Interview, Memoir, Ultimate Frisbee

fuzzy, the Chris Fite-Wassilak interview

Captain (and, or, founder) of TCD, Throwing Shapes, Johnny Chimpo, Ireland Open Beach, founder member of two of those teams, this was a mover and shaker of Irish Ultimate, even in his own piratical style. Chris Fite Wassilak, or Fuzzy, brought a whole different, warm, (fuzzy?) vibe to Irish Ultimate. Fittingly now an art curator and critic, he brought an interesting and irreverent element to Irish Ultimate as it found it’s way in the naugthies. Here is his version of events.

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When and why did you start playing? you were a beginner at TCD / or not very experienced, what was the vibe like when you began, around 2000/1?

It must’ve been 2000; myself and Tom Beug had been jokingly throwing around a cheap disc at the student residency (you know, Matrix-flips-catching-it-midair attempts, stuff that looks cool in your head but is painfully obvious outside of that space that it’s not going to happen with your gravitational skill set), and he kept talking about this game. So at some point (it wasn’t til my 2nd year in TCD, it took us a while) we found our way the oppressive yellow-lit box of the TCD gym, discs flying around the place. Dec Breslin was more or less organising things, Brian MacD would pop his head in, be obtusely enthusiastic before disappearing again, and every once and a while we would blow half of our miniscule budget paying you to come in and ‘coach’.

Owch, miaow. I was trying to remember why it was such a breath of fresh air to go and coach DCU for 3 years instead of TCD. Now it’s all coming back to me. I had reached the end of my enthusiasm for coaching TCD after 5 years(smart arses, dropped disc, etc …)

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So young, such red hair (oh yeah, it was from a bottle)!

I was absolutely a beginner. And pretty crap at most sports; I’d played basketball, football, softball in high school, and was a highly effective bench warmer. I was also pretty weary of ‘jock’ culture. But I went along to hang out with friends and get the odd trip out of town. The ultimate scene was different, in that it was pretty obviously a bag of Mixed Nuts. I can’t say I was convinced by the whole thing, my experience of it so far being a limited indoor drop-a-thon, and part of it also might have been what sense I could make out of Dec B’s directives. But when he said we were going to an indoor tournament in Leeds, my girlfriend at the time was living there, so I was in. (Roll call I can remember: Dec B, Tom Beug, CianHallinan [RIP], and Dave Misstear.] On the train up, Breslin handed out t-shirts, and on the front was our ostensible team name: ‘FidgettingEchos’. I think a lot of us had trouble accepting 1) the name, because it was crap, and 2) the fact that the designer had managed to spell both of the only two words on the t-shirt wrong.

(I had, for years, operated under the impression that this was designed by none other than Steve MacD, which seemed a fitting presage given not only his rep with other spelling mistakes, such as the infamous red ‘unltimate’ hoodie, but also our later sartorial collaborations. But, alas, it turns out it was the MacD the younger, Brian himself, who had both conceived and executed this particular t-shirting triumph.)

We lost all our games (I’m pretty sure), Breslin broke his foot (by merely twisting his leg while handling), but it was a great weekend and I was hooked after that. The short answer to this is probably the most common you get from the loopers who limp into the sport: this was a bit different, and I was drawn to it from the start for the social side of things. It was a slow intro though; it wasn’t til maybe 2-3 years into it, after organisationally no one was around but me to ‘captain’ the TCD team, that I began to play more, and actually learn how to play the game properly, and eventually improve a bit.

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TCD, 2002, Winners of first Cork outdoors tournament, beating DCU in the final

The only player to have a college team named after them, tell us about that

We did, as mentioned above, have a name problem with the team. And it wasn’t something that resolved itself easily. We did a few rounds of suggestions, nothing stuck. (The only other name I can remember was ‘Posh Disc’. ‘Nuff said.) By then I was running the club, more out of necessity than skill, and I think it’s fair to say, especially at that level, your role in ‘captaining’ is more as head cheerleader and exemplar of willingness more than anything else. So when the team put forward my name, it was mostly because nobody knew or would be able to figure out how to pronounce it. It’s only a medium level joke, but we got a few good t-shirts out of it anyway. They made great family xmas presents.

03 Foutenay le compte, not a massive success, you felt that it was a bit clique-ish in a counter productive way

Fontenay was my first foray into the politicking and diplomacy activity that is the national team.

It’s important, with hindsight, to think about where the scene was at that point—you could sense that people were frustrated with the approaches to Heilbron and Prague, and that some sense of organisation, accountability, and follow-through was trying to be established, or at least conceived of. I think it’s safe to say, though, that I might have voiced some complaints (I’m a critic, alright, it’s what I do), but I didn’t really know what was going on. It takes a lot to balance a team, especially with the sub-rabid enthusiasm that seems to come with the international trafficking of the ‘Irish’ mantle in any sphere. I was just learning the broader tactics of the game, and understanding it as a campaign rather than a series of highly frustrating games. So although Fontenay wasn’t that successful, I guess for me I regard it as a turning point in my understanding of the game, of learning focus and intensity at the right points on the pitch, and learning how to fit in to a team, and realising I could actually play as an effective mid.

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04 WCBU Figuera da Foz, Captaining the Ireland beach team, a new experience?

My first international tournament foray had actually been to Paganello in Rimini in 2001. Which is a world unto itself: bizarre, intense, silly, but also some of the best players in the world there playing good beach ulti. Blew my mind. With my dark complexion, I’d never been much of a beach bum, but then over the week I learned to love eating sand. Developing some Irish beach ulti became a side goal at least – I think you were the first person to drag us down to Brittas Bay for a damp weekend of something like beach. We went to Paga again in 03, with a slightly more organised and experienced team (Doyler, Brian MacD, Al Murray, and some poor American named Beau, who we shaved ‘Bow’ into his chest hair. He wasn’t impressed.) I can’t remember the game outcome, but we did win spirit which was a good high. (Al’s comment at the time: ‘We just won spirit at the most spirited tournament in the world. So we must the World Spirit Champions.’) So when the World Beach Championships came along in 05, I tried to get a team together and training for that. Which wasn’t easy, as a lot of the small, committed player base in Ireland were focusing on World’s at Turku, happening a month or so earlier. Still, we made it, not really helped by the ‘Magic Bus’ that travelled from Turku to Figuera da Foz over a month, trailing causalities along the way.

The week of the tournament itself was promising but frustrating; I think we only won 2 games (including, I believe, Ireland’s first international win over Italy) but there was at least a few others we should have gone through with. Still an unforgettable week, and hopefully it instilled some broader beach appreciation. We were barely nipped to spirit by the Swiss; I think it was their song that took it, which was a highly orchestrated and complicated barber-shop style a capella song about the merits of beer. We just sang Spinal Tap’s ‘Big Bottom’ really loud.

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In 05 you were the captain of Rostock / mixed co-ed – how was that? It seemed like there was a good happy vibe, good spirit, happy atmosphere – and I’m not just talking about the mixed showers, but you can cover that too if you want.

We didn’t win a game in ’05, that was a bit of a shame, some games seemed winnable but maybe not quite, your thoughts? Did it impact on your enjoyment of the week

By a 04/05, it was unsteady but promising at least in that the university teams had gradually devolved from being the only teams in the country, to then producing players which could hypothetically feed into clubs. The birth of this in Ireland seems a long and drawn out story of many dead ends, but generally it was groups of friends having fun. Somewhere in the post-uni haze, Wet Beavers began around ‘04 as a mixed team going to the BritOpen every once a while, and it’s this rough ensemble that formed the basis of what became the Throwing Shapes mixed team (and also, I’d say the initial core of the J. Chimpo Institute for Higher Learning). The main thing that activated this for me was the continental tournaments: Talapmaya, Tom’s Tourney, G-Spot in Ghent. Away from the dourness of British Tournaments, you could find high-quality, demanding mixed ultimate. Shapes was, for me, about trying to get that experience and perspective.

The 2005 European Clubs was a tough week; we had a pretty good team, and between us a lot of experience. But I think that experience was more individual, and as a team, perhaps, we didn’t have the collective confidence to finish a game with conviction. MeaColpa: I was, again, ‘captain’ of the team – but I’m not really much of a strategist or tactician, and am a bit of a softy really when it comes to bossing people around, so I think I indulged the fantasy that this particular body could run itself headless, when actually it needed a bit more direction. So I think we struggled against ourselves a bit that week, and as Rose Doss wisely put it at the time, ‘We blue-balled it.’ Despite those frustrations, it was still an amazing time with an amazing group of people.

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You were one of the founders of JC, tell us about that, how did it come to pass?

Well, I think the word ‘frustration’ has come enough times so far in my responses to predicate some of what came next. Doyler put together a group of people that knew eachother, but also were players who were comfortable with their own strengths and weaknesses, and happy to fit into a team. I think it must have been 05, when we got a small group together and went to an indoor tournament to Leeds (Brian MacD turned up incognito in a chimp suit), and it went from there. I think all of us wanted some solid, open ultimate enough to just do it, and enjoy it at the same time. I think we shared a sense of attitude, conviction, and enough irony to pull it off straight-faced.

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Hatching Chimpo

Myself, Steve MacD, and Reuben had been collaborating on designing t-shirts, Frisbees, and doing jerseys and hoodies for Lookfly, and I think we also understood that part of the club gap in Dublin was just having a clear team look and identity. Chimpo was a front, a character, and a way of life. So I loved just being able to play mid, and running that cog in the machine as well as I could on the pitch, while also enjoying messing with that image. The fact that we could match our bravado with wins just made the joke funnier (for us at least). I was sorry to miss the later achievements of the club after I’d left Dublin; I’m still black and orange on the inside.

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Chimpo winning the 2nd Sligo tournament, after narrowly beating DCU in the final

Favourite players to have played against?

Tough question. Mostly as in my memory is shoddy and I’m crap with names anyway. There was too many uber-fit 7ft tall Euro-males to tell the difference. But I enjoyed every one of them. There was a Euro-gang, people you saw at each tourney, and it was those people I loved seeing and playing against.

Mixed versus open?

Open is great for that intense, testosterone wag along. You can turn the screw more, and demand a high level for yourself and others. But then somehow you found yourself back at the jock culture you were there to avoid. Vibe wise though and more overall, I think it was always mixed for me.

You’ve stopped playing now i think, why? What do you do now to stay fit instead?

I haven’t played much since I moved to London in 2007. I won’t say I’ve ‘retired’, but partially that’s because that’s language reserved for people who are committing a lot of their week to training, travel, etc. Part of it is organisational burn out, putting a lot of energy into getting things together in Dublin, that after getting a bit of distance I realised I wanted to keep playing but was happy playing on a less formal level. But an important aspect is also what time and funds you actually have available. If you’re going to play club level ultimate, you need a regular income and a reliable schedule. As I began working in the art world more and more, I had neither; the free time and social spaces of your life become grey-area work times. The third part is also simply the people. I’ve sought out nearby pickup games or the occasional weeknight session, only to find it wasn’t actually that much fun. So now I guess I’m one of those annoying people who turns up at pickup only every once and a while and wants to just huck it all day long. Mainly, I do a lot of cycling, to get around the city and see the countryside. But getting a gang together and heading off to a tournament still comes up every few weeks.

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You still see some / several of the guys who moved to London (live / lived with some of them even), that must be a great thing to have taken from playing the sport

Absolutely. The reason it is what it is for me is/was always the people. Spending some weirdly intense times with friends and getting to know people through the organisation of bodies around a piece of plastic. But yeah, regardless of how much I’m playing still, it’s a shared history and enduring bond that is continually rewarding.

You’ve recently been in Hong Kong, Spain, Nigeria, pretty cool, how do you compare it to your time in Ireland

London is an amazing city, but it’s more the kind of place where you take what you want from it. You impose on it, steal from it, hide from it when you need to. Dublin is more personable, more random. You don’t know where you’re going to end up. Travelling has been amazing, both work and personal travel; but I wouldn’t even know how to start to compare that to my time in Dublin. I’ve almost lived in London as long as I lived in Dublin, but Dublin is just one of those places that feels like home.

You’re a curator, writer, and art critic, any parallels between the art world and ultimate?

There’s some scant parallels – artists are constantly exploring and trying to create these mini-utopias. I feel like ultimate does provide, in its own way, the outlines of such a utopia. A temporary space, where some rules are suspended, and some communal decisions can be made. Though we all know that can be taxing in other ways, but those brief days when I’ve felt that I won’t forget. On a side note, I was explaining the basics of ultimate, particularly self-refereeing and spirit, to a friend the other day. Soon after, she was given an ultimatum by her job that her and a colleague had to compete against each other for their line manager’s job. Inspired by ultimate, she instead negotiated with her colleague to engineer a job-share between them, that her bosses then had to accept. Sounds a bit random, but the fact that just the idea of the tenets of ultimate inspired that I thought was pretty cool. The only other parallel with the art world I can think of is that both are havens of sorts for mostly middle class white kids (like myself), but that’s another story, and hopefully that’s something that’s changing on both sides…

Final sign off …

Be excellent to each other. And…Party on dudes.

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One thought on “fuzzy, the Chris Fite-Wassilak interview

  1. Pingback: The first 7 Irish Ultimate Interviews | Sarah Paddle Swim

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