Seventh grader Naomi Ryan goes after the frisbee on Wednesday, Oct. 6, during ultimate frisbee practice outside Julian Middle School in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

Around 3:30 p.m. on a Friday, Nell Irvine and her four friends headed for the turf field behind Julian Middle School. They quickly dropped off their backpacks by the fence and tightened their shoelaces before joining the rest of their teammates — a group of 30 boys were already dispersed around the green lot.

What the boys didn’t know was that this afternoon practice was Irvine and her friends’ second workout of the day. Earlier, she and her fellow sixth- and seventh-graders, met up with Coach Stacy Fifer for GUM (Girls Ultimate Movement), an offshoot of the school’s co-ed Ultimate Frisbee team, created for girls only. 

Of the 127 players in Julian’s Ultimate Frisbee Club, 15 are girls. For girls like Irvine, GUM provides, especially those new to the sport, the chance to learn the game, ask Fifer questions, and play together without the boys hovering over them. Those extra sessions are meant to boost the girls’ confidence and allow them time to work on their skills, Fifer said.

“You get to learn about what’s happening in the practice after school,” said Irvine, 11, a sixth-grader. “It’s definitely easier than just learning it right away.”

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Audrey Talbert, a seventh-grader and friend of Irvine, jumped in: “Like this morning, she’s like, ‘OK, show me your position. Show me what to do.’ She’s like, ‘OK, show me your stance and then your grip.’ With [the afternoon practices], she can’t come around.”

Fifer and coach Andrew Seymour noted that Ultimate Frisbee, which does feature co-ed teams, is still widely male-dominated. In recent years, USA Ultimate, the sport’s official organization, has worked to recruit and highlight more female players and grow the women’s division, an effort that Fifer and Seymour have taken to heart for their middle-school team. 

Representation matters, and girls need to see other girls playing alongside the boys, Fifer and Seymour agreed. Fifer was once captain of an Ultimate Frisbee team and landed an opportunity to go to the USA Ultimate National Championships twice; Seymour, too, playing ultimate frisbee competitively, went to Nationals with one of his teams and also played for club teams throughout the years.  

You have to have spirit

audrey talbert, seventh grader

Fifer and Seymour, both of whom continue to play Ultimate Frisbee and are part of the Over-40 Division, said they want their young players to know this is the kind of sport they can pick up time and time again. And at Julian, where the Ultimate Frisbee Club is inclusive, all students, no matter their skill level or experience, are welcome. It’s their chance to try something new.

“Everybody gets to play every position,” Fifer said. “Everybody gets to try everything because we have no idea who these kids will end up being as a high school player or a college player.

“You can’t really predict when somebody first starts a sport who’s going to be the best player.”

“It could be that the most athletic kid out there is not going to be the best Ultimate player,” she added. “So we really tried to make sure we had a big focus on equal playing time. Everybody’s treated the same.”

Seymour said he, Fifer and other coaches also make a point of reminding players about the “spirit” of the game. In Ultimate Frisbee, there are no official referees, so it’s up to the players to hold each other and themselves accountable. They have to be honest about scoring, stepping out of bounds and more. 

“You have to have spirit,” said Talbert about what she loves most about the game.

Seventh-grader Lucinda Reeb and sixth-graders Aubrey Hunterling and Grace Jurek echoed their friend Talbert. The three said Ultimate Frisbee has brought out their competitiveness, pushed them out of their comfort zones, and given them the chance to meet new people.

That’s what Fifer wants her players — her girls, especially — to walk away with. What it all comes down to, she said, is embracing that spirit.

“I think the fact that you can play a highly competitive, very physical game that is physically demanding and have that level of respect and citizenship is incredible,” she said.

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