By Nokuthula Mayaba
I remember when I started playing Ultimate in 2012. It was such an exciting time in my life! I never missed a practice and did whatever it took to become a better player. I was filled with the enthusiasm of a child seeing a parent after a day at pre-school. I had also just started university and was glad to have found something I really enjoyed and a place where I felt I belonged, as I anticipated all that was to come.
I was introduced to Ultimate during my gap year work in Durban, and I thought it was a great way of keeping fit and active since I was an avid sportsperson in high school. It was also technically different to any of the other sports I’d ever tried and it gave me the opportunity to meet a new community of people and potentially make friends. But quite soon after joining the team at UCT, I realised that there weren’t many others like me there. I was one of the few people of colour playing the sport at the university and although it hadn’t meant much to me before, I began to notice it more and more.
Moving to Cape Town felt like entering a new world. I was becoming isolated from old friends not only by distance but by cultural experience. I was entering a world where many people lived oblivious to the kind of background that I, and others like me came from. Joining the Ultimate community was a deviation of the kind of life I had become accustomed to. Having attended only all-black high schools, and an all-black girls’ boarding school in the latter half of my high school years, coming into a white dominated university and a male dominated sport began to feel lonesome after a while. I found myself at the polar opposite end trying to figure out where I fit in. My presence and experience in Ultimate became not only an issue of representation but an issue of identity.
At school I had also been introverted and shy and now was in a situation where I not only stood out, but eventually had to speak out as a senior player on my team. The pressure of constantly having to be mentally present, responsive and available meant I couldn’t just fade into the background. I wasn’t used to having people listen to me in general, not to mention be led or guided by me. I was now a fully-fledged member and leader within the community, a role I felt I had the responsibility and duty to fulfil, and although I was often plagued by insecurities I had to be the example I wanted to see.
I realised that beyond the noise of why a girl like me couldn’t or shouldn’t choose this particular sport, or play sport at all, I could be an athlete and also build meaningful relationships while doing it. To me the Ultimate community was uncharted territory, I had the opportunity to decide who I wanted to be, and to challenge the stereotype. To assert myself as not just “the black girl” who plays Ultimate, but as “Thulie”. That even though I wore braids, listened to hip hop and spoke in vernacular, I could also be whatever else it was I decided I wanted to be.
After years of introspection I have come to know that my race and gender need not impede my success. That my presence as a black woman playing Ultimate is not to fulfil any statistical objective nor to please those wanting to be socially and politically correct. But purely for the love of what I do. When I’m on the field I think not of my demographic allocation, but only of the joy I get from playing the game. All ideas and troubles of the world leave my head and, in that moment, become irrelevant.
In some of the most character defining years of my life, Ultimate became some of the ground to which I was to define who I was. I have lived and relived some of my most precious varsity memories on the Ultimate field, and now nearing the end of my studies I am still filled with the same enthusiasm I felt when I started playing, except now it is no longer just filled with the excitement of what is to come, but of the joy of what has become. I have learnt that the best advice I could have given myself from the beginning was to be the best and most honest version of myself that I could be and let others decide if they wanted to join me on that journey. Thankfully many have, and that is why all my white friends are now from Ultimate.