When Susan Batchelder first played Ultimate Frisbee, 11 years ago, it was with the ultimate hippies.
“It was in Omaha, where I grew up,” said Ms. Batchelder, a 29-year-old fourth-grade teacher who lives in Oakland, Calif. As a senior in high school, she started dropping into a pickup Ultimate game that went on Wednesday nights in town.
“This was Ultimate Frisbee the way it was played in 1975: all men, all of whom had been playing together for the last 20 years, wearing funny outfits,” Ms. Batchelder recalled. She was often one of only two women on the field. “Clancy, he wore his athletic tube socks pulled up to his knees and these short shorts. Another guy, he played in a onesie with rolled-up boxer shorts. They were the funnest, nicest guys around.”
It wasn’t until Ms. Batchelder got to Middlebury College in Vermont that she realized that Ultimate, as players today call it, could be a real sport. She joined the women’s team and learned how to throw a forehand — the quick-flick sidearm throw that is crucial to any advanced game.
Today, Ms. Batchelder is a member of Zeitgeist, one of the top competitive women’s Ultimate teams in the Bay Area. Most players she knows don’t subscribe to the old-school “Burning Man” aesthetic anymore — skirts, colorful costumes, funky clothes. Instead, they”re Patagonia-sponsored athletes, wearing sweat-wicking uniforms, who do plyometrics and strength training. And they”re well equipped with a repertory of throws that include flicks, hammers, scoobers and high-release backhands.
In the last 10 years, Ultimate Frisbee has become one of the world’s fastest-growing sports. It is played in more than 42 countries. Ultimate’s success at the college level, attracting traditional athletes from other sports like soccer and football to compete on its teams, is largely what has elevated the game to this stage.
And the rise of women in Ultimate is another crucial part of the sport’s growth. Watching these women play, one can see the athleticism that has attracted them: gorgeous arcing throws, full-extension dives, insane vertical leaps, and discs pinched out of the sky with the barest of fingertips. “I play pickup most every week, even in the winter,” said Fi Cheng, 33, who works for a solar backpack company in New York. She helps run a spring and fall league in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and is treasurer of Westchester Ultimate Disc, the biggest Ultimate organization in the metropolitan area. “I’ve noticed a lot more women playing than when I started. There are women in their late 20s or early 30s who have been playing for 10 years now.”
The Ultimate Players Association, the governing body for the sport in the United States, has nearly 30,000 members. Total membership has risen 168 percent since 2003, when the association began breaking down membership statistics by gender. From 2003 to 2008, membership of women nearly doubled, composing about a third of total membership.
Among members, play spans from beginners” pickup and laid-back summer leagues to elite clubs like Fury, a women’s team in the Bay Area that has won four national championships and the World Ultimate Championships last year in Vancouver.
“While there are significantly fewer female players than male players, most people who play say that the community aspect of Ultimate is a large part of why they play,” said Peri Kurshan, the president of the association’s board of directors. “It’s one of the few sports whose top tier of play makes no distinction between the two gender divisions. The men’s and women’s divisions are showcased equally in all U.P.A. championship events.”
Ms. Kurshan thinks that this aspect of Ultimate is what has allowed for the dramatic rise in the number of girls and women, as well as their success at the top levels of play.
Though the game was invented in Maplewood, N.J., in 1968, modern Ultimate has its epicenters in California and the Pacific Northwest. Its continued expansion is helped by the fact that all you need is a plastic disc and a field.
The seven-on-seven game has the speed and endurance of soccer plus the aerial passing and end-zone scoring of football. Once a player receives the disc, he or she stops running and has 10 seconds to pass it to a teammate; a team scores by completing a pass in the opposing team’s end zone. The beauty of disc flight and the athleticism of the chase have won Ultimate its fans.
“I love to run with purpose, meaning I hate the track, but I like to chase things,” Ms. Batchelder said. “I love the fact that when you”re playing, you make hundreds and thousands of little decisions — where the disc is, where your body is — but they happen without thinking.”
It may be a non-contact sport according to its rules, but Ultimate is hardly free of injuries. The quick cutting and sprinting have made anterior cruciate ligament tears among women players especially common.
Joy Chen, a 33-year-old software developer in Alameda, Calif., considers herself lucky that herniated disks, a rotator cuff tear and ankle sprains have been the extent of her Ultimate injuries. “We hit each other and the ground pretty hard,” said Ms. Chen, who discovered Ultimate in college after years as a soccer and tennis player. She played with Stanford University’s Superfly, which went on a three-year run as undefeated women’s national collegiate champions.
“At first I thought it was just something you did while in college, but not as a ‘grown-up,’” Ms. Chen said. But the eclectic, close-knit community was tough to leave behind, and she continued to play and reinvent herself on various teams after college. Last year she and her teammates on Fury won the World Ultimate Championships.
Women like Ms. Chen are helping to train the next generation of female players. This year, she began coaching the Pie Queens, the women’s Ultimate team at the University of California, Berkeley. Jody Dozono, one of Ms. Chen’s teammates on Fury, was recently flown out for a clinic to help develop the skills of Scorch, the women’s team at the University of Arizona. The U.P.A. now sponsors free women’s clinics and coaching programs around the country, to introduce the sport to new players.
For Ali Fields, 36, a teacher who learned how to play as a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Zimbabwe, teaching the game is part of being in the Ultimate community.
“We do a big sixth-grade project every year, and my model project is about Title IX and women’s sports,” said Ms. Fields, who lives in northern Massachusetts and plays in a summer league in Portsmouth, N.H.
She and a friend have been teaching local students the basics of the game. “What I love is that in coed Ultimate, girls can huck the disc just as well as the boys.”