Feeling Like An Equal

Thoughts on a tight knit Triangle community.

UNC’s Anne Worth celebrates in the 2019 College Championships semifinals. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

This article is part of the Clear Cut series on Ultiworld that features writing and storytelling from elite players and coaches. If you are interested in writing for the series (or have ideas for it), please contact [email protected].

Almost every Friday afternoon, Darkside and Pleiades, the men’s and women’s D-I ultimate teams at UNC, play mixed mini. Using spare shoes to set up a field wedged between the pickup soccer players and the women’s rugby team, we play game after game until we’re drenched in sweat and smiling deliriously. While the level of play varies, it’s generally a competitive environment. This 3v3 format is where many of us worked out the kinks of our upline flicks or experienced the magic of a butterfly cut. It’s where I learned to throw and go, trust my around backhand, and cut hard in isolation. 

Darkside and Pleiades are deeply intertwined not only through our celestial namesakes but also in our dedication to each other’s success. The two programs run similar systems on the field, have overlapping coaching staff, and prioritize the same culture of social support and positivity outside the game.

Over the past four years, I watched this relationship grow from occasional intra-team throwing on the quad to a deep investment of time and energy in each other. The process demanded that members of both teams be vulnerable and believe in each other’s good intentions. It also required us to acknowledge the developmental deficit between the programs due to systemic gender inequities. 

I felt comfortable having the hard conversations necessary for a partnership like this because of my trust in the men both on Darkside and within the larger community. My trust that they respect me as a player and an equal despite my gender. That they are committed to bringing me and my team success for no reward other than the fact that we deserve to succeed and they, as the privileged group, are in a position to help us do so. I want to share a little about my experience both with college and semi-professional ultimate in my area, as I feel it’s an important perspective in the complex cross-section of gender equity and our sport. 

Darkside + Pleiades: Two Teams, One Dream of Dominance

Coming in as a clueless rookie in 2015, it’s incredible I got to play mini with that year’s men’s division national champions. I watched Nathan Kwon go all out for a seemingly impossible layout block and gawked at Aaron Warshauer’s ability to come down with anything and everything that went up in his direction. I ate up any advice they gave me and tried not to get in the way on the field. 

Early in my development, my male peers pushed and encouraged me relentlessly. I remember Matt Gouchoe-Hanas asking me why I didn’t throw upfield more in games. He assured me that I would complete passes if I trusted myself. Elijah Long encouraged me to guard guys when the number of women at mini was low. I laughed and rolled my eyes. Not only was I smaller and less skilled, but I played for a less competitive team! I thought I would ruin the high level of play. I insisted to myself that they were only being polite. 

RELATED: Hear From Anne Worth On The Deep Look Podcast

Looking back, I can see the weekly effort from these men to build my confidence and convince me that I am a worthy player. They saw potential and skill in me that I had decided was out of reach, and they repeatedly reminded me that it was there if I decided to take it. They didn’t take no for an answer, going so far as to physically push me on the field even when three men were standing on the opposite end zone line. They actively made space for my growth.

But their investment ran even deeper than encouragement and high expectations. Last spring, when Pleiades was struggling with our zone offense, we approached the Darkside leadership for advice. They offered to watch our film and ended up spending hours going through each game with us play by play. We formulated a plan to deal with each variation of cup, wall, trap, and force middle zone we might face.

In order to solidify it for our players, Darkside’s whole team came out on a Wednesday evening to run all variations of zone defense against our offense. They cheered when we crashed through the cup and explained the benefit of getting the disc off the line even earlier. They played hard, not letting us get away with any bad decisions we would be punished for in future games. They were the defending national champions amid their pre-Nationals practice schedule, and they came out to spend two hours making us better. Making our program better. Getting all of us closer to the Nationals dream where both teams walk away with gold medals. 

My team left the fields that night chattering excitedly about everything we had learned. We knew we would never face marks as expansive or deep-deeps as tall as the Darksiders. The men’s team not only gave us the strategic skills to tackle any zone defense, but also the confidence to execute that strategy. 

The Advent of the Premier Ultimate League

The winter of my junior year was when the movement against the AUDL began. I had always loved going to watch the Raleigh Flyers play. I relished the atmosphere under the lights and joyfully added my voice to the crowd’s collective cries of joy and sighs of disappointment. After the game, I always made a point to stay late enough to eagerly reach my hand down and catch high-fives from the players as they paraded by the stands — their way of thanking the fans for our support. 

It never once crossed my mind that I had a right to the same coverage. Men’s ultimate was more exciting! They were faster, bigger, and stronger. I was content to watch Terrence Mitchell and Jon Nethercutt do their thing in person.

But that winter, after seeing the long list of men and women who signed the boycott letter, I glimpsed the kind of future the equity leaders in the nation had been pushing towards for years. Of course I had read indignant articles, tweets, and Reddit posts about the gender equity gap in our sport, but since I’d never felt personally victimized, I hadn’t considered the possibility that real solutions exist. Others had, and they have been fighting for equality in ultimate longer than I’ve been alive. 

The next thing I did was get angry. I waited impatiently for the names of my friends on the Flyers to show up on the list. I seethed with my female teammates about the Flyers coach and part-owner Mike Denardis’ part in all of this. And, finally, a group of my teammates from the women’s club team Raleigh Phoenix and Pleiades went to the open combine on a gray, drizzly morning and asked him how he dared sponsor a team that blatantly ignored the female talent in the area. 

I was expecting him to say that men’s ultimate draws a larger crowd. I was prepared for a speech about fiscal responsibility, insurance, and startup costs. I was braced for rejection. Something to fuel our hurt and disappointment. Someone to blame for the fact that I never got to make a big play under the lights. But instead, Mike looked us in the eyes and said, “Let’s set up a time to meet and discuss specifics.” 

Over the next two years, Mike helped finance and was integrally involved in the inception of the Raleigh Radiance, the only PUL team associated with a current AUDL franchise. He came to the conversation with the promise that if we told him the type of team we wanted to create, he would do everything in his power to support that vision. 

In 2019, the franchise provided completely equitable perks to the men’s and women’s teams. We received the same yearlong gym memberships, physical therapy services, Bracelab braces, meal stipends, and cost-free travel to every away game. We traded off the primetime spot with the Flyers on home game days and walked side by side with them in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, handing out schedule cards and mini discs to kids marveling at the fact that professional ultimate exists.

I recently asked Mike why he decided to invest his time and money in Radiance. He replied with the simple sentiment that the hard work and effort of elite women’s ultimate should be rewarded on an equal level to men’s. He went on to emphasize that he doesn’t derive financial gain from either team — it really is just about growing elite ultimate in the area.

To me, gender equity means feeling respected and advocated for. It means someone in the dominant group taking the time and initiative to pull others up, even when that comes with resistance or personal sacrifice. Doing so not because it’s easy, but because it’s right. And this felt like equity.

I don’t mean to romanticize my experience with ultimate. I’ve had my share of male players look me off or plow into my space. I also come from the privileged perspective of playing at a very high level in my area. The experience of a pickup or league player in the area is likely very different from mine. Lastly, I want to acknowledge the expansive groundwork laid by the women in my area to create space for this type of equitable growth. 

Last spring, I made big plays under the lights. I squinted up into the stands, looking for the bright faces of the high schoolers I coach. When college started back up, I took the field without hesitation at our weekly mini sessions. I called my matchup, man or woman, and cut hard through the coverage. I chatted with guys after the point about where I was looking to throw, and how they could make their cuts more viable.

I feel empowered and respected when I put my cleats on.

I feel like an equal. 

  1. Anne Worth
    Anne Worth

    Anne Worth is in her fifth year of eligibility at UNC as a medical student. She also plays for the PUL's Raleigh Radiance.

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