NASA Scientist, CEO, Mother of Two, and Ultimate Captain: A Q&A with Katey Forth

Getting to know the oldest player on the US Women's National Team.

Katey Forth competing with showdown at the 2015 Club Championships. Photo: Alex Fraser -- UltiPhotos.com
Katey Forth competing with Showdown at the 2015 Club Championships. Photo: Alex Fraser — UltiPhotos.com

You may or may not have heard the name Katey Forth. She’s a founder and captain of Texas Showdown and a very good ultimate player.

Even if you have heard of her, chances are also good you don’t know much about her. She operates in relative obscurity, failing to receive the attention that should come to someone with her on-field ability. Katey Forth is definitely one of the best ultimate players in the state of Texas and, shown through her selection as a member of the US Women’s National Team headed to London for WUGC, the entire country. 

But Forth is also much more than just a top ultimate player. She’s a 40-year old mother of two, neurophysiology PhD, patent holder, CEO/Founder of a biotech startup based on NASA technology, and someone who still finds the time to not only dominate on the ultimate field, but also lead a young generation of women there.

Her unique story shows a remarkable life of dedication, ingenuity, and athleticism that not only proves her amazing grit, but also her commitment to her ultimate community. Quietly leading her team from Texas, the underrated and often overlooked Forth will represent the United States of America in her birth country this week and looks to help USA take home gold.

It’s time we all learn more about her.

UW: You have a story that is unique to most American ultimate players. Tell us a little bit about your ultimate background. Where did you grow up and when did you first start playing the sport?

KF: I played lots of sports growing up in England. Competitive gymnastics, tennis, field hockey, show jumping, and track and field. Lots of things. (Laugh). When I was going off to university, it just so happened there was an ultimate world championship being played that summer in Colchester, where I’m from (the 1994 World Championships). As we drove into town we passed the field site and saw loads of people playing. And they were there the next day, and the next, and the next.  

After six days of this, we thought we’d better check it out and went to the final between USA and Sweden.

It was a really impressive game with big plays and a rowdy crowd. Both, my twin sister, Bex, and I wanted to give it a go, so we thought we would try it when we got to University. I was on the tennis team at the University of Bristol, but also joined the frisbee club. By the second term, I had ditched the tennis. I was very fortunate that I had the GB Open National Team’s coach and captains in the same city, and I learned how to play very quickly from them. I even went to to World Clubs that very same year.

More exposure to ultimate came from New York players. Within months of starting the sport, I was told to guard Diana Flores, a wife of Aram Flores from New York New York fame, and not let her touch the disc. After a few points of matching up against her, she came over and said in a very American accent, “I like the way you play, do you want to come and play with my team?” My ultimate life grew from there.

What do you do outside of ultimate?

I am the CEO of a NASA spinoff startup company: iShoe. My co-founder and I  decided to take technology that we helped design — originally invented to help astronauts with balance and health monitoring for the moon — and bring it into products that could help people on earth. I’m a scientist with a PhD in motor control, human physiology for space flight.

So you’re literally a rocket scientist?

(Laughs) I’m a scientist who helped the health of people going on the rockets.

So did NASA bring you to the USA/ Texas then?

I came to Texas to do my PhD. Because if you are going to research spaceflight, Houston and NASA are the places to be.

You have a really interesting and busy life! How do you balance your roles as a CEO, as a mother, and as a leader on the ultimate field?

It’s definitely not easy (laughs). This is the million dollar question that has been pushed around in the media a lot recently as well.

The secret to my success is that I like to double up. I’m aware of the overlap in all the areas of my life because if you can double up, you save time. It started pretty naturally with my son, when I realized that I could entertain him while I exercised. I carried him on my shoulders while doing lunges, he was a cute weight. And as he got heavier, the training got harder (laughs).  

Both of my children­ are older now, Oliver is nearly nine and Arabella is six.  I do actual training with my son now. That is one way of doubling up. I play tag, that’s a really good workout, he’s very fast, (Laughs) and I do throwing drills with him. It’s to the point now that it’s really useful. Before the USA tryout, he took me to a sand court and we did layout throwing catches. Because that’s his absolute favorite thing to do. And it’s really fun. He said to me the other day “Mommy, when I get older can we play on a mixed Nationals team together?” (Laughs). It was sweet. Imagining the future, it makes you wonder if it possible….

As far as business and frisbee, the frisbee network is great and creates opportunities. Many frisbee players have been interns for my company, which is rewarding. And there are so many lessons in the frisbee world that help with leadership and business, especially in terms of motivation. You learn how to motivate people to spend thousands of dollars (laughs) and work hard, as well the qualities of teamwork. Keeping tapped into this great network is important… while frisbee might make one think you’re taking time away from work, you’re actually practicing and accelerating management and leadership skills.

I know you were one of the founders of Showdown; how has your role on that team evolved over time?

You start off leading the team, trying to establish a vision. I think the way it changes over time is really trying to create the next generation of leaders and to help them to accelerate their leadership skills. I’m captain again this year and we have our leadership group, and we wanted to make all our decisions in a forum so that all other advisory board people and teammates can see our thought process in those decisions to create transparency and help others grow.

One of the challenges for Texas is that we are really isolated. The next Nationals level team is a thousand miles away and we have to fly to play them. It’s very expensive and the financial burden means retention is difficult. It’s also very hot and very hard work having practices in Texas summer weather.  So we are trying to build a system that will teach the skills to the team so that the lessons learned will help the team’s sustainability.

Showdown often operates outside the spotlight of the perennial top teams, but is frequently in the mix. Has the team met your expectations or aspirations in the time since it started? What has the team accomplished that you’re most proud of?

I think that any time you enter into a venture concentrating on an outcome that is out of your control, there will be disappointments.  Entering into Showdown, we knew we wanted to pull from the strength of the state to compete at our highest level we could compete in. That level will vary year to year, though.

Our goal is more about the journey than the final outcome. How efficiently are we working? Are we teaching smart, efficient frisbee? Things that can be carried over year to year? Or are we just playing to go boom then bust? So there is definitely a mindset to create growth in the state.

Has it met my expectations? I would never say that they’ve been met, because there is always more to do (Laugh). But at the same time I’m proud because the expectation to create an elite playing opportunity for Texas athletic women, to create a place and a home for them to learn and grow in the sport of frisbee, has been met.

What has allowed you to continue competing at the highest level for as long as you have?

I eat a lot of kale!  [Laughs] On the physical side, I try to live a clean life. Eating good food, paying attention to my body. That was most noticeable going through two pregnancies. I’ve actually been able to overcome injuries and train well most of my life by listening. Your body is telling you things. If you ignore it, you’re body won’t thank you for it later on. It may be tomorrow or in a month, but it won’t thank you for it. But if you listen to your body and take care of it, your body will respond well.

I also love learning new things from other people, this keeps things fresh and interesting. I’ve really enjoyed being on team USA, especially, because this is an opportunity to work with coaches who I admire and learn from them.

Were you surprised to be selected to play for the U.S. National team? What does it mean for you to have earned this opportunity?

I wasn’t surprised. The opportunity to be involved in this team, to be amongst this team of superstars, is really exciting. I’ve been playing against so many of these players for so many years, it is wonderful to be able to finally connect with them on the same side.

What will your role be on the team and how do you see yourself making an impact at Worlds?

My style of play is to be a high yardage gainer, with either hucking or cutting.  I think that is what the coaches want from my play, and I plan to gain lots of yards for Team USA in London.

What will make the U.S. team successful?

I think because we are a team of “superstars,” if we are able to play in a way that no one acts like a superstar, then we will end up being a matchup nightmare, regardless of who plays us. There is so much depth on this team, I think that is where the success will come from.

What are the biggest challenges facing you and the team at Worlds?

I think the biggest challenge is maximizing our connections. We’ve had three weekends together, but compared to other teams that is pretty minimal. The challenge is to quickly build on the chemistry we have started.

What are your personal goals and hopes for your trip to London?

The goal is obviously to have fun. But the fun for me is to connect with all of my teammates. Already it has been fantastic and we’re just getting started. My goal is to deepen this connection, to share this experience together, to show that we can come together, and no matter what, play our best, gorgeous ultimate. When you do that, outcomes take care of themselves.

As someone who grew up in England, how does it feel to return there representing a different country?

It’s definitely a unique situation to be in. My life is very much in both countries. My husband, Sean McCall, is American, my children born in Texas. I’ve been here for so long that this is also like home. It’s like I’ve got two homes. To be able to play for Team USA… it feels very familiar. As far as how it feels to play for USA in London, it feels great as I’ve only received positive supporting comments from my former GB teammates.

What do you think the team can do in London? Give us your best prediction.

You know, if we can take care of our chemistry, if we can take care of our connections, and execute the plan that Matty and Andy have laid out for us, then I think the outcome is limitless.

What advice would you have for any young female ultimate players out there looking to get better?

I think it is very important to work on the parts of the game that you can control and to seek out good mentors. There is a lot of things to learn and there is a lot of experience out there in the ultimate world as well as a lot of good will. People are trying to help each other and you should expect that learning can come from anyone: from a national coach to someone younger than you. So be open to feedback people are giving you. And then just work really, really hard.

***

Katey and the US Women’s National Team kick off their WUGC campaign Sunday at 1:30 against South Africa.

  1. Alex Rummelhart

    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, and has played for Haymaker, Chicago Club, and Machine. He currently plays for Chicago Wildfire. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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