Meet the Match

An Indian Leader Unleashes the Power of Ultimate

It didn’t matter whether it was basketball or soccer. Growing up in Chennai, India, all Sangeetha Manoharan wanted to do was play. Sports is what made her feel healthy and whole, regardless of what the rest of society felt about girls playing outside with the boys.

While studying for her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Madras, she discovered ultimate (originally known as ultimate Frisbee). Sangeetha’s high school had offered disc sports, but she wasn’t aware there was a way to play them competitively at the time. Just a few years later, with a group of people who would become friends, teammates, and members of Chennai Ultimate Frisbee, she forged a new path for her life in the sport that would ultimately define her.

“Ultimate teaches valuable life lessons that young adults in India often miss out on,” Sangeetha says. “As a self-officiated sport, it helps players experience on-field freedom in a culture where people often don’t know how to take responsibility for their actions. It encourages a culture of accountability, and teaches people how to resolve conflict while respecting and listening to the views of their opponents.”

As she continued through her master’s degree in applied psychology, Sangeetha quit all other sports and began to focus on ultimate. By 2012, she was on the advisory board for the Ultimate Players Association of India (UPAI) and three years later was named the chair of UPAI’s women’s committee.

In 2015, Sangeetha also made India’s first male and female team to participate in a World Championships of Beach Ultimate. This year she competed in her second WCBU for India, and in 2016 she was a part of its squad for the World Ultimate and Guts Championship.

After spending more than a year as the director of ultimate development for Chennai Ultimate Frisbee, Sangeetha took a position in January as the head coach of ultimate and operations executive for the Quad, an optimal fitness company in the city. She sees the sport as playing a key role in empowering Indians of all backgrounds, deconstructing stereotypes around female ability and ambitions, and teaching important life skills.

“Through ultimate, you learn to trust your teammates, express yourself respectfully, and overcome your fears,” Sangeetha says. “And you find a community that energizes you.”

Across India, gender inequality remains a significant challenge. In the 2016 Global Gender Gap Index, the country ranked 87th in the world, with particularly low rankings in economic empowerment (136th), educational attainment (113th), and health and survival (142nd). In Chennai, girls are taught from a young age to conform to gender norms, suggesting men and women’s roles, methods of interaction, styles of dress, and careers are inherently different. For most families, as in Sangeetha’s own case, sport is an afterthought, especially when it comes to girls.

Sangeetha has many ideas for how to use ultimate to make an impact for women in her community and throughout India. She would like to transform the women’s committee for India Ultimate into a gender and equity committee, focused on setting up policies for equal opportunity in representation, skill, growth and competition, as well as establish an ultimate-focused mentorship program for women. With her company, she runs a multiple-month Intro to Ultimate program that has been so successful that many players have graduated and formed their own team, Quadzilla.

In order to take her platform and influence to the next level, Sangeetha was partnered with Burton Snowboards CEO Donna Carpenter during her time on the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program. Labelled “the snowboard ambassador” by The New York Times, Donna is a two-time mentor with the program and one of the most prominent leaders in the world of extreme and winter sports. At Burton, she oversees the company’s internal mentorship program, women’s leadership initiative, and the launch of the Burton Girls online community. As Sangeetha seeks to develop skills in sports marketing, gender equity policymaking, and fundraising, she is in an ideal environment with an innovative mentor who understands how to balance developing a sport with creating a culture of empowerment. With Donna’s guidance, Sangeetha is taking one more step on her path for changing the lives of girls in India through ultimate.

Mentor Match