Humans of Ultimate is a new initiative at MODS to highlight key spirit leaders in our community who value spirit of the game, integrity, sportsmanship and fun above winning and rivalry. Without these amazing pieces of our community and their leadership our sport and organization wouldn't be where they are today!
Written by Corey Draper - Edited by Sean Seywright
Spirit of the Game has been an illusive concept for many to nail down. Sports can at times bring out the worst in people, in moments of high competition we aren’t always our best. Ultimate as a sport at its highest level strives to be both. Playing with respect, integrity and fairness can be difficult when it’s “all on the line”.
On the world stage Canada has struggled in recent years to shake a reputation of having poor spirit and playing too physical at that highest level. Impressions of poor spirit can linger to future matches and pre-conceived ideas can be hard to shake before you even meet a new team or opponent. This is as true at the recreational level as it is on the national stage and our first timers and rec players can have trouble incorporating spirit just like those on the competitive end of the spectrum.
Winnipeg has at times struggled at national events with where we place in regard to Spirit of the Game, but there’s also been times when we’ve excelled. The most recent example would be our women’s touring team “Fusion” winning the 2019 Spirit of the Game Award for their division at nationals in Edmonton this past August. They attained this prestigious honor while pushing through a quarter final loss to Traffic (Vancouver), which relegated the team to a 5th place finish… but their commitment to SOTG (Spirit of the Game) led to being recognized as the top team in the women’s division.
In the long history of women’s programs which play out of Winnipeg, this wasn’t the first SOTG title that a local team had won. In 2002 “Crave” won the first SOTG title for the city of Winnipeg at the Canadian Ultimate Championships (CUC) in Ottawa.
This history and reputation created by this long running club team would give way to new leadership in 2005 as Winnipeg hosted the CUC’s and the name FUSION Ultimate came about while the group won the SOTG award representing the host city in their inaugural season. There was a brief hiatus from the division in 2006 with no Women’s team competing at that year’s event in Halifax, however the seeds were planted to form what would become the modern Fusion franchise in 2007 and the program has gone on to grow a successful team for many years.
In 2013 Fusion would medal and earn a bid to the 2014 WUGC in Italy. This momentum and the influx of elite young talent would culminate in a Gold Medal and SOTG Championship double win two years later at the 2016 CUC in Edmonton… To be clear this team won a National Championship as the best team in the country and also won the Spirit Award as the most gracious, giving and respected team in the country! It truly is amazing that as the team became one of the strongest programs in the country SOTG never slipped as a top priority.
We asked some current Fusion players for some insights into how the team has been so successful at incorporating SOTG into their team’s priorities at the same time that they are pushing for gold.
Mini bios on three of the contributing Fusion players ;)
How does Fusion build a culture of positive Spirit for the team?
“We worked to instil a positive environment at practices and tournaments. The team discussed how we wanted to implement spirit into every game and continued to have discussions about how we can improve our spirit. For example, the team made a collective decision to shake hands with an opposing player after a call discussion was had. This was to ensure that both teams were satisfied with the discussion.”. – Karen Hatch
“I think that Fusion has worked very hard to create a culture where your Spirit is valued as equally if not more than your skills. As we go into every season the captains have made it clear even before tryouts that upholding SOTG is a team a priority in practices, in games and in anywhere our team goes off the field. Setting this as a unified goal has been great for building team cohesion and for giving the team a direction to focus on even when the games are not going our way. Since our first showing at WUCC 2014, we have had a Spirit Captain who is the designated go to for enforcing these expectations and addressing any issues diplomatically with the team which also brings helps to hold the team accountable.” – Emily Forrest
We asked them what their biggest influences were in-regards to Spirit.
“I think Taylor Rusnak along with the Seaman Twins, Kaiya and Tita, and Karen Hatch have been huge influences for me in terms of spirit. They lead by example on and off the field with a positive and generous energy” – Emily Forrest
Citing Karen Hatch and Laura Kinoshita (one of her Team Canada teammates who currently plays for the Toronto 6ixers). “These players are incredibly skilled and athletic. They are the types of players whose positivity brushes off on the rest of the team and even on their opponents. What sets them apart is their ability to stay level-headed and fair when a call is being disputed, even when that call could be game defining. I think that upholding SOTG over our desire to win is easier said than done; but watching these players has really influenced how I try to embody the spirit that is unique to Ultimate.” – Joely Valencerina
“In 2016, I was one of two rookies on a Fusion team where most of the other players had already been playing together for a few seasons. I don’t remember spirit being largely emphasized in our chalk talks. I just remember this unspoken sense of integrity and grit. As one of our old captains, Alexa Kovacs, would always say “just leave it all on the field.” There was always this collective understanding that we would play with intensity, but also play with a level head. I remember looking up to all of those players and seeing them demonstrate that spirit of the game.” – Joely Valencerina
How does the team balance playing to win with good SOTG?
“We use a system where if one of our players makes a call on the field, rather than jumping in and getting involved we use two simple hand signals to show if we agree with their call or not. Ultimately, it’s up the player to make their own calls but knowing your team is there to support you in maintaining good spirit when discussing the call is important. Sometimes just seeing their support can help your team to stick with their good calls, and they can help give some perspective that is removed from the heat of the play.” - Emily Forrest
“For our 2019 season, half of our team consisted of rookies and they definitely made all the difference. Sarah Jacobsohn became co-spirit captain alongside our long-time spirit captain Emily Forrest and they did a great job communicating with the other teams and upholding SOTG during our tournaments. I feel like we had to be a lot more intentional with our goal setting and spirit because of the fact that the team was so new. But this was a really good thing for us to do because it made us more aware of how we could embody spirit as opposed to just focusing on skills and strategy. Laura Hatch, one of our captains, especially made it a point to talk about spirit during our huddles and our pre-tournament chalk talks.” – Joely Valencerina
“I believe the important aspects of spirit is knowledge of the rules and enjoying the game. Having fun and being positive on the field reflects the quality of spirit in a game. It is possible for athletes to have a positive state of mind when competing at the highest levels. Fusion found that balance this past CUC, and we will continue to compete to win and strive for impeccable spirit.” – Karen Hatch
What’s up next for the perennial powerhouse?
With Fusion becoming the third Winnipeg team to win double gold in our cities and organizations history (Chaos in the mixed division in 1999 and Masters Of Flying Objects in the junior mixed division in 2004), there is little left to prove on the national stage, the team continues to challenge themselves though setting the highest possible goals moving forward from year to year. The team and program continue to play through Canada and the USA this summer as the top team out of the Canadian Prairies and one of the best women’s club teams in the world.
Most importantly with athletes from the team still helping players in league, helping to run developmental clinics and continuing to coach at the school and provincial team level, there is great leadership helping to build amazing talent while shaping women towards winning with the best of spirit as their foundation.
It’s a difficult thing to do but great spirit and playing at the top level can be done together... If these teams and role models can do it on the national and international stages, then we can all aspire to do it in our local rec leagues and communities as well.