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There’s More To Being An All-Star Than Winning

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Jesse Shofner is one of five 2015 All-Stars reprising their role on the 2016 team . Photo: Jeff Bell – UltiPhotos.com[/caption]

Nothing To Lose On The Tour

Children, family members, and well-wishers flooded the turf at Seattle’s Memorial Stadium this past Friday night, as the women of Riot kicked off the 2016 All-Star Ultimate Tour with a 15-10 win over the titular team of college-age stars. Two months of excitement, fundraising, and roster announcements built up to the evening’s event, which at times seemed less like a competition than it was a celebration of the players on both sides and a successful beginning to the Tour’s second iteration.

Deep into July, with the World Championships well into the rearview mirror and the bulk of the club season bearing down on ultimate players around the country, Seattle once again welcomed in the All-Stars, who this year have representitives from eight different states, Canada, Australia, and Japan.

As fans asked for autographs, pictures, and hugs on the field, the week-long arrival and preparation process concluded and the long van ride ahead motored into vision. The Tour’s mission – to promote women in ultimate – the reveling crowd, and the journey ahead had nearly overpowered the actual exhibition. The All-Stars stayed in lockstep with Riot in open space, but early-tour miscues and a lack of chemistry stood out for the newly minted squad. Meanwhile, Seattle’s premier club team were in mid-season form, making efficient work of the turns they were given. One would’ve had to look up at the scoreboard, however, to be reminded that there was a clear winner.

“It’s surprisingly…fine. Losing…I guess there is no losing on the Tour,” said All-Stars co-captain (and Ultiworld’s College Women’s Player of the Year) Jesse Shofner in the postgame fray. “It’s kind of a bizarre experience for me, because I’m ultra-competitive and always want to win,” she mused.

There was no noticeable air of frustration about the All-Stars as the game’s final score – a Riot break off an easy flick from Dominique Fontenette to Cassie Swafford – faded from the stadium’s memory. And that was okay even for Shofner, who described her natural state as “wanting to win all the time.”

“In this current moment…it doesn’t feel like losing, because [Riot is] not only very good, but there isn’t really anything to lose on the Tour because, we’re…it’s liberating because we’re playing to showcase awesome frisbee coming from strong female athletes [and that happened], regardless of the outcome.”

Shofner returns to the Tour for her second year, along with four other players – Kate Scarth, Stevie Miller, Hayley Wahlroos, and Caitlin Fitzgerald – each of them with a clearer vision of their participation on this unique team. And in this second summer, the Tour itself returns with its purpose well-established and more broadly understood in the ultimate community.

Those veterans will bring a stronger sense of their own role in the Tour’s mission this year, but the establishment of the brand, which has been shepherded by founder Qxhna Titcomb (Riot, Five Ultimate), was also clear with the rookies, who this year went through an application process before being selected for participation. This year’s new additions have already put time and energy into expressing their desired impact as an All-Star, stepping into the unique spotlight that the Tour creates at least somewhat prepared to handle the pressure. They also bring a variety of perspectives on women in ultimate to the vans, which will give the 2016 team its own identity, separate from 2015, but also part of the larger legacy of the Tour.

Affecting The Most Change

Four days earlier, I met Titcomb, Kimberly Spragg, and Alex Ode at a coffee shop near Five Ultimate’s headquarters on a gray morning. Without prompting from Titcomb, Ode recalled her own response to a question at the heart of the application process: what does promoting women in ultimate mean to you?

Ode, a newcomer to the Tour, but no stranger to success or spotlight with Oregon Fugue and the U23 National Team, was already familiar with what she referred to as the “disparity” in men’s, women’s, and mixed ultimate and the conversations surrounding those divisions.

“I think as a female ultimate player, I’ve been aware of the issues…the whole time I’ve been playing and have dealt with those issues and conflicts just as a player, individually,” she explained.

The question prompted her to think on how she might outwardly discuss these topics and impact conversations in the broader ultimate community, which is an overt part of the All-Star Ultimate Tour.

“I hadn’t really thought about it from that perspective before. That question was pretty challenging for me, but in a really good way,” she admitted.

Ode is taking on a captain’s role alongside her longtime teammate Shofner and Caitlin Fitzgerald on the 2016 Tour, and was excited to expound further on the impact of her play over the next few weeks. She recalled enjoying sitting down to think through the questions on the application and is prepared to lead. “I think that often times I’m just frustrated by [problems facing ultimate], but don’t really do anything about them besides sort of complain or speak within my community to other people that feel the same way, which isn’t really affecting that much change.”

The problems at the center of discussion are those most often associated with a lack of gender equity in ultimate, particularly here in the United States, where resources used for growth of the sport are closely scrutinized by a vocal community. The All-Star Ultimate Tour concerns itself with building a larger base of coverage for female athletes in ultimate media; with the entirety of the 2015 tour available at no cost on YouTube for the last 12 months, this year’s group will be standing on the foundation built by last year’s players. Their nine games will double the online library, adding more highlights and depth of narrative around these young female stars and their club counterparts, while increasing access to players all over the world seeking out female role models.

The increase in female presence in ultimate media will certainly not go unnoticed, but the growth and creation of more content with greater intention and awareness around gender inequality has already been cast in sharp contrast to the ever-growing library of video, internet articles, and social media discussions around the men’s club and college divisions, along with semi-professional ultimate. ((Neither the AUDL nor the MLU has strictly claimed to be a men’s league, and both have welcomed women at tryouts and practices, though only the AUDL has featured a rostered female player, and even then it was for a single game.))

For Kimberly Spragg, who arrived in Seattle from Europe after representing Australia on their women’s team at the World Ultimate and Guts Championships in London, just getting a chance to be on livestream and film, regardless of what the conversations will be around it, is a big deal.

“I can count on one hand the amount of games that I’ve played in that were filmed,” Spragg explained. Titcomb nodded, adding “…and I’ve watched all of them.”

Spragg applied for the 2016 Tour after encouragement from friends including Rebecca Brereton, who participated the year before. After sneaking in her application a day or two before the deadline, Spragg found herself taking an international call on Skype with Titcomb the day she was leaving for London. “I went from that Skype interview to running home, finish packing, and left for the airport and on the way to the airport called a couple of people like, ‘Oh my god! I’m on the Tour!’,” she said.

The exposure for Spragg means a lot. It’s a chance to not only measure her game against players she’s either never met or encountered once, but also to consequently affect a female presence in the media in a way that only Brereton before her has done for Australia.

Back home, Spragg’s impact on women in ultimate has been on the field, particularly in the college ultimate scene – which is newborn in comparison to the well-established women’s college division governed by USA Ultimate. Australian College Nationals have traditionally been mixed, and Spragg participated in the first women’s division competition last season, in 2015. She says starting her ultimate career in high school is “reasonably unusual” in her country still, whereas in the US the community has begun adjusting to high school recruits transitioning well, or even taking star roles on the field. ((Jaclyn Verzuh, an alum of the 2015 tour, made waves well before she ever stepped foot on the field for Dartmouth this year.))

The change to men’s and women’s divisions in Australia has been positive for Spragg. “I insisted on having split-gender training from the beginning of the year and the improvement that I saw compared to other years when we had mixed trainings was just crazy,” she said. She thought back to one specific practice, where a relatively unknown teammate, who had only been playing for a few weeks, arrived halfway through the session, stepped into a huck drill, “and just pulls out this flick bomb. I was like, ‘That’s almost as good as I can throw!’” she exclaimed.

Seeing that marked improvement in just a season bolstered Spragg’s own opinion. She’s seen women step onto the field with more confidence and a why-can’t-I-do-that attitude.

With each of the Tour’s 2016 games streaming live for free and archived soon afterwards, Spragg may be inspiring other female players to find some of the same confidence, with an international reach.

No Time To Say ‘No’

Three days after my interview, about 30 hours before the first pull of the Tour, the 2016 All-Stars concluded their first practice ever as a group, on a southern Seattle hill in Jefferson Park. Watched over by the Olympic Mountain range to the west and across Puget Sound, and with downtown rising in stark relief on a clear, windy day. Sixteen of the 17 rostered players were in attendance, where Rohre Titcomb coached them through each predetermined offensive and defensive set.

Janina Freystaetter’s second ever trip to the west coast launched her immediately into a community quite different from Orlando, where she’s spent the two months since the College Championships eagerly anticipating the Tour. In her first 24 hours in Seattle, she’d run through a Riot practice after a cross-country flight from Florida and stepped onto the field as a first-time teammate with a bunch of faces she was used to lining up against.

“It’s weird because these are the teams that you practice all year…not hating, but definitely trying to break them down because you’re trying to beat them. So it’s really weird to come here and be like ‘Oh, we’re friends now, and let’s throw together,’” Freystaetter allowed.

Practice was also a change in pace for Freystaetter, since she’s spent the summer so far outside the women’s club division, playing with a mixed team out of Orlando and practicing with men’s teams. “I’m having a lot of fun playing with guys, and they’re high level athletes so I’m learning a lot running against guys. I think it’s good practice for the elite women’s teams that we’re going to play.”

Only two and half years into her ultimate career, Freystaetter has already made a name for herself as part of the tightly knit UCF Sirens rotation that wreaked havoc on the women’s division with their athleticism and zone this past season. She was new enough to ultimate when the Tour first launched in 2015 that, she admits smiling, she didn’t really understand what it was. “I definitely caught up on it and it’s awesome,” she quickly qualified.

As of Thursday, Freystaetter hadn’t played a single one of the Tour’s scheduled opponents. In Denver, she is hoping to draw a match up with Octavia “Opi” Payne. “I’ve never played against Opi; I’ve never even seen her in the flesh.”

Freystaetter brings her height and speed to the All-Stars on the field, but she’ll also be bringing a different perspective on ultimate and the way top players develop together. Immediately on arrival, it was clear to her that the environment on the team wasn’t what she was used to.

“It’s different. In Orlando and Florida…I don’t know how to say this…it’s not so supportive. It’s not, ‘Yeah Nina you got this!’,” she said while clapping her hands and mimicking the sideline energy in Seattle. “It’s more just like, ‘Good job.’ It’s a little different. I guess I don’t play with women’s teams often except for college, so it’s a different feeling,” she said.

Not everyone on the team will need to adjust in the same way. This year’s Tour features nine players that have developed in the Northwest. Shofner, Wahlroos, Ode, Kaylor, Scarth, Donaldson, Au-Yeung, Revere, and Edwards all either currently play or started playing in Oregon, Washington State, or Vancouver, so are quite familiar with each other. And if there are some difficulties during the initial adjustment period, the returning All-Stars will have a chance to step in to help.

The veterans still have last year’s trip to draw on for leadership and advice, and that goes beyond how to think about impact as a player in the spotlight, or how to match-up against certain teams. The All-Star Ultimate Tour will drive by van across the country, and that comes with a host of mental and physical challenges when it comes to being ready to play at peak performance and bonding with teammates. The intensity and the brevity of the experience combine to create something so unique in ultimate that only the young men from the three NexGen Tours can relate to it.

By the time this piece runs, Kate Scarth (British Columbia) may have already had a chance to remind Freystaetter or another teammate some sound veteran advice that she and Shofner shared as their first practice came to a close. “There’s no time to say ‘No’ on tour,” she shared. “If you say ‘no’ to something, you’re going to regret that. We’re going to have less than three weeks together and there’s all these opportunities that pop up along the way and you just have to learn how to enjoy them while they happen, because you’re not going to have a chance to go back and do them and you’re not going to predict when they happen again,” Scarth said, smiling.

Empowering New Leaders

It’s the sort of trip that fits easily into the arc of a coming of age story in the US; the Tour smacks of freedom and the open road on a grand scale. It makes for nostalgia-inducing moments, the kind that Jaclyn Verzuh had back under the Friday night lights at Memorial Stadium where she stood tall on the field after the game, wearing her full Riot kit.

Nearly a year to the day earlier, the 2015 All-Stars had snuck up on Riot with a boisterous opening win, and Verzuh had played a different part that night, spurring on her team to the upset win. Verzuh is now one of just a few players who can boast a 2-0 record in games that kicked off the Tour, this time winning as part of the Seattle delegation that sent the team off.

The role reversal was far from lost on her. “I think that the excitement of being on the All-Star Tour is there’s 15 players and it’s just us against the world,” she remembered. “It’s just…there’s nothing like…like being the young challengers to all these big club teams and just playing with confidence, even when maybe you’re playing against these players that maybe are going to kick your ass. And so that kind of attitude, and the huge road trip – 100% I definitely am nostalgic.”

Titcomb also played for Riot in the showcase, an even stranger role given that she is still in charge of the Tour this year and will head up the cross-country exhibition, though she won’t reprise her role as a player. She drew a strict cutoff for eligibility, ((Players must still have college eligibility, or have just finished their final season of college competition.)) otherwise, she added vehemently, she’d be playing for the All-Stars again.

Despite her somewhat compromised allegiances, she felt that Riot had looked unpolished in Friday’s exhibition. As for the All-Stars? “They look really good. I’m happy, man, I think I did my job.”

While Verzuh heads to Poland to compete in the World Junior Ultimate Championships, Titcomb will be out on the road, running logistics for players, coordinating field sites, commentating on live broadcasts, and being the go-to person behind the scenes that she has continued to be since the 2015 Tour.

This year, the logistics includes two Learn to Play clinics hosted in partnership with the Girls Ultimate Movement (GUM), one in the Bay Area this week and one in Washington D.C. once the tour has reached the opposite coast.

In our interview last Monday over coffee, Titcomb was particularly excited to watch her handpicked squad take part in the clinics, which add another layer to the Tour’s contribution to growing the presence of women in ultimate. Some of the All-Stars have previous coaching experience, but, she noted, “There are a lot of players on this roster that haven’t coached before. And it’s an empowering thing for them to be able to do, to give back to the community. It empowers them. They learn a lot.”

Additionally, Titcomb views the co-branded work with GUM as vital to creating a context for these small clinics, which often pop up, teach, and leave new players without a chance to go out and watch or participate in ultimate. “The All-Star Ultimate Tour really gives that context to these GUM clinics and it’s something that makes it easier behind putting on these clinics in an intentional way. It’s a natural harmony, mission-aligned way. But that piece had never clicked for me [before this year].”

Tight Turnaround For Round Two

After their opening loss to Seattle on Friday, the All-Stars were not afforded much downtime to ease into the rhythm of the trip. Before I could fully gather my notes from the week, it felt as though the Tour had cross-dissolved from the scene at Memorial Stadium in Seattle to the windy field in Vancouver on Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after I had turned off my tape recorder.

Titcomb switched out her Riot jersey for All-Star garb and her cleats for a microphone, commentating on her first game of the Tour while her players picked up their final roster piece: Mira Donaldson. The All-Stars arrived, set up the field for the game and the broadcast, and went live right on the hour, without much room for error.

Maybe it was the quick turnaround, or perhaps the fact that players were very much still learning how to play with each other while facing an athletically comparable team in Traffic, but an early All-Star break to take a 2-1 lead wasn’t nearly enough to fend off their opponents. Traffic took a 6-4 lead midway through the first half, while the All-Stars struggled to tune up their deep looks for the wind and for each other’s cutting styles.

The Vancouver lead inched ahead one more break before halftime, after Naomi Morcilla broke free deep to haul in a goal that pushed Traffic’s lead to 8-5.

Even as the gap in score grew, the All-Stars continued to find space on offense, with Donaldson marshalling the offense and Revere chewing up yards on big cuts under. Jenny Wei continued to gum up the works in the deep space on defense, while challenging the same spots as a receiver on offense. And throughout the first two games, the All-Stars continued to send discs searching for Shiori Ogawa – the import from Japan, whose blazing speed put her wide open, inches away from goals.

In the second half, Traffic went on another run, pushing the score from 9-6 to 12-6 as the wind stayed steady. The youngsters were never able to close that gap, and fell to the hometown squad 15-9 in a game that seemed to lack the atmosphere that had been built up under the Space Needle the night before. ((Take that observation with a grain of salt, since I watched the livestream.))

We’re Just Going To Want It Back

While the All-Stars have more than held their own against some of the toughest opponents available in North America through their first two games, they will need to rebound quickly if they want to emulate the impressive record of their predecessors. More than anything, the opening losses in Seattle and Vancouver illustrated the breakneck speed that the All-Stars will have to contend with – the Tour covers nine major destinations across the country in just 19 days.

The spotlight and the Tour’s mission are only intensified at this pace. While the AUDL and the MLU have enjoyed half a year’s worth of their own male-dominated coverage, a dozen and a half young women and a film crew will be out on the road for just a few short weeks trying to generate a similar amount of visibility for their own single-gender play. With ambition, each other, and many, many miles in vans, they set out on an experience that, at least for now, few other women in ultimate can expect to undergo.

From the cafe in Seattle before the adventure began, Ode acknowledged the value of such an opportunity, while also accepting the Tour’s transience. “It’s unreal to think that it’s finally here and that before we know it, it’s going to be over and we’re just going to want it back.”

Originally published at: http://ultiworld.com/2016/07/26/theres-star-winning/