Julia Dunne (USA) – Spirit of the Game


In this blog, Julia shares her passion for Ultimate Frisbee and discusses how the sport’s focus on Spirit of the Game has helped her become more accepting of her cerebral palsy.

Name, pronouns, and position; this is the standard introduction an ultimate frisbee player gives and hears in the group huddle when entering any given playing environment, be it a pick-up game or a tryout for a club team. For my first nine years playing ultimate, my introduction went, “Julia. She/her. Cutter.” It’s quick and conveys, for most players, just enough information – the essentials. For nine years I told myself that this introduction was sufficient for me, as well. But other players would soon notice that I couldn’t catch left-handed. They’d ask about my limp out of concern, and I’d shrug it off. They didn’t need to know the root of these symptoms and it didn’t warrant taking time to explain my disability and how it would present on the field amongst able-bodied teammates.

I first began playing ultimate with my university’s B-team because I didn’t have the speed, skill, or coordination to try out for our A team. I fell in love with the sport and our team. I played with them for four years, eventually co-captaining in my final year before graduating. My teammates were women who worked tirelessly to improve their individual skills and our team chemistry, even if we weren’t the most athletic players. We practiced three times a week, did regular strength and conditioning workouts, and competed at tournaments throughout the spring. We valued performing at our best. At the same time, we welcomed all players, regardless of their experience in the sport. We ranked highly in our region’s developmental division while making no cuts to our roster. It was the perfect environment for a mildly disabled young woman to develop athletically. It was also an environment in which I could keep up without disclosing my disability to my teammates or coaches. By choosing not to explain my disability, I felt that I could ignore the way it limited my play.

During a track workout in one of our conditioning sessions, a relentless sharp pain started in the outside of my left ankle. I went to our athletic trainer but did not explain my disability to her. As a result, her diagnosis was based on assumptions about how non-disabled bodies work. It couldn’t be a stress fracture in my fibula because in most people, the fibula is not a weight bearing bone. I walked out of her office, wincing in pain, with a diagnosis of a tight calf muscle and instruction to stretch and roll out. Six weeks and a visit to the emergency room later, an x-ray revealed that I had been walking on a fractured fibula since that day at the track.

The following year I had another major injury that went undiagnosed because I continued to keep information about my disability to myself. The morning after a spring tournament, a shooting pain started in my lower back and radiated down my left leg. According to the same trainer, and reinforced by a sports medicine doctor, I wasn’t experiencing sciatica because herniated spinal discs are uncommon in your early twenties. A year later I was on the operating table for a lumbar spine fusion. I share these two anecdotes to illustrate how my inability to identify as a woman with cerebral palsy prevented me from communicating openly with healthcare providers. The consequences for my physical health were significant.

Throughout university, and for years after, I kept playing ultimate while denying the existence of my cerebral palsy. I can (somewhat) comfortably share with you now that I have a form of cerebral palsy called left hemiplegia. The entire left side of my body is significantly weaker than my right and I have reduced control over my left limbs due to brain damage at or before birth. I am still working on understanding and forming my identity as a disabled woman who can, at first glance, pass as non-disabled and who plays a sport with and against able-bodied athletes.

This recent progress in exploring and accepting my identity has been extremely helpful to my physical health in addition to my sense of self. Now that I have the vocabulary to label and describe my cerebral palsy I can better access preventative and corrective healthcare in a way that I couldn’t before.

With imperfect, yet improving, relationships with my doctors and the occasional physical therapist, I keep returning to ultimate. The sport’s focus on Spirit of the Game is at the core of the accepting culture many teams exhibit. It is in this sport, largely void of other disabled athletes, that I have started introducing myself, “Julia. She/her. Cutter. You should know that I have a mild form of cerebral palsy that means the left side of my body isn’t very strong. If you have any questions as to how it impacts my play, and by extension, yours, feel free to ask.” So far, few have asked, but I am glad to be playing the sport I love being transparent about what my body can do.