nationals a bunch of committed Ultimate players representing Grinnell College came in 2nd place, nationally, by one point. This year, because of a huge influx of new girls and a relatively insufficient number of experienced players to teach them the game, we were unsure whether or not we would be making a Nationals appearance again. There seems to be a very common misconception that because we allow anyone to play, because many of us are learning Ultimate for the first time as adults, because we have “club team” status and practice 3 times a week instead of 6, that we are not competitive. It’s true, commitment to Frisbee is much more lax than a true varsity sport. However, Ultimate is a year-round sport at this school. Our fall season is mostly spent teaching new players the game and increasing team cohesion. Then we come to winter season, and our time is spent indoors at the Bear, doing conditioning and fundamentals from 9-11 p.m., because as a club team we don’t get priority in the field house at a more reasonable hour of the day. There have been multiple occasions when everyone showed up to practice only to find that no one bothered to inform us our practice space was taken over by a varsity team with higher priority and we will have to attempt to find a time to reschedule. We also add lifting three times a week and throwing outside of practice to our three practice schedule. Enter spring season and we’ve got a team of moderately competitive Frisbee players who just need a little more game experience to truly grasp the game. Getting that game experience in before Conference is a crush of weekends away from campus, exhausted Sunday-night homework and soaking, windy practices. The formula yields results. This past weekend the Sticky Tongue Frogs qualified for DIII Nationals for the 4th year running.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud to be representing my school at a national tournament. I’m proud of my teammates for the mountain of work they’ve put into this team and our goals of competitive success. Now I’m asking the Grinnell community to be just as proud to have us represent them, and give us the resources we need to continue that success. Ultimate Frisbee players drive personal cars to Frisbee tournaments, some of which have put on hundreds of miles as a result. Cars have broken down and had to be rescued from the middle of snowstorms and cornfields. Mac Field is an uneven and unsafe athletic surface, and both teams have had injuries occur simply due to practicing on uneven, bare ground.
Ultimate players also have no access to trainers when we are injured. Non-varsity players are forced to beg the varsity athletes on the team to grab ice from the trainer’s cooler, many times before having been told we aren’t considered the right kind of “athlete” to have access to a plastic bag of frozen water, courtesy of the school. This may seem overdramatic, but I’ve seen too many of my teammates sitting holding ankles or knees or shoulders, looking hurt and scared and only being asked, “Is it bad enough to go the ER?” When the health center is closed and we can’t go to the trainer, the choice for an injured ultimate player is hospital bills or tough it out and hope for the best. I understand there are legal issues at stake, but I don’t think you’d have much protest from players if they had to sign a waiver to have access to the trainer. It is the obligation of this school to protect its students, and I would like to think that as a group that routinely acts as an ambassador from Grinnell to other schools, that Ultimate especially would qualify for the resources Grinnell has to offer.
Whatever the future holds for Grinnell Ultimate Frisbee, I’ve got love for [stickies] and lust for plastic. I’m honored to wear that baby blue jersey and represent this college. I just wish that bureaucracy didn’t make it so hard to play the sport I love.