All-Stars are changing the conversation

Julia Dunn spoke to some of the women involved in the All-Star Ultimate Tour to discuss the effects the Tour is having on women and Women’s Ultimate around the world.

Fifteen female athletes from all parts of the United States, Japan, Canada and Australia recently undertook a trip of a lifetime, travelling over 4500 miles to play nine elite club teams in cities across the United States. The All-Star Ultimate Tour just wrapped up its second year after being founded to address the gender gap in media coverage, and has the goal of promoting the visibility of women in Ultimate. The women who made the Tour, selected based on an application, were the leaders on their respective college teams, played each other as adversaries on the field, and came together to showcase elite Women’s Ultimate. This project forms one of the many initiatives to promote Women’s Ultimate in the world, and has given female Ultimate players around the world a set of role models.

Qxhna Titcomb, the founder of the All-Star Ultimate Tour and co-owner of Five Ultimate, organised and played simultaneously in 2015. The Tour started as a result of the increased media coverage of men in the professional leagues in the US, which suddenly gave women fewer playing opportunities. A beautifully made documentary came out in June that covered the journey of the team, and started a lot of conversations about the gender inequality in Ultimate.

“It’s kind of the first piece of media of its kind in our community,” said Titcomb. “[The focus is on] how sports are an avenue for life or reflection of life in some ways, and how it empowers us to create change.” Past documentaries, like Black Tide and Chasing Sarasota, focused on the play, the score, and the athletes. The All-Star film focuses more on the context and the impact of the Tour, and demonstrates the pure athleticism and skill along with the challenges that female Ultimate players face.

This year, after firmly establishing the Tour in people’s minds, she aimed to make change through the width of the coverage – hitting a lot of people in a short amount of time – by visiting two new cities and expanding media coverage. In addition, Titcomb aimed to increase the depth of impact – influencing a small amount of people in a large way – by hosting clinics for girls in the area to learn from inspiring role models. “If you’re trying to change, you need both width and depth in order to get the whole surface area,” she explained.

Titcomb who competed with the U23 Mixed team in London. Photo by Claire Baker.
Titcomb pictured competing with the USA U23 Mixed team in London she was also in the USA Women’s Beach team in the same year. Photo by Claire Baker.
Claire Chastain, captain of Colorado’s club team Molly Brown and a Team USA member at WUGC this summer, commended the All-Star Ultimate Tour for starting to address the continuing inequity in coverage. The Tour has brought these conversations to the surface by creating visual and broadcast content, but also highlighted the pressures that female athletes experience when playing on camera.
“I think something every female athlete is consciously or subconsciously aware of, when we are streamed or put in a showcase situation, is that we are not simply playing for our team or ourselves, we’re playing for the advancement of female athletes and to prove ourselves worthy of being watched,” said Chastain.

The All-Star Ultimate Tour faced that very same pressure during the Nightlock game in San Francisco. Both teams played beautiful offence, grinding through each point. The game ended with an unfortunate collision where Laurel Oldershaw broke her leg upon impact with the ground. An eerie silence pervaded the stands as all the spectators watched in shock. For one moment, the mission of the All-Star Ultimate Tour became clouded by an unfortunate incident. Despite the anticlimactic end to the game, both teams came together to process this traumatic event.

America stays on top of growing Women’s and youth ultimate, having developed an impressive infrastructure to support playing opportunities for girls and women of all ages.

“Having a larger pool of athletes and a sports-centred culture has allowed us to develop and grow faster than other countries, despite the inequity ever-present in women’s sports in the US,” Chastain added.

She argued that Women’s Ultimate owes a lot of its growth to Title IX, a federal law enacted in 1971 that gave female athletes equal opportunity in sports in educational settings from elementary schools to colleges that receive federal funds. The law established a sports culture that promoted women to play sports.

Another female player watching the All Stars play, a Canadian national team player who didn’t wish to be named, said that the fundamental challenges facing women in Ultimate in Europe and America are similar, stemming from social norms for female athletes. The conversations around the ‘quality’ of the Women’s game and the ‘worthiness’ of representation – in terms of social media, photos and filming – still remain unequal.

“The US is rightfully seen as a leader in the growth and development of the sport and therefore has an added ‘responsibility’ in that others look up to it,” she said.

“In short, when women in Ultimate are not proportionally represented in the US, this remains the model people look to emulate, thus perpetuating the inequity.”

The amazing work done by women like Titcomb has impacted players not only in the US, but also abroad. The All-Star Ultimate Tour gives female Ultimate players everywhere role models whose skills they can emulate. Coaches use the video footage from the US to develop their own teams and Women’s Ultimate in their home countries.

Julia Harris, captain of the Women’s Ultimate team for South Africa, played against the US national team at Worlds. After that game, she commented: “We watch them on YouTube, and we see how to play Women’s Ultimate. And now that we’ve experienced this first-hand, we’ve got to take that back to other women in the community, and show them how it’s done.”

Rebecca Brereton, who played for the Tour in 2015, learned from role models on her team and took that back to her home country Australia.

“I believe the Tour has had a similar impact on Australian Women’s Ultimate to the effect it had on me,” she insisted. The main lesson? “Recognising that being at the top of your college or club team here doesn’t mean you can stop working as hard as you did when you couldn’t throw a forehand.”

The media coverage and the lessons learned from these role models continue to impact women worldwide, and will hopefully contribute to the growth of teams abroad.

The future of Women’s Ultimate relies on more than just addressing the disparity in media coverage for men and women in the US. We need to pull together the strengths and weaknesses from different places around the world, and work together. That means increasing coverage of Women’s games, reaching youth and promoting Women’s Ultimate through coaching.

A replication of the All-Star Ultimate Tour with an all-star club team in Europe might create a possibility to exchange knowledge and skills among elite players across the continent. The All-Star Ultimate Tour gave players around the world the inspiration to think about initiatives for women in Ultimate on a larger scale as a real possibility. Inclusivity has always formed the main foundation of Ultimate, and the increased promotion of women in the sport can incite conversations about greater inclusion for people facing a number of intersecting challenges, such as LGBTQI, disability, age, race, and religion.

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