Why O’Shea is arguably the most adaptable player in all of college ultimate.
April 29, 2022 by Jenna Weiner in Profile with 0 comments
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Turf pellets fly out from under her cleat as #21 California Berkeley Pie Queens veteran Sophia O’Shea cuts hard to generate a window for a reset pass. She receives the pass, sets, and then fires deep – the nickname of “Dyno,” attributed to her on-field dynamism, sitting well on the shoulders of the twenty year-old junior. While the pass is blocked downfield, O’Shea’s contributions to Cal women’s ultimate are clear, and with the disc turning over she gets back into her defensive stance, her cleated foot planted next to her Nike branded athletic prosthetic blade. The disc gets put back into play, and O’Shea focuses up. It’s time to play some more ultimate.
Sophia O’Shea was born in Turkey in 2001, the daughter of teachers living there to teach English as a second language. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended Berkeley High School, before going to nearby UC Berkeley, although she initially didn’t expect to get accepted to Cal at all.
“When I got into Cal I did not expect to get in in the first place,” explained O’Shea. “My dream school was Davis and I got rejected, and then I got into Berkeley, and I was between Berkeley and San Diego. And I was like, I can stay close to home, I can go far from home, but my parents are here. My dad’s whole side of the family lives in San Francisco and I’m a very family person—I need my Sunday dinners with my family—and so I was happy to stay in Berkeley.”
While it’s now her sport of choice, ultimate was similarly not always in the cards for O’Shea. She was familiar with the game before arriving at Cal; at age 11, she learned to throw from the legendary Matty Tsang, who also coached O’Shea’s middle school team. But the game didn’t stick right away, and instead she played soccer and ran track in high school, as a midfielder and a sprinter.
As an athlete who is also a single amputee, though, O’Shea has had to compete in less than ideal conditions, especially when it came to soccer.
“I have three legs,” shared O’Shea. “One is the running leg, which is the one I play ultimate in.” “But for soccer, because you need your feet, I [would] wear my everyday leg when I would be playing, which isn’t as responsive. The way I always describe it to people is that running on a normal leg is like running in flip flops, and running on a running leg is like running on like a nice pair of HOKAs.1 So it definitely was a little bit rough. I don’t think I was as fast as I probably could have been while playing soccer, but I needed the foot control.”
Despite the limitation of using her everyday leg for soccer, O’Shea’s athleticism still allowed her to ably perform the often thankless job of playing as a holding midfielder, snuffing out opposition attacks and roaming the pitch distributing passes to her teammates. That experience has served her well in ultimate, where she’s able to get back to her running leg and let her athletic abilities shine through, as her nickname suggests.
Over the years, O’Shea’s running legs,2 made by the Icelandic company Össur and provided at no cost by Shriners Hospital, have been put to good use by O’Shea both on the field with ultimate and on the track.
While at Berkeley High, O’Shea primarily ran the 100m, 200m, and 400m and ran both with her high school team and as their representative in the para-athlete divisions. While usually finishing in the middle of the pack amongst her teammates, in the para-athlete division O’Shea won eight state titles between 2017, 2018, and 2019, never losing in any of the state championship races she competed in. It’s a stunning record, and one unlikely matched by nearly any ultimate player regardless of competition division.
As often happens with elite athletes, O’Shea’s family are athletes themselves, her dad most notably. However, compared to her sprint distance preferences her dad was more of a distance runner, much to O’Shea’s frequent chagrin.
“My dad used to run marathons and half marathons,” said O’Shea. “So he would always be like, ‘Okay, come on Soph, we’re going for a run,’ and I’m like, ‘Okay,’ because you do these, like 16 mile runs, or whenever we go to the track it was like a minimum of five miles.” “And I’m like, no, I don’t want to do this. I would do like three, maybe four miles on a track. I feel like that’s just a different form of torture.”
Having O’Shea’s combination of sprinting and distance running experience, along with soccer, would be a major help to anyone looking to play ultimate, but ultimate wasn’t top of mind for O’Shea as she got into Berkeley. While she was given a flier by the Pie Queens at Cal Day, UC Berkeley’s annual open house, and had attended a Pie Queens recruitment pod, the Integrative Biology major instead was just looking to settle into her first year at Cal when she arrived on campus.
Despite this, the very first night at her new home in the Clark Kerr dorm,3 O’Shea attended a dorm meeting and was effectively immediately drawn back into the world of ultimate.
“My first night in the dorm I met this other girl who was also on the team, but I was talking to her roommate when we were in this big auditorium thing,” described O’Shea. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I was thinking about going to frisbee, maybe trying out or something I don’t really know, obviously gonna scope out the scene.’ “And then her roommate turns over and is like, ‘Did you say Frisbee? Like, are you on the emailing list? Are you going to the thing tomorrow? Have you filled out the interest form?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I just got flyered like I wasn’t that deep into it yet, but now I have a buddy so I guess we’re in this together,’ and so she is now our captain.”
Elizabeth Liston, the aforementioned current captain of the Pie Queens, shared that in addition to O’Shea’s on-field contributions, she brings just as much to the team off the field. “I think she’s a lot of the social glue in our team because she’s so outgoing,” said Liston. “So friendly, so welcoming to everyone, and she’s just a huge part of our culture and keeping it alive.”
Added co-captain Ellen Persson: “I just love the energy she brings to our team, everything she does is at 100%. Whether it be flopping on the ground after laying out for a disc, whether it be cutting deep from the handler space. Her nickname is ‘Dyno’ just because of how dynamic she is in actions, and words, and everything. She embodies bringing it all to the field.”
Despite her current role as a defensive line handler for the Pie Queens, O’Shea has not always played as a handler in her relatively short time on the team. When she joined the Pie Queens in the fall of 2019, O’Shea slotted in as an offensive line cutter. But, after the COVID-enforced two year break, the team found themselves short on veteran talent and most notably, throwing prowess. Enter O’Shea, asked to step into an unfamiliar role after not being able to really hit the field for nearly two full years.
Step into that role and step up she has for the Pie Queens, helping lead Cal to a surprising quarterfinal appearance at the Presidents Day Invite back in February and a consistent place in the Ultiworld Power Rankings Top 25 this season. Alongside Liston, Persson, and final co-captain Jenna Krugler, O’Shea will be particularly pivotal to the Pie Queens’ place as potential spoilers come the stacked Southwest regionals that are just around the corner.
“She has a very adaptable skill set, a big toolbox,” noted Cal coach Danielle Ngo. “We have played around with her role on the team within each season because it’s fun to see how much she can contribute from different angles of the field.”
Adaptability has been the name of the game for O’Shea throughout her entire life starting right from birth when she was born with tibial hemimelia. It’s an extremely rare bone disease that left her missing a third of her tibia4 and most of her ankle, and led to her parents opting to have an amputation done when she was around eighteen months old. However, it’s important to O’Shea that people understand that the disease and amputation weren’t traumatic, they’re simply part of her story.
“The way I first learned how to walk was on my leg,” explained O’Shea. “I got it amputated at 18 months and was in recovery for six months, and then got my first leg when I was like two and a half, three [years old]. And so I’ve been kind of just walking around, meandering, doing things, basically since the age of two without my foot.”
“My parents were always really, really into letting me kind of just do whatever I wanted,” she continued. “It’s like a normal kid wants to run around on the play structure and play with all the other kids. And I never really saw it as kind of a drawback. I just learned to adapt to it. And I was just like, yeah, this is my normal.”
Normal. It’s so often a loaded word that is used to designate our in-groups and out-groups, who fits the mold and who breaks it. But for people, for ultimate players like Sophia O’Shea, their normal is really no different than anyone else’s, even if that doesn’t seem apparent at first glance.
Said O’Shea: “In terms of people with prosthetics, or people with other physical disabilities, when you see them playing sports, I think it is inspirational. But at the same time, I think it’s just cool to get to know people as people before getting to be like putting them on a pedestal.”
“Because I’ve had times where I’m at the track, and people are like, ‘You’re such an inspiration,” O’Shea added. “I just ran a 13 minute mile, I am not inspiring anyone right now,” she finished with a laugh.
In talking with O’Shea, she noted that there haven’t been very many other ultimate players that she’s been able to connect with around playing ultimate with a physical disability, and recognizes that it does put her in a position to be put in the spotlight. At the end of the day, though, she’s still just a college ultimate player trying to get through life and school one day at a time.
“I don’t think I’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity, when it comes to it,” she admitted. “People are always pretty impressed and I’m like, I can break that ceiling a little bit. But…I think I can be a piece of a greater picture, you know?”
It’s a picture that is still developing, especially in ultimate where discussions around race, class, gender, and sexuality permeate readily through the community, but where talking about ability rarely happens. That doesn’t mean that ultimate players with disabilities aren’t there, it just means that we may not be paying as close attention as we maybe should to stories like Sophia O’Shea’s, which, at the end of the day, is much like any of the rest of ours.
“It’s small things that can be a little bit different in my routine,” she concluded. “But at the same time, I think I’m a pretty normal twenty year-old that hates organic chemistry and loves frisbee, you know?”
That we do, Sophia, that we do.
A cushioned running shoe brand. ↩
Plural because of the need for different sized prosthetic legs as O’Shea grew up. ↩
Coincidentally the dorm this author also lived in her freshman year at Cal. ↩
More commonly known as the shin bone. ↩