Striving for Greatness: A Spotlight on Black Players at D-I College Nationals

North Carolina's Erica Birdsong was one of many Black players who competed at the D-I College Championships. Photo: Paul Rutherford --
North Carolina’s Erica Birdsong was one of many Black players who competed at the D-I College Championships. Photo: Paul Rutherford —

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College Nationals is one of the biggest stages in ultimate. The nation’s best players and teams gather to flex their might against each other, competing for the sweet taste of victory and a gold medal. No team gets there without stars to carry them, nor depth to bolster them. Even so, there are players that go overlooked, underrepresented, and underreported. Categorically, Black players are a standout group among them.

Ultimate is a sport founded by, and arguably for, white people. Despite hailing from the post-Civil Rights era, it cannot be disputed that the biggest names in the sport, with a short list of exceptions, are and have been white people. This creates environments where Black players have to be exceptional across all facets of their game and themselves to make it on great programs and play on teams that participate at the highest levels. Even then, the spaces are white curated and dominated; it’s a daunting task to exist in such spaces, let alone find self and joy in them.

With that understanding, how do Black players make that space for themselves? Burrowing further, how do they go about it when they also have to balance the expectations that accompany playing for a Nationals-level team? Ultiworld took time to interview players competing at D-I College Championships to offer them an opportunity to discuss their experiences, their teams, and how they viewed themselves and their contributions.

“Let’s start with the big one, and get easier from there. Describe a moment in your ultimate journey where you felt full ownership of yourself and your identity as a Black person playing ultimate.”

“The more I played ultimate, I naturally found that space and that ownership over time,” Richella Tah of Virginia Hydra answered. “This was my last year of school, the last year I could play collegiate ultimate if I wanted to. In high school, I never found that space. It’s come with time.”

For Myles Cooper of Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur, exploration of the space led him there. “I’m fiery and very competitive. I come from a track and field background. As I dove into ultimate, I found I had room to express myself through my play and my celebrations. I even found time to trash talk. Feeling myself came easy through those avenues.”

Self-expression was a huge factor among those interviewed as a key to their comfort and ownership in ultimate. Those who carved out space for their authentic selves to thrive stuck with the sport. It takes a team to push you to greatness though, and players who found community support blossomed further into the stars we see on the field.

“Tell us about how your community has shown support of your Blackness through your ultimate career.”

Stan and Erica Birdsong are siblings and well known in the ultimate scene. Stan is finishing out a brilliant collegiate career that started with Carleton CUT and is wrapping up with the Washington Sundodgers. Erica is at the crest of her collegiate career, which has started as high as one can go with two national championships over one academic year.

“Alex Davis reached out to me recently about playing in the Con10enT Tour stop in Durham. It’s been incredibly helpful knowing there’s opportunities like that available to me as a Black woman playing ultimate. AD is so confident in who he is, it’s helped me develop confidence too,” Erica shared.

“I don’t have to look further than UW’s diversity to know they celebrate me and my Blackness,” said Stan. “The team itself is over 50% people of color, and may be the only team that can claim that here at Nationals. Maybe in the country!”

Stan also looks back at his time at Carleton and the community leaders who showed him what active support was. “Phil Bowen was so vocal in Zoom meetings during the pandemic about supporting me. His work was never performative. I always found him striving for justice and inclusivity behind the scenes, doing the work no one else wanted to do.”

Sometimes though, the best support is found at home. The relationship between the Birdsongs is the foundation of their ultimate lives. After the Pleiades semifinal victory, in which UNC defeated the UCSB Burning Skirts, Erica took a moment off from celebrating with her team to leave us with this. “I just wanted to shoutout my brother Stan for a second. He was one of the first people I looked up to when I started playing, so he was always there as someone for me to look up to and see what Black excellence could look like in ultimate. He’s always there cheering me on, whether on Twitter, on text, anywhere. He’s the first person to have my back, cheer me on, and show me what excellence can be in ultimate.”

“What does it mean to you to play at Nationals and know you have the opportunity to represent Black players at the highest level?”

California Ursa Major rode some top-level throwers and an athletic defense to Nationals. Their young core of players got the opportunity to make names for themselves this weekend. “I’ve been playing ultimate since 5th grade. I’ve known I wanted Nationals all my life. It’s a chance to pit yourself against the best, and I know I’ve got that,” chirped Dexter Clyburn, a freshman on Ursa Major. Teammate Cameron Mah echoed that sentiment. “It’s my first year playing ultimate but that doesn’t mean I want it less. I wanted to make it here, and I want to keep coming back. I get to do it for me and my community.”

An injury and career obligation cut the weekend short for Northeastern Valkyrie’s Duschia Bodet. The Callahan finalist took time to remind young Black players of what is truly important. “Be you! Never apologize for being yourself. Don’t hesitate to reach out to any other Black players, at any level. We do it together, we represent for each other.”

It was Virginia’s Richella Tah who gave perhaps the best sentiment of them all: “I just want to see more Black people playing frisbee.”

We also took time to ask these players, their teammates, and their coaches about their on- and off-field impact on their teams.

“Duschia’s impact at Northeastern and the Boston community is deep. She’s held numerous leadership positions in the team, coached youth teams in the Boston area, and made herself available as a mentor. She’s the only player our coach Jason Adams EVER had play an entire game [this year’s regionals game-to-go against Brown]. She does it all, and always has.”
-Clara Stewart, Northeastern Valkyries

“Kimaya Hayes is the epitome of being a good sideline presence. She sets the tone for us, reminding everyone to ‘get the ball, and get HYPE’. We’ve seen her confidence shoot through the roof, and with it her decision-making and playmaking. She might be the best fast-break handler on Danger.”
-Lauren Boyle, coach of University of Pittsburgh Danger

“I think my playmaking and work ethic set the tone for my team. I love getting the sideline up with my play, that gets our whole team going, and there’s nothing I love more. I push nutrition for our team too. I had an old track coach who said ‘You can’t feed the Ferrari like a Ford’ and that’s always hit for me. I try to keep my boys eating right so we can play our best.”
-Myles Cooper, University of Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur

“Mikey [Lauren Mikell] is the gold standard of a supportive teammate on the sideline! She is cheering, communicating to teammates, and most importantly keeping up the positive sideline presence. On the field, she is all about effort and intensity. Mikey is going 100%, 100% of the time. She grinds on marks to force turns, gets heads up Ds, and is an integral cutter to the Xpress D-line on offense and defense. She has the biggest heart and really stepped up for the team this year in big ways. Her leadership skills will help our team continue to grow and be a Natties contender in the future.”
-Lauren Kitten, Purdue XPress captain

All Nationals weekend we watched these players compete to their fullest potential. They carried the weight of their teams, their communities, and themselves into each game. Black excellence in ultimate is succeeding despite having to climb mountains of expectation, and having to dig deeper to prove yourself anytime you set foot on the field. These players are more than faces in the crowd: they are the leaders and examples for young Black ultimate players everywhere, and they’re going to set the pace for a long time.

  1. Charlie Lowe
    Charlie Lowe

    Charlie Lowe is an aspiring commentator and writer for Ultiworld, dedicated to centering BIPOC stories. He graduated from Indiana University, after playing for the HoosierMama?s and now coaches Indianapolis Bandwagon. He works and lives between Indianapolis and Columbus. Follow him on twitter @c_lowe_brown

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