NUTC Chat 2014: Sophia Herscu & Two Young Campers On Women’s Ultimate

The National Ultimate Training Camp interview series continues with a discussion about women's ultimate.

Sophia Herscu and two NUTC campers together at NUTC 2014.
From left: Shira Yeskel-Mednick, Sophia Herscu, Renata Pepi.

The two main courses I taught at Amherst Regional High School were African-American Literature and Women in Literature. Early in each class, I would spend some time explaining the importance of being able to tell your own story in your own voice. Many were skeptical at first, and really wanted to believe that they could speak with authority about what they had observed, but had not experienced directly. Eventually most students, through the study of primary sources, came to see how authors spoke and wrote about what had happened to them in their early lives. Until you hear the voice, you cannot understand the life.

The following interview, from the front line of girls’ ultimate in the Northeast, should serve as a resource for those who care about the development of women and ultimate. One camper is a seasoned veteran and the other has been playing for 4 months. Renata and Shira are worthy of our respectful attention, as they speak authentically of the challenges and joys they experience as young athletes of our sport. And much love and thanks to Sophie for pulling this all together.

***

Renata Pepi is from Northampton, MA. She goes to high school in South Hadley, MA, at PVPA, a performing arts school. She is 16 and will be a junior this year. She has been playing ultimate for five years. She was one of the captains of her team this past season and plans to continue in this role next year. This is her 3rd year at NUTC.

Shira Yeskel-Mednick is from Amherst, MA. She goes to school at Amherst Regional High School. She has been playing ultimate for four months and played on the Amherst JVA team this past season. She is 15 and going into her sophomore year.

Sophia Herscu is in her 4th year as a counselor at NUTC. She went to NUTC as a camper in 2004 and 2006. She has been playing ultimate for 13 years. After playing club in Colorado for the past six years (Colorado College, Rare Air, Jack Wagon, and Molly Brown), she is currently playing on Boston based The Ghosts that recently took bronze at the 2014 WUCC World Championships in Lecco, Italy. A top five finalist for the 2011 Callahan Award, she is primarily interested in the coaching, growth, and success of women’s ultimate.

Sophia: I am sitting down with Renata Pepi and Shira Yeskel-Mednick, two female campers at NUTC session C, 2014. Lets jump right in. What brought you two to ultimate and how long you’ve been playing?

Shira: I think what brought me to ultimate is that a lot of people in my grade play, so I’ve been surrounded by it casually. When I’m hanging out with friends everyone will just be throwing a disc. I live in Amherst so that’s not ridiculously surprising I guess.

Renata: Well I went to a very alternative elementary and middle school and a lot of the staff had played ultimate. My elementary charter school didn’t offer other sports aside from Ultimate, so that’s what got me into it.

NUTC camper Shira Yeskel-Mednick.
NUTC camper Shira Yeskel-Mednick.

Since we have so many female players at this session of NUTC, we’ve been talking a lot about Women’s Ultimate. I’m just curious if either of you have any thoughts about your own experiences as a female athlete? It doesn’t have to relate to Ultimate. Any thoughts?

Renata: For me women’s Ultimate has definitely been different than any other women’s sport I’ve tried. I think in some ways there is a lot more support and it seems like the competitive atmosphere can be lower. Maybe because it is such a new sport, I don’t feel like I am always expected to be perfect right away. It seems like I have time to learn the sport without high pressure.

Shira: Yeah. I never really thought exactly about what sports meant to me, just because its something that I always did not just because I had to do it. I cannot imagine not playing sports. It’s just so much ingrained into who I am as a person. I haven’t thought a lot about specifically women’s sports, but I guess looking at older role models in Women’s sports can be really inspirational. And I guess just in my normal life, sports has been a safe place I can go to — not that it’s a safe thing mentally or emotionally — because it’s often really intense, but it’s something I know will always be there when I need it, which is all the time!

Even though neither of you have thought at length about Women’s Ultimate specifically, I was wondering what you thought about our Women’s Ultimate session the other day?

Renata: Well it was kind of sad just because we were thinking about how Women’s Ultimate is sort of not doing so well and needs a lot of support right now. I thought the session itself was good. I really didn’t know much about the national state of Women’s Ultimate before. It was good to hear everything. But I do think that all the people here at NUTC are pretty dedicated, and most of us female players are going to continue on with advocating for and playing Women’s Ultimate. For example, my team right now doesn’t have a coach. We may not end up playing next season if we can’t pull it together because we can’t find anyone who wants to coach. But we are determined to try and make it work.

Shira: I mean, I’ve only been playing for a very short time and I’ve only played on a girl’s team. Up until NUTC I had never played with boys at all. So I don’t have a great jumping off point for perspective. Generally at NUTC everyone has been great about not thinking about me as a girl, but just thinking of me as another player on the field with them. So my experiences have generally been really good in Women’s Ultimate. The meeting was really informative and useful to hear about the more broad state of Women’s Ultimate from fellow camper and counselor’s experiences.

Awesome. Lets chat NUTC for a bit? What has been your favorite part of camp so far?

Renata: Well I think my favorite part is what makes me keep returning. I definitely feel like I’m playing different ultimate when I’m at camp. When I’m at home it’s not as fast, it’s not as high level, not everyone has their fundamentals down, and here I feel like I can go beyond basic fundamentals and focus on my improvement. I feel like you can really see the change here. I also like that at NUTC you develop a major connection to the greater ultimate world.

Shira: I would say that, like Renata, previously I couldn’t see very much improvement in my playing. Here, when I step on the field, I just feel like I have a much better understanding, which is kind of huge for me. This past season my team had a very concrete cutting order all the time. We didn’t make a lot of decisions about cutting individually; it was more about executing our strategy to the best of our ability. I never had to think very closely about what I was going to do next other than how to beat my defender. But now I feel like I can just be thrown to the flow and actually know what is going on which is great.

What have you guys found to be the most surprising part of NUTC so far?

Shira: Two things come to mind. The first, which I shouldn’t have been surprised by, was just how friendly people are. You can really sit down at any table and introduce yourself and people are happy to sit and chat with you. I really love that about NUTC.

And again, my second point is about improvement. I’m used to not really being able to see improvement in my play and just having to trust that going to camp is helping. But here I can see a very clear improvement.

Renata: I’ve been coming for a few years so I don’t really remember what happened the first year but in terms of this year I came in pretty intimidated because there were a lot of Amherst kids. To me Amherst upholds this status of excellence. Through playing against them I know the fundamentals and ideas they stand for are a positive approach. Coaches always told me about this playing attitude and positive focus and I was just so astonished about how that was true at NUTC. I’ve played these girls 1000 times, we are rival teams, but everyone is just so nice. And the second thing that is super surprising every year is to see just how hard every camper works. It’s unreal. Anytime anyone is struggling all the rest of the campers are just trying to help out their friends with pushing through. It’s just a very supportive atmosphere.

NUTC camper Renata Pepi.
NUTC camper Renata Pepi.

Oh man! I want to go to camp. What’s one thing you think you’ll remember about this session of NUTC?

Shira: I think my team. My team is great. The atmosphere on my team is that when we get down we do really goofy stuff. Our counselor Amos Adams has us go in a circle and we do a flipping a switch kind of thing. We just act ridiculous and then Amos says: flip a switch. We breathe or something like that. We have fun and we have all our cheers and stuff like that. I think I’ll really remember the positivity of my team.

So do you think that the “flip a switch” tactic could translate to other parts of your life?



Shira: Yeah sure. That was a phrase I heard all this past season. It’s a great really good mental thing to be good at. Its good to think about in anything you are doing, not just sports.

Renata: I guess every year something I always remember is everyone on my team. You always develop such a fun connection to your teammates. But something I’m really going to take away this year is the connection I made with my coach. Every year my coach for the tournament has been very impactful. Especially when I have my one on one meetings it has been beneficial to my play. They always have something new to tell me, and they have great ways to challenge me specifically to be better.

Glad to hear that. What is one piece of advice you’d give to girls coming to NUTC or girls thinking about maybe coming to NUTC in coming years?

Renata: Haha. I’m just laughing.

Shira: Um…”Ain’t so bad” after the first day! Just kidding. I mean I’m still so new so this question is hard. I think this is probably advice I would like to be receiving this year. But I think my advice would be this. At camp and beyond, winning doesn’t actually mean you reached your full potential. I think a lot of teams believe that once you win, you’ve proven that you’ve reached an unspecified level of success, and the win classifies you as good. I don’t think this is true. You can win by a landslide and have played very well, but also you could have played poorly. Winning doesn’t mean you have achieved greatness.

Renata: I think you’ll get the most out of NUTC if you are attentive and you put your all into every single thing you attempt.

Last thing, what is the top ingredient you need to be a fantastic ultimate player?

Renata: Just a willingness to learn I think, because everyone wants to help you learn already.

Shira: I would say Grit — a lot like willingness to learn actually — grit is like determination. Grit is often times something you are asked to call upon in Ultimate more so than in other sports. I feel that a lot of ultimate is mental. You just really have to make yourself keep running, keep cutting, keep getting Ds, and keep caring. Grit comes into play so much.

Alright. That’s a wrap. Thank you so much guys. This was really awesome. You both have incredible things to say about NUTC, being an athlete and teammate, and Ultimate past, present, and future. Also, both of you are doing so well at camp! Good luck in the rest of the tournament. Lets get down to the field.

  1. Tiina Booth
    Tiina Booth

    Tiina Booth is the director of the National Ultimate Training Camp and a co-coach of the University of Massachusetts men. She founded the Amherst Invitational in 1992 and co-founded Junior Nationals in 1998. In 2006, she published a book about ultimate with Michael Baccarini, entitled Essential Ultimate. She has coached teams to numerous national and international titles. Her ongoing passion is sports psychology, and she offers clinics to coaches of ultimate and other sports. Tiina will be inducted into the Ultimate Hall of Fame at USAU Club Nationals in October of 2018.

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