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Photo: Nathan G./Mint
Photo: Nathan G./Mint

Gender stereotypes, meet frisbee

After silencing doubters and sceptical parents, the Indian women's team is crowdfunding its way to London to take on the best in ultimate frisbee

The frisbee, a white blur, whirs across the sky, quivers in mid-air for a second and then descends. They run towards it—unmindful of the hot sand that coats their bare feet, the late morning sun that burns their skin and the warm breeze that drifts from the sea, flavouring their lips with brine.

One young woman is faster than the rest. She leaps and tries to grab the disc but misses by an inch, alas. A split second later, another girl moves in, capturing the disc on its downward spiral, crash-landing (frisbee in hand) on the sandy beach.

If your last memory of a frisbee is that session with Fido in the park or tossing a disc around on the beach, piña colada in hand, then ultimate frisbee (usually referred to as simply “ultimate") will take you by surprise. This is not a leisurely pastime—this is the real thing, soaked in adrenaline, perspiration and sheer grit.

“You pass like in basketball and score like in American football," says Jasma Venkatesh, one of the managers of India’s first ever women’s team to qualify for the World Ultimate and Guts Championship in London from 18 to 25 June.

The team comprises 20 young women hand-picked from across the country. Nima Ponappa from Bengaluru is one of them. “I get goosebumps thinking about it," says the 28-year-old. “I have seen other people play for my country and now I am going to too. I’m waiting to see my country’s flag up there."

The girls are in top shape and raring to go, but it isn’t going to be smooth sailing, says Ranjani Shanker, another manager, and who also handles finances for the team. “The championship is being held in London and the costs are high. We have a squad of 27 members. including athletes, coaches and support staff and we need about Rs1.8 lakh per player to make this happen," she says.

The girls are attempting to crowdfund their way to London. So far, they have raised more than Rs27 lakh (of a targeted Rs42 lakh).

Financial troubles, lack of spaces to play and the tendency to dismiss the sport as a lifestyle/leisure activity rather than a real sport does bother most ultimate frisbee players, but they hope to change it.

“The Sports Authority of India needs 16 state associations to be registered under UPAI (the Ultimate Players Association of India) for the association to gain recognition from them. We are currently at about nine and will soon get there. Once that happens, we will be looking at government funding to send our national teams," says Shanker.

What is ultimate frisbee?

“Urban legend says that it started with guys tossing across pie tins in a parking lot," Abhinav Vinayakh Shankar Narayan, one of the team coaches, says with a laugh.

Official records, however, trace it back to producer Joel Silver of The Matrix, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon fame.

According to the website of the World Flying Disc Federation, an international governing body for flying disc sports founded in 1985, the idea of ultimate frisbee was introduced by Silver when he was a student at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, in 1968.

“Hell yes, I invented ultimate frisbee," insists Silver, who went on to create an ultimate frisbee collegiate team at Lafayette College, in an interview with TMZ Sports.

This was the late 1960s and early ’70s and a new counter-culture was taking over the world—think free speech, Bohemianism, romanticism, the civil rights movement and the Beatles. Ultimate frisbee was mired in this ecosystem and that perhaps explains why it continues a self-referred sport, governed only by a sportsmanship code called the Spirit of the Game.

The game is governed by mutual respect and trust among the players. No one intentionally breaks any rules and if there is a breach of sorts, the player himself/herself points out the foul. You treat your opponent with respect and never resort to name-calling or mud-slinging even if there is a disagreement of sorts. Also, there are no penalties. You trace back your steps and go back to playing the way you did before the error occurred.

Bhavya Trivedi, all of 16 and the youngest in the Indian squad, is the spirit captain of this team. “I keep the Spirit of the Game alive," the petite girl, from Auroville, Puducherry, says with a smile.

The non-contact team sport, comprising two teams of seven players each, is played on a 100m long, 37m wide rectangular field (surfaces vary) with two 18m deep-end zones. The sport is played with a 175g plastic disc—no pie-tins here.

“The object of the game is to score points by passing the disc to a player in the opposing end zone, similar to an end zone in American football. Players may not run with the disc, and must keep a pivot while holding the disc," explains Shankar Narayan.

Played in close to 80 countries by more than 700,000 people, according to Shanker, the sport is governed internationally by the World Flying Disc Federation.

Incidentally, the federation was granted provisional recognition by the International Olympic Committee on 31 May 2012 and there are talks of ultimate frisbee being included in the 2024 Summer Olympics. It is especially big in Silicon Valley—Google’s Sergey Brin, WhatsApp’s Brian Acton and Jan Koum, and Quora’s Charlie Cheever are all ultimate frisbee players.

There are approximately 5,500 active players in India, according to the UPAI. Admittedly, it’s not a big number, but the current aficionados intend to change that.

Sangeetha M., who has being playing the sport for more than six years and is part of the women’s team, is one of them. “We are trying to build an audience for the sport: go to schools and colleges and tell them about it," says the 24-year-old. “Too many people still think of it as a recreational sport."

Frisbee for all

There are coconuts spilling out of the blue fish cart parked along the promenade of the Besant Nagar beach in Chennai. Murugan (he goes only by one name), wearing a checkered lungi, loose shirt and luminous smile, greets the gaggle of girls walking tiredly towards their cars after a practice session.

“Have a coconut. It is the best thing to have after playing," he says, lopping off the tops of the coconuts and proffering them to the girls with the jaunty flourish of a bartender presenting his signature cocktail. As he hands me one, he says, “You know, I used to play frisbee too."

Murugan, who grew up in a fishing hamlet along the beach, is part of Flywild, a Chennai-based team made up of players from different backgrounds, which was featured in the short film 175 Grams (see here), directed by Bharat Mirle and Aravind Iyer.

The film, which was one of the winners of the Sundance Institute Short Film Challenge, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, traces the lives of a few ultimate frisbee players. “The contest called for socially conscious films that showed individuals overcoming poverty through unconventional means," explains Mirle, who runs an independent film production house in Bengaluru called Yogensha Productions.

According to him, the fact that the ultimate frisbee community comprises people from varied backgrounds—from corporate bigwigs to college students to children from the neighbouring slums—ensures a level playing field. “I think most hierarchies are socially constructed and what the sport does is strip away all that and pits people against each other, purely based on skill," he says.

The game doesn’t just traverse economic and social barriers, it’s also breaking down gender stereotypes. “Women don’t come by easily and we are always looking out for new ones to join," says Sangeetha, adding that frisbee players’ parents aren’t always pleased that their daughters play with boys on the beach and come home tanned and sweaty.

And yet that is exactly why they should be playing ultimate frisbee. As a blog post on the Bay Area Disc Association website, by “Ultimate Mom" Stefani Leto, puts it, “For a society that puts a lot of messages out for girls to focus on the outsides of their bodies, and what they look like, Ultimate is the antidote. It forces them to inhabit their bodies fully in order to play."

And play they do. “Look, it has to be a mixed sport in India," says Sangeetha. “There are frankly not enough women playing it."

In India, at all major tournaments, every team has to have both men and women. “It used to be six boys and one girl six years ago, when it started," says Sangeetha, adding that at first the girl ended up simply being an afterthought. “But then they saw that the game got better when everyone was contributing. It became five-two and is now four-three. And on a good day, in that team of seven, four could be female."

Uraguchi Chiai, 36, also part of the Indian team, is a social worker who uses the game to teach life skills to underprivileged children. “Team sports help you develop communication skills and discover who you really are," she says, adding that her initial efforts to include girls in this initiative met with little success in India.

“Girls aren’t allowed to mingle freely with boys here, so we had to make home visits and talk to parents to allow their daughters to play," says the Japanese-born Chiai, who moved to India six years ago.

“Change takes time," she admits. But bridging the gap is essential: “Boys should realize that their sisters deserve to enjoy sport too."

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