Dominique Fontenette is one of the most decorated players in Women’s Ultimate. She shares with us her insights on why Riot received the Spirit Award, how Fury came to be a dominating force, the impact on the MLU and AUDL on women’s ultimate, and more.
- 2012 – 2013: Seattle Riot
- 2012: Won worlds – 2012 Team USA Masters – Japan
- 2009 – 2011: Boston’s Brute Squad
- 2005 – 2006: San Francisco Fury (Won Nationals in 2006)
- 2005: IOC Worlds – Germany (Won Gold)
- 2001 – 2004: Boston’s Lady Godiva (Won Nationals in 2001 and 2002)
- 2001: IOC Worlds – Japan (Won silver)
- 1997 – 2000: San Francisco Fury (won Nationals in 1999)
- Stanford College: 1993 – 1997 (won Nationals in 1997, Callahan winner in 1997)
- (Also played Santa Barbara Condors 1994, D’Fense 1995)
Congrats to you and to Riot for a 3rd place finish at Nationals, as well as the Spirit Award!
Thanks! Of course, we were disappointed to lose in the semis, but excited to get a chance to play again together the next day in the Worlds qualifying match. Winning the Spirit Award was a total surprise for us.
Why do you think Riot received recognition for team Spirit this year?
This year’s field of competition in the women’s division was the deepest of any nationals I’ve witnessed. In order to prepare, Hana Kawai and Surge lead our team in small groups that we call “micro-communities”. These “micro-communities” were safe places to work on or discuss anything that might be an obstacle to optimal performance. They were also a place where we did visualization work and sport performance focused mental exercises. The common sentiment on our team was that we each became a better person as a whole through these exercises and by being a part of the team this year. Perhaps these efforts translated into our opponents feeling that we were spirited competitors. That’s just a guess.
You’ve played with two of the winningest Women’s teams in Ultimate. Boston’s Lady Godiva won 7 out of 8 Club Nationals from 1995 – 2002. Fury won their first Nationals in 1999, then again 2003 and 2006, and every year since until 2013. Why do you think Lady Godiva fell out of sync, and what do you think Fury was doing differently that allowed them continued successes?
I definitely hesitate to say Godiva “fell out of sync”. That year, Godiva had a slip. It was sort of a fluke that Fury broke Godiva’s nationals winning streak in 1999. We were a bunch of young recent Stanford kids mixed in with some experienced club players like Gloria Lust-Phillips and Nicole “Sprout” Beck. A lot had to do with luck and timing. It was Fury’s first year at nationals and we hadn’t won a pre-season tournament all year. Godiva crushed us earlier in the tournament 15 to 7-ish and they were clearly the dominant team. Schwa was led by a fiery player named Tracey Satterfield and they played the game of the decade against Godiva. They upset and eliminated Godiva from the tournament. So it ended up being a Cinderella finals and Fury came out on top.
Godiva came back to win the next several years in a row.
They had the infamous “Godiva machine” of a very technically sound, perfectly executed vertical offense. It was predictable but unstoppable. They could plug any player into that system and dominate. This was a time before coaches. The leadership core of the system retired and at the same time, the West Coast started to build and incorporate more high-risk, high-reward strategies. The college Stanford Superfly dynasty started to graduate and feed into the club scene and boom…Fury, a new dynasty was born. The cycle repeats itself. Godiva has 9 national championships total, same as Fury. No fault of anyone’s but I think today’s media holds Fury’s successes in higher regards than Godiva’s simply because the people writing about, reading about, playing ultimate right now just never experienced the Godiva dynasty first hand.
Going back in time a bit, you helped lead Stanford to their first undefeated season and College Nationals championship in 1997, the same year you received the Callahan award. Looking back on it, what part of your game did you develop the most during this time?
I think “on-field leadership through example” was my biggest point of growth during that year. Before that year, I played hard but sort of took my talent and playing for granted. Then, I was sidelined during my 1996 season by my first ACL injury…so coming back in 1997 was all about playing with passion and leaving everything on the field. I truly felt that any point could be my last so I played each one with that level of intensity.
How have these College years stuck with you since?
I was lucky enough to start playing under a coach by the name of John Knuth aka “Truth” who took time to throw with me and believed in me as an individual player. I also had the good fortune to be coached by Jennifer Donnelly (one of the best and most successful college coaches in the sport). She taught me what it meant to be an athlete and what it meant to be part of a team. She had us confront and work on our weaknesses. She introduced us to disciplined throwing drills, 7am track workouts, silly initiation bonding rituals, and passionate in-game huddle talks. Those years at Stanford made me realize how much better a team plays when everyone believes in one another.
What was it like to play with Boston’s Lady Godiva while also going through med school?
Godiva was a team like no other. It was business. These women were professionals: financial analysts, professors at MIT, CEO types. They had kids and families and no desire to waste time. Practices were efficient and people were direct. If you could make it through the straight-forward, no bullshit, tough as nails practice then you earned your spot on the team. Godiva played a high-efficiency, low-turnover offense. I came from the less-disciplined West coast scene with one lucky club championship under my belt. At one of my first practices, I made a somewhat ill-advised huck and just as I released the disc from my fingers, one of the veterans yelled “What the *@%^ was that?!” Somehow the people on that team managed to get their points across bluntly but simultaneously make you feel that they had complete faith in you. Practices were not easy and it was tough love at times, but the end result was feeling like sisters going into battle with one another.
In order to play Godiva and perform well in medical school, I slept very little, studied as efficiently as possible, and was lucky enough to have access to a 24 hour gym. I was very straight forward with my deans at Tufts University School of Medicine, letting them know from day one that my passion was Ultimate Frisbee. And that I would do whatever it took to make as many Ultimate events as possible. They understood that keeping their students’ needs met and keeping them happy improved success in the classroom and developed more complete doctors. I was also fortunate to play with a team of ladies who supported and trusted me to make every effort to give as much as I could, when I could.
Honestly though, medical school was pretty easy. The harder thing was playing during my four years in Emergency medicine residency. Two of those years I commuted from New York to play with Fury and two years I commuted to play in Boston. In both cases, I had very understanding teammates.
Looking back at your entire Ultimate career, what team, season, or moment has most stuck with you?
Too many teams, season, and moments to choose from…if forced to pick one I’d have to say Godiva winning 2002 Nationals on double game point against Fury. I had been friends and teammates with each player on the field, it was a tight battle. What more could I ask for? That was by far the most exciting finals to play in and the bonus was that I got to catch the winning goal.
You’ve been playing for 20 years, since 1993 at Stanford. It appears that you’ve been able to stay motivated, and keep your joints strong. To what do you owe your continued success?
Motivation isn’t an issue if you love something and you make sure to meet all of your other needs. Most of my needs just happen to be met by playing ultimate. Also, it just takes one serious injury and being away from that love to make you realize how precious it is and how much you want it. On that note, joint health wasn’t exactly my forte… I have torn both of my ACLs, separated my shoulder, sprained both ankles countless times, hyper-extended an elbow, broken many fingers and my nose (twice), and given myself at least three concussions. I did most of that early in my career when I would throw my body around without caution. While injured I threw the disc. I studied individual players and dissected their styles. I studied how good players got open and what made one cut more successful than another. Then, when I was back on the field, I’d add that observation to my accumulating arsenal of tricks. Nowadays, I leave the work-horse cutting and crazy diving defensive plays for the young 20- somethings and do more opportunistic cutting.
Also, dealing with injury forced me to develop a training regime that is based on body mechanics and movement skills…instead of pounding my joints on hard surfaces for long periods of time, now I do mostly plyo and core workouts. I focus on high-intensity heart rate workouts for cardio portions. The trainer for the Celtics, Brian Doo, did some pro-bono work with Godiva when I was in Boston. He had the motto that the first goal of training is being able to be on the field. Everything else is secondary. So, if you’re training to the point where you’re injuring yourself, you need to change something.
What do you think you do differently from players who get burned out or too injured to play?
I think we all have needs and if you’re not getting your needs met in some other aspect of your life you’re going to burn out of something. So figure out what those needs are and meet them. Everyone has to find his or her own life balance.
There has been a lot of discussion about the future and growth of women’s Ultimate with the emerging pro leagues offering new opportunities for men, but nothing similar emerging for women. Do you have thoughts on these new leagues and how they may or may not impact Women’s Ultimate?
Personally, I’m thrilled that ultimate has grown in popularity to support professional men’s leagues. From what I can tell the guys really enjoy playing in the leagues. I do see these leagues detracting a bit of the media coverage from the women’s games. Sure, I would love to be called “a professional ultimate player” and to have some of the perks that these leagues provide, but not at all cost. I really appreciate what self-officiating does to the personal dynamics of the sport, and would rather pay my travel expenses and play USAU than give up that privilege.
At this point, financially, I’m not sure a professional women’s league would be a good bet or the ideal route that the Women’s division should take to gain popularity. I think the big seller with the women’s game is the fact that we are ideal role models. Women ultimate players are an athletic, well-spoken, educated, and highly successful group. Parents would like their young daughters to be like us. If we can figure out a way to share these qualities with the masses, parents will be encouraging their daughters to participate in ultimate as opposed to taking them to tap dancing lessons (no offense to tap dancers). Maybe I’m being narrow-minded or completely wrong. In the meantime, Tino Tran, a Seattle-based photographer, is working with some of the women’s teams to create a photo magazine with the purpose of increasing the media exposure of women’s ultimate and giving them an inside look at the women’s club scene. I just hope that the USAU continues to stand their ground to balance the disparity of women’s ultimate coverage in the media. I appreciate what they’ve done so far.
Do you see any trends emerging for women’s ultimate in general?
The teams are getting deeper with more athletic players. Players are developing skills at a younger age…and walking into the club scene already with years of experience. Coaches now are ubiquitous.
You have, without a doubt, done it all – Worlds, Club Nationals, developed emerging teams into Champions, Callahan Winner, more. What comes next?
I still love ultimate as much as I did when I first started playing in 1993. I love being a part of a team. I love making connections with players on my team and other teams. I love the slow motion feeling of running down a disc that is flying through the air and jumping at my highest point possible to catch it. On the grand scale of things, I’m not sure what comes next. I constantly create new challenges for myself to try to become a better player, so I guess I’ll just keep doing that and enjoying the moment until I retire.
You were a competitive athlete throughout your childhood, playing basketball, softball and tennis. Which of these sports was most helpful when you started playing Ultimate, and in what ways?
I think that tennis really gave me the biggest benefit. Tennis is technical but a majority of it is mental. In high school, I read quite a bit about mental toughness, in-play confidence, and positive self-talk. I believe the things I learned while playing tennis really helped me excel in ultimate just by giving me some early internal modes of staying positive.
What was it like playing with Riot this year?
Last year we had 11 rookies (including me). This year I got to see those players really break out of their shells, step up, and take ownership of their roles on the team. Second year players like Geli Boyden (I call her my “Vanilla Sista”) stepped up as a huge on-field leader, Rachel Bradshaw went from a slightly timid athlete to our dominating defensive starter… and the list goes on.
How do you spend your time in the off season?
First, I try to catch up on all of the things I feel I might have neglected during the season. I visit my family and catch up with work stuff…then I get right back at it. I try to digest the season and see what I’d like to work on for the next season and start from there. I find it easier just to stay in decent shape throughout the winter than to go through the pain of starting from ground zero in the spring. I also love to snowboard, take trips to warm places to surf and scuba dive…”movies, long walks on the beach”, etc.
How did you manage your time when you were playing with Lady Godiva and going through Med school?
I prioritized what needed to be prioritized at the right time. I studied my ass off but I did so efficiently. When I practiced or trained, I did so at 110%. I spent a lot of time studying and training by myself. Frankly, if I could absorb the same information by reading a chapter in minutes that a lecturer explained in an hour, I would leave the class and go study in the library. I secretly slipped away to study many nights in Sarasota.
Do you feel like you were able to both study and train effectively?
Yep. Unfortunately, the thing that suffered was my love life. I literally fell asleep on my plate during a dinner date. My passion was ultimate and I was willing to make any sacrifice to play at this level and to become a successful doctor.
How does the East coast game and Ultimate culture compare to the West coast?
In the past, there was a more dramatic comparison between the West coast high-risk, high-reward offense vs. the disciplined low-risk, higher percentage strategy of the East coast. Now, I think the styles and the culture have become more similar and any differences are more team-dependent now.
What years had the highest impact on your overall game?
It’s sort of a tie between my first years with Fury and my years with Lady Godiva. Fury allowed me to stretch my wings as a young player while Lady Godiva taught me how to think, practice, and play like a champion.
What brought you West from Boston in 2012?
My partner moved to LA to complete a post-doctoral degree at USC so I came with her.
How did the transition from Boston to the West Coast treat you?
The transition to LA was a challenge because I wanted to continue to play competitive women’s ultimate at the highest level possible. The Southern California teams are very established and well run with tons of awesome ladies but tend not to do as well on the national scene so I chose to commute to play with Riot in Seattle.
Did you have your sights set on Riot before moving, or did that unfold post-move?
Once I knew the move was happening, I considered many options. I thought about playing with the local women’s team, I tried out for and seriously considered playing co-ed with 7Figures. I contacted Molly Brown to ask about their tryout process and even considered commuting to continue playing with Brutesquad.
As much as I would love to be coached by Matt Tsang, it seemed that I would have a clearer role to play on Riot. The Seattle team was filled with a ton of young very talented players and could use some veterans. I played with Hana Kawai and Rohre Titcomb when they were rookies on Brutesquad and knew they would soon be franchise players. Also, Gwen Ambler captained Riot. I helped coach Stanford when Gwen was on Superfly and then we played Fury together back in 2005 and 2006. She’s a true disciple of the game and I watched her leadership skills blossom over the years. I wanted to play for Riot, especially if she was at the helm.