Search for Robyn Wiseman — more specifically: “The Robyn Wiseman show” — on YouTube. Unlike many highlights videos that feature ultimate frisbee players executing diving catches, this montage is a demonstration of precise passing. Wiseman, identified by a pair of black knee braces, connects with teammates on low screamers and high, arcing bombs alike, striking from 30, 40, even 50 yards.
Wiseman, a Muskego native, is a founder and captain of Heist, Madison’s top women’s ultimate club, and won a gold medal playing for Team USA in international competition. She also coaches Bella Donna, the University of Wisconsin-Madison women’s team, and co-coaches the MUFAbots, Madison’s U-20 mixed-gender team. She has worked as a commentator on ESPN’s broadcasts of USA Ultimate nationals and writes everything from gear reviews to strategy tutorials and personal essays on national ultimate websites.
Recently, Wiseman added her voice to a discussion among top-level ultimate players about equity in the sport. While the vast majority of Madison’s recreational ultimate players compete in mixed-gender leagues and USA Ultimate promotes men’s, women’s and mixed divisions, the sport’s pro league, the American Ultimate Disc League, remains men only, with a couple of exceptions.
That has inspired a boycott of the league by many top players, men and women. Wiseman is not among them, but she is pushing the AUDL and its local team, the Madison Radicals, to more visibly address gender equity.
A research scientist for the Association of State Floodplain Managers (“call me a disaster recovery and mitigation professional lol,” she writes in an email), Wiseman spoke with the Cap Times this week about working for progress in a progressive sport, discussing equity issues with her husband, who plays for the Radicals, and setting an example for the young players she coaches.
How did you discover ultimate?
I played softball my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I was a catcher and I have a history of bad knees, so you can probably tell that was maybe not a good fit for my body. So I was looking for another team sport and at the time, the only club women’s sports were rugby or ultimate. Ultimate seemed like a much safer option. But have had two knee surgeries since I started.
How did you become a world-class player?
I’m actually not sure. I didn’t go to a school with a prominent, nationally competitive team. For me it was just that I really enjoyed playing, traveling and competing. I think that at the time it was easier, back in 2007 and 2008, to find teams. A lot of the players who founded and play on the Minneapolis mixed club Drag’n Thrust -- they’ve won world championships and multiple national championships -- are from UW-Eau Claire. That’s a nice little hot spot for mixed ultimate. A lot of my worlds-level experience is in the mixed division, not women’s.
Can you summarize the gender equity discussion that’s going on in ultimate right now?
I think ultimate is a different type of sport. It’s founded largely on the idea that it’s a self-officiated sport in 99.9 percent of the situations. Outside the AUDL, self officiation is what’s highlighted at the highest levels of international play. And that creates this community of empathy and understanding. In order to resolve conflicts during a game you have to have empathy and understanding of your opponent, which creates a connection.
Right now, a lot of people in the community are trying to encourage the professional level to become more equitable. I think it extends from this feeling connected and wanting these other things that are very present in other forms of ultimate. I think a lot of people who play ultimate, a lot of them appreciate and celebrate all the divisions of play: the single-gendered ones and mixed. Because a lot of players start in college, there’s this association with education and people wanting to create a space that’s safe for everyone to play. That’s associated with people going to liberal arts schools and engaging in these types of discussions. That trickles into the ultimate community.
Does your focus on pushing for equity in the AUDL indicate USA Ultimate is in a better place?
I think that USA Ultimate has invited people to the table to talk about what equitable opportunities look like and creating visibility for players in all divisions. I don’t think USA Ultimate is off the hook, but they’ve been pretty open and in their bylaws and mission statement they’re committed to an equitable approach and part of that is that the members can hold them accountable to make sure they’re creating opportunities for all types of athletes competing.
I think the reason why AUDL is coming under fire is that they’re not committed to that vision of equity in writing. Their goals are focused on increasing exposure, but USA Ultimate isn’t just about exposure and kids playing frisbee, it’s about showcasing it more equitably.
You were just elected to the USA Ultimate board. What are your goals there?
I’ve had exposure to almost every single way that USA Ultimate operates in the youth world, club world, college world, local leagues and at a grassroots level. I want to bring that to the table because I think it’s unique to have that much experience.
Madison has good men’s and women’s clubs with a mixed team on the rise. You recently mentioned in a tweet that there is a Goaltimate game in town with players from all of those teams playing together. What’s that scene like?
The last few years, teams here have been training at the UW Health American Center, a world class facility with great trainers and sports medicine professionals. They’re really interested in working with ultimate frisbee athletes. I think people were organizing these sessions and realized it would make things a lot easier if they combined into one big group. There’s obviously a cost savings for that. So we’ve been going on Thursdays where we’re training together and we play an indoor variant of ultimate called Goaltimate. It’s not like you have to have a certain number of women and men on the field, so we just sub on the fly. When you’re tired, you’re out. It’s a lot smaller space and it’s a really fast-paced games so differences in athletic quality between genders are minimized. You’re not necessarily marking someone the way you do in ultimate.
I think it says something that there’s a space where people enter as athletes and everyone in that room views you as an athlete. I don’t see anyone discriminated against based on what team you play on, what your position is, what your skillset is. The understanding is that everyone there is interested in getting better and they’re putting in time and effort to train. There’s respect that goes along with that.
Your husband, Dave Wiseman, plays for the Radicals. How much do the two of you talk about gender equity in ultimate when you’re hanging out?
Obviously it’s been the forefront of a lot of conversations lately, not to say we haven’t talked about it before. I was brought up in an environment where respect was important. I had two sisters, mom and my dad was the only guy in our house. My mom is loud and outspoken and my dad is quieter. I think my experiences and background might say it’s cool for women to speak up and be respected and men will listen to you and think softly.
It was very nice when Dave and I started dating, we talked about a lot of things that are important about our experiences. These are conversations for us that have been ongoing since we met.
Together, we coach the under-20 mixed youth team in Madison -- the MUFAbots! We spend a lot of time on being intentional about how we present what it means to communicate, be respectful because we think that’s important and it’s becoming increasingly important to him.
One thing we’ve talked about this off-season is what our vision is to increase playing opportunities outside school-affiliated teams for these kids. Dave and I currently compete on single-gender teams. But being in Madison where mixed play is so strong, that represents our community very well and we’re having some tough conversations. Honestly, you can engage more kids if you have separate teams; you can have twice as many kids playing. So how can we incorporate single-gender teams while keeping mixed as the premiere team? I’ve talked to some people about making the U-17 teams single gender because it’s easier to teach kids when you have less variety of skillsets and body types on the field. But we don’t want kids to think that the mixed team isn’t the elite team.
Coaching U-20 mixed is really fun and really challenging because you get these kids who are trying to explore their identities, so putting them in this fish bowl with the opposite gender while they’re competing in this sport where they’re learning conflict resolution, sportsmanship and spirit of the game, that’s a lot of stuff to throw at them. I’ve been blown away by the maturity and respect that these young men and women show each other. We’re typically very strong in spirit rankings, which is basically sportsmanship. We’re proud of that, it’s part of our team culture.
There’s been some talk about women attending the Radicals’ tryouts in January.
I’m trying to organize getting women there. In order to demand change, there has to be a lot of tactics and pressure. This is a big change. It’s asking people with their personal money to change something. And maybe they think they will want to go mixed. Maybe they want to incorporate more women. Well, if women don’t show up to the combine, how will they know if we’re interested? We should make it easy for them to put us on a roster. We should show up. We don’t want to have them hold another tryout. People are demanding these things, but are they willing to work for them? We don’t just want to boycott you, we want to work with you. So let’s see how many women show up.