On spirit animals and community

staff note

“Say your name and your spirit animal.”

Those kinds of icebreakers always stress me out just a little — I never know what to say for my animal. Should I go with something vague, like some type of bird? Should I go for generic and simple, like a cat? How can I sum up myself in an animal on the spur of the moment?

In the end, I just said that I didn’t have a spirit animal, to a chorus of good-natured boos. For the rest of the day, I fielded suggestions for my spirit animal, from people that I barely knew but had already found a connection with. It became one of our group-wide goals last Sunday, during Phoenix Ultimate’s Day of Play.

Ultimate has become such a big part of my life so fast. I was off campus until 2 p.m. for Day of Play. The week before, I was gone the entire weekend, and the Saturday before that, too — all for frisbee.

I don’t think anyone from high school would have predicted that I would join frisbee in college. I’d thrown a disc maybe once or twice. I was never particularly athletic, and I still don’t really think I am. But in part because of that, I knew I needed some kind of organized group to make myself exercise. I found frisbee, and frisbee welcomed me.

I’ve grown to love the game in and of itself, to love getting on the field and playing to the best of my ability. But the spirit on Swerve, Duke’s women’s ultimate club team, was what initially brought me back to practice every week. Everyone on the team was inclusive, approachable and fun, and they made learning the sport unintimidating. We grab food after practice, celebrate each other’s birthdays and mix with the men’s team on occasion. Just last week, we had a movie night and watched “The Greatest Showman” together. For me, it’s the perfect balance of fun and competitiveness.

The wider ultimate community has that same spirit. I find it so much easier to connect with people and talk to people in the setting of ultimate. I’m more outgoing and willing to put myself out there — in any other group, I think I would have spit out some random animal instead of admitting to not knowing. I’m a lot more inclined to start a conversation, to walk up to people and introduce myself even if I have no idea who they are.

So it was easy for me to decide to play in winter league through Triangle Ultimate, with men and women that I didn’t know. I had the chance to meet people at all different stages in their lives, from high school to married with kids. The women’s ultimate coach at N.C. State was one of the captains of my league team.

That’s not to say, though, that the ultimate community is without its issues.

I learned a lot from playing mixed, both about different play styles and about the social issues that seep into all communities, even those that strive to be inclusive. While it didn’t happen to me in particular, I noticed that women on other teams often weren’t thrown to even when they were wide open. That bothered me, and it definitely showed that social issues do manifest in ultimate.

Other people on my team have also mentioned that playing mixed can make them feel inadequate or intimidated. Women’s ultimate, for example tends to have an online livestream less often than men’s: At the last tournament Swerve went to, the men’s games were streamed but the women’s were not. Ultimate is not without its difficulties, but people are actively working to improve the sport as it continues to grow.

That improvement often comes from within, using ultimate as a platform to address some of the external social issues that influence the sport.

For instance, Swerve did a photo campaign last year, where people wrote sentences on the backs of discs starting with “I need feminism because...” This year, we’re doing much the same, but starting instead with “I need gender equity because...” to emphasize equality and make the language more inclusive. 

Ultimate’s effectiveness in addressing social issues comes from the sport’s self-refereed nature. We all play with “spirit of the game” in mind, assuming that everyone is trying to be fair and make the right calls. We high-five each other after every point, and have spirit circles to recognize great players on the other team. This spirit encourages self-advocacy throughout the entire community.

I’ve been playing ultimate for less than a year now, but I already feel like part of the community, part of the culture. And I plan to be involved with it for as long as I can.

I encourage everyone to keep an open mind and find your ultimate frisbee, something that you love both for the community and the activity itself. Something that provides you a platform to elevate issues that you care about and want to make a difference in. Something that encourages you to be your best self and helps you find your spirit animal.

Selena Qian is a Trinity first-year and Recess staff writer.


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