A reflection on sports, freedom, identity and belonging

I remember, vividly, the day I realized that I was fast and that it meant something. I was always a small, wiry, slip of a thing — fifth percentile in height and weight for much of my life before puberty. The boys at school were trying to catch girls in the schoolyard, dust flying up around our brightly coloured uniforms — yellow and aqua, the colours of the private school that I attended as the daughter of one of Grenada’s elite, my family having moved to the small island two years earlier for my father’s job — but seven-year-old me was harder to catch than the others, managing to outrun and out-juke the boys, bigger and older than me. I’d plant and sharply change direction as they leaped towards me with arms outstretched, a natural proclivity for lateral movement that would later serve me well in an almost-two-decade-long career as a national- and international-level Ultimate player. There was a freedom built into my speed, not just in evading capture, but a freedom unleashed in the act of using my body, purposefully and successfully.

When I returned to Canada the next year, I spent fall and winter recesses walking long circles alone around the schoolyard, my voice still tinged with the slight lilt of a Grenadian accent, the only Black child in my class, but by the spring, I was racing the boys in the yard and attending track meets, eventually earning the designation of athlete of the year in Grade 6. In the graduation day photo, I am beaming, holding a trophy while clad in a white T-shirt and black miniskirt with a polka dot ruffle, the height of early-’90s fashion.

Rogers is on a journey to build a more inclusive future for our team members, customers and communities across Canada. For more info on how, click here.

I’ve often felt like an outsider in so many domains of my life — just outside others’ grasp or comprehension; other things just outside mine. In a world that attributes so much unwarranted meaning to race and gender, the intersection of my Blackness and my girlhood, later womanhood, meant that I was often the only one of my kind in class, on teams, at work, in my extracurricular pursuits, in boardrooms. Into my young adulthood, it was still sometimes hard to make sense of who I was and who I wanted to be in the face of stereotypes and other people’s expectations of who a Black girl and Black woman could or should be.

On the sports field, the mat, and the track, though, it was easier to feel a clear sense of self, purpose, and belonging. In these places, in these spaces, I was not measured by such trite things as my race, my gender, or my family’s socioeconomic status. Instead, I was measured by my own merit against numbers — benchmarks that were not subject to emotional whims. The contents of my parents’ bank account did not impact how quickly my feet moved or how high I leaped. People’s perceptions of the meaning of the colour of my skin didn’t help or hinder my ability to see that my opponent had shifted her weight to her heels, leaving an opening for a double leg takedown worth two of the 10 points I needed to win my wrestling match. In these places, in these spaces, I was measured by the effort that I could produce, that my muscles, lungs, brain, and heart could put forth. Here, I could not be denied by anyone but myself, or an opponent who put forth a greater effort. Here, I owned each success and, more importantly, each failure, knowing that it was a true reflection of what I had and had not been able to do with this body and mind of mine.

In less objective pursuits, opinions, biases, and expectations could more easily get in the way. The grading of an essay, a guidance counselor deciding whether or not to recommend that I write the SATs and consider American schools, an employer deciding whether to grant me an interview or give me a job — these were all situations in which my best efforts might not matter at all if I ran into the wrong gatekeeper. I think my sense of the danger of subjectivity is part of the reason that I initially gravitated towards science and math: there was usually one correct answer, and if I got it, I got the marks — no matter how frosty the algebra teacher was towards me.

To survive in a world that tries to keep me from earning things, I learned early on to gravitate towards things that are harder to take away, gifts that are harder for others to deny. I have long tried to find the objective, because so much of racism is in the subjective. It’s in the higher standards that you are held to than others, the higher bar you have to pass to earn a reward. It’s in the prove-it-again bias, where some are judged on their “potential,” an elusive, shifting criteria, while others have to repeatedly prove themselves before being given that same chance. Even in the seemingly objective, it’s in the subjectivity of the objective requirements being applied rigorously to you, but applied leniently or waived altogether for someone else. It’s in the oft-repeated statement, “Are you sure that’s what they really meant?” — the common white refrain in response to your description of the 10th microaggression in as many days.

“To survive in a world that tries to keep me from earning things, I learned early on to gravitate towards things that are harder to take away.”

Despite loving figure skating as a child — in a letter he wrote to me when I was seven, my father describes my love of Black figure skater Debi Thomas — and a body suited to the sport, I knew that the precarious, subjective nature of its judging seemed unfair for people who looked like me. The judges always seemed to prefer the blonde or brunette dainty ice princesses over the muscular and daring, which confused young me, drawn to the more exciting artistry of Black French skater Surya Bonaly. As a pre-teen gymnast, I could have never imagined the ascension and success of someone like Simone Biles, bursting with power beyond measure. Her feet are just like mine, lacking the perfect toe point, something my dance and gymnastic teachers tsked tsked about as they pushed my toes downwards to try to force it into existence. And so, I focused on the track and, later, the field, where what you looked like or sounded like didn’t matter, where the arch of your foot didn’t matter, where only the numbers mattered — the distance of your leap, the precise moment your body crossed the finish line, the score at the end of the game.

What does belonging really mean? What is it like to truly feel that you belong in a space? These are questions I have wrestled with my whole life and continue to wrestle with as part of my equity, diversity and inclusion work and advocacy. When I think about my life and where I have felt the most belonging, there is one place I have felt the most myself: The open space and green blades of the Ultimate field.

From 2001 to 2018, I was a competitive ultimate frisbee player. First, for the McGill University team, rising to the rank of captain; then for Montreal-based women’s and mixed teams; then once I left Montreal for law school, for the Toronto women’s and mixed teams where I spent the remainder of my career. I attended 15 National Championships, my team appearing in the finals six times and winning four of them. I competed on the National Team four times, bringing home three world championship silver medals under the red-and-white banner of the Canadian flag, and one more as the head coach of the under-23 mixed team. For 17 years, I sprinted and dove, perspired and lifted weights, ran hills and loops of the track in order to prepare myself to step onto the place where I was most truly myself.

Off the field, I was Hadiya. On the field, I was Dee. On the field, the outside world faded to a barely perceptible hum. There was a reason that the depression I’ve managed since I was a child never reared its head in the summer, because the summer is when I truly lived. I came alive when I stepped onto the uneven, yellowing grass at each practice and the lusher green grasses at tournaments — when the disc was launched into the air and there was no one between me and it, nothing but the wind, the sun, my pumping arms and legs and a determination to catch the disc before it touched the ground. Year after year, for two and a half hours, twice a week, and 16 hours on a weekend, I was one of 24 people, running and working and doing a thing that we all loved. For each of those hours, nothing mattered but the grass, the disc, and each other.

I remember once having a notably hard breakup right before a tournament. The tournament was made more painful by the fact that my ex was only a few fields over, playing for the men’s equivalent of my team. My captains left me on the field for long stretches that weekend because as soon as I stepped on, I immediately stopped crying, only to resume as soon as I stepped off. The space within the borders formed by the eight cones was my emotional and mental salvation.

“The space within the borders formed by the eight cones was my emotional and mental salvation.”

On the field, there was space to be so much, to bring so much of who I was to the table. I was the team hype woman before games. I was a singer, crafting cheers to serenade opposing teams. I was a choreographer, my team known for its pre-game dance rituals. I was a blur in red and white, leaping through the air to block the opposing team’s throw, my long-jump skills finding another outlet, and then running in the opposite direction to make a catch. I was a leader. I was yelling on the sideline, the eighth person. I stood with my foot on the line and my hand up, ready for the pressure of the last point of a tied game. I was a coach, passing on knowledge. On the field, I evolved from the fast Black girl who couldn’t throw to the fast Black girl with a dangerous forehand. On the field, I got to redefine who I was, growing and learning from challenges and setbacks to become a better version of myself, inside and out. On the field, I was a key piece of a team that celebrated the unique abilities of each player, a mixed team without male ego that built itself around the strength of its women, a team that gave me the space to be better than I thought I could ever be. On the field is where I got to be the best version of myself.

Though Ultimate brought me so much joy while I was on the field, it didn’t always once I stepped off it, once the concern was not the throw or the chase or the catch or the wind. The outside world, and even sometimes the world of Ultimate, still tried to remind me who I was to it. There were the microaggressions, usually in the moments before and after and the gaps between the actual work of practice and games. There were the early assumptions that I would be good at dances and cheers because I was Black, not because I was me. There was the new teammate who, during a car ride, expressed his surprise that I was a lawyer, because I didn’t “really seem like one.”

It occasionally happened on the field, too. On defence, I was often assigned to cover the other team’s only Black player, or vice versa. We would joke about it, slapping hands, one of us quipping “Black on Black, I guess.” There were the occasional comments from opposing team members, and times teams of white men would sing enthusiastically along to the rap song on their boom box, replete with the N-word. There was my white, male assistant coach undermining my coaching, upset that I had been selected over him, and wondering how much the intersectionality of my being factored into his ire.

At times, there was the crushing disappointment of feeling passed over. I remember a vote for the remaining captain position of our local team, which I lost. It happened before the start of our first practice, after the team had been selected — in retrospect, a flawed process, as many members were new to the team and knew little of our tenure, on-field skills, and leadership from the previous season. I made a speech, as did the other candidate. Two minutes of words to a group of people, half of whom didn’t really know either of us or who we were between the cones, a snap decision to determine our fate. I remember votes counted in the back room and a name being announced — her name, not mine. And as the season progressed, I wondered, deep down, “If I looked more like them, if I reminded them more of themselves, would it have been me hoisting the championship trophy with the other three captains?” People who look like me often lose out in snap decisions like these, in front of audiences like these. Research shows that gut feelings lead you to gravitate towards someone who reminds you of yourself. The captain they chose was eventually cut from the elite team two summers later, a team that I made and continued to play on for almost half a decade more. The higher bar. The repeated proof.

“My teammates didn’t treat me differently, but others treated me differently than my team.”

Then there was the noticing. Noticing that in my 17 years of play, I had Black teammates only once — two of them, for a month when I joined a Toronto mixed team for a fall tournament. I played against Black players, largely on U.S. teams, but never stood next to another one on my own longstanding teams, or on any of the national teams I played for. No other to share in the joys and trials and triumphs. In my years as a competitive player, I could count the number of other Black Canadian players on the digits of my hands — hands roughened from catches, dislocations, breaks, and sprains. Fewer players than the number of times I was asked if I was related to one of the Black male competitive players in Toronto. On my teams, off the field, my lone representation sometimes felt like the elephant in the room — noticed, but not something that anyone felt the need to do anything about or really think about.

More noticing. Noticing that my teammates didn’t treat me differently, but others treated me differently than they did the rest of my team. The field was safe, but getting there wasn’t. My team routinely travelled across North America and internationally for tournaments. The suspect gazes when the customs officer would notice me in the back of the car, a puzzled mask coming over their face. Standing at hotel desks and being helped last despite arriving first, despite being the person under whose name the rooms were booked. Being treated differently at restaurants, having to ask twice for that glass of water, my order the one with mistakes. At the airport, my teammates would breeze through customs. I would position myself in the middle of the group, so that a sufficient number of Ultimate players had gone through so that my declaration of what I was doing made more sense, and so that if something happened, I wouldn’t get left behind, that someone would notice. My teammates would typically be outfitted in casual, comfortable team gear — sweats with the name of our team emblazoned on them, or the multitude of Patagonia gear we got through our team sponsorship. I would often show up more ‘dressed up’ — a nice shirt, a blazer, jeans and nice shoes at my most casual. I would get ribbed for being dressed up. I could have explained why, but I never did, not until after I stopped playing. To say the words out loud — “I wear these clothes so that I can hopefully get treated as well as you do in your sweatpants” — would disrupt the tenuous ecosystem where I was not a Black woman living in this imperfect world, but just another teammate. It would highlight that critical lack of sameness that we largely ignored, and I did not want to expose a crack where I did not want to see one.

There were a few spaces where I could talk about this, the invisible visibility of being the only Black person on my team, the only Black female player in my city for much of my career. Downtown Brown (DTB) was a loosely organized group, inviting anyone who identified as a racialized minority in the elite Ultimate community (and occasionally allies) to play with them in various social tournaments. On the Saturday evening of a tournament, the team would host an open circle, where we would talk about the challenges of living in Brown bodies in a North America that didn’t often value them. These circles were an incredibly meaningful experience for those who were lucky enough to participate — I, like many others, never left without tears. We spoke of our experiences as children, as athletes, as adults, as students, as employees — largely of life off the relative safety of the field. Our jerseys were often brightly coloured, marked by iconic images of resistance. My favourite featured an image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, black gloved fists raised high and heads down on the podium at their medal ceremony. Even now, more than a decade after I last played a tournament with the team, it is still a community of support, friendship, and joy, most recently hosting virtual Zoom circles of connection and healing in the aftermath of the events of last summer. Another place I belong, as my whole self. A gift that Ultimate has given me.

I retired from Ultimate three years ago, not willingly, but forcibly, after suffering my second major concussion. It was a profound loss, though it was a bit easier than it could have been otherwise, having found other spaces, like writing, public speaking, and journalism, where I can be free to be me. But even with these new outlets, stepping away from the cones meant leaving one of the few spaces where I could truly be myself, a luxury not easily afforded to those of us who are not part of the majority.

I think about what I want for the next one who looks like me. I want their teammates to notice the microaggressions, to say something if they hear them. I want those teammates to take real action, volunteer, teach clinics in diverse communities, to acknowledge that the lack of diversity is not okay, and to do something to alter that course. But mostly, I want them not to be the only one — on their team, in their city. I want for others to have the experience I had, the chance to step on the field and be their best selves in a sport that has space for so many different skills and abilities. To feel the safety and possibility and joy that I felt between the cones, on the field, and, more importantly, off of it.

Photo Credits

Luis Mora; Luis Mora; Scott Roeder/UltiPhotos; Luis Mora; Jolie J. Lang/UltiPhotos.