Ultimate Frisbee, Yvonne Halpin

Yvonne Halpin, from Loreto school player to European Silver medalist

@SimonCocking Pictures mostly by Mark Earley  @earleymark

Delighted to get our first female interview up.  Yvonne, or Yiv as she was known to the Irish Ultimate community, was a fantastic handler with a great huck which she wasn’t afraid to use. A member of the first school girl team to appear at the Kilkenny open, she never looked back from there. At DCU she anchored the first Irish women’s college ultimate team to win Irish and UK intervarsities. She also won All Ireland Women’s and Mixed on multiple occasions, before topping it all, as member of the successful Ireland Mixed Beach European Silver Medalists team. It was a pleasure to play with her on mixed teams, with her positive attitude and impressive athleticism. Here it is in her words.   

 

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How old, or rather young were you when you started playing? 

I first picked up a disc on March 15th 2001, having turned 16 years old that January (yes…the big 30 is just around the corner!).

Playing in Navan as a school kid? What was that like? You were one of the earliest schools to start playing.

Correct me if I wrong, I think Loreto Navan was the first school in Ireland to have a team. It was great. I was in 5th year and Tom Kendall, a computers teacher, had joined the staff from the US. One PE class, he brought out some Frisbees and my exact words were “don’t throw that thing at me!”. How quickly that attitude changed! We started off just learning how to throw the disc. After a few sessions Mr Kendall decided that there was enough interest to start a club in the school. I got very excited about this new sport as I had played a lot of other sports growing up but none of them really grabbed me like Ultimate did. I guess it has a way of doing that to people. For us, we played purely for the love of the game. We weren’t aware of the huge social/travel side to the sport so that a real bonus when we joined clubs at university level.

Our club team in Loreto was given the name Frenzie and our first jerseys were a mix of oversized orange and purple tie-died cotton t-shirts. It wasn’t a big group. Maybe 10 or 15 players. We trained after school out on the soccer pitch and Mr Kendall tried to teach us as much as he could – a little bit about the stack and that kind of thing. He knew we were eager to learn and so contacted some players in Dublin to come down and train us a few times. I remember, Brain MacDevitt, JD Coakley, Oisin Flanagan, John Staunton, Dominick Smyth, Chris Stokes, Declan Breslan, Chris Fite-Wassilak, Fiona MacDonald and maybe a few more coming down at different stages – it was always interesting to see how the number of girls interested in playing it tripled when they knew we were having a session with boys from Dublin 🙂

During my time playing in Loreto (about 15 months including breaks for summer holidays and winter etc.), I played two tournaments with the school team. The first of these was in Kilkenny in 2001. We played as a club against some of the teams (including an open team from Manchester maybe?) and then played co-ed with the Irish lads. I think it was Ian Cuddihy who organised that tournament? (Yes, and his dad or uncle was the crazy mayor with the sword at the time too!)

We camped in some campsite in Kilkenny and went to the cinema instead of going to the party – school trip rules and all that! I still remember Mr Kendall’s face when the Irish lads did a call with us where they formed a kind of human stretcher and we had to dive onto it. They then bumped us along it and throw us off at the other end!

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The three girls Navan with their Loreto teacher Tom Kendall

The other tournament was Dub Tourney in 2002. The Pookas were there (Sparky Booker played with the Pookas and I thought she was so cool!). I think Princess Layout played that year (Diane Davis, Alia Ayab and loads of others) or maybe it was 2003? Either way, I remember watching/playing against them and thinking how I wanted to be able to play like them…little did I know I would get to play with them on the same team later down the line at Dr Sand and Mr Grass.

All in all, I consider myself very lucky to have found Ultimate in school. I would not have started playing in college had I not played in Loreto – great memories and a good foundation for playing in university. I often went back to Loreto and other schools to introduce more students to Ultimate early hoping it would encourage growth and to try and give other people the opportunity I had. The only thing about being the first (or one of the first) schools to play was that we had no competition at our level. But it has to start somewhere. The school scene is brilliant now and only getting better thanks to the likes of the IFDA and Dublin Youth Ultimate. Long may it last!

How long did Tom teach for? Is he still there, did they move back to the states?

To the best of my knowledge, Tom is still teaching in Loreto, Navan. The last contact I had with him regarding Ultimate was probably during my PhD. He was always very supportive of the progress we made in Ultimate and would keep in touch regarding Irish teams etc. I am not sure if Ultimate is still being played in Loreto but there was a team there for a good few years following the introduction of the sport in 2001. I’m not sure if many know but Laura McGrath was also a Loreto Navan graduate – her talent was obvious in those early days when I used to go back to coach.

A few of you played for a while, Clare, and some other faces whose names I don’t remember.

When we all left Loreto, three of us continued to play at third level and we competed on the Irish women’s teams at the European Championships in France in 2003 and at the World Championships in Finland in 2004. It was myself, Claire McKeever, who played with UCD and Throwin’ Shapes and Marita Macken who also played with Throwin’ Shapes in the early days and Southampton University.  

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Did they continue to play outside of Dublin?

As far as I know, neither play anymore. Marita became very busy with medical school/travel and she now works in paediatrics and Claire is working with UNICEF and is currently in South Sudan. I have some brilliant memories with these two – including sharing a room in Fontenay and the mischief in Turku!

Why do you think you kept playing and they didn’t?

That’s a good question. Life takes people in different directions, I guess. We all played after Loreto for years, I just didn’t stop when they did. The Ultimate community in Ireland was so close in the early days. While Marita loved playing with the Irish teams I’m not sure if she found the same community in the UK. She also played soccer and I think with time she had to choose between the two. They were two very good players. Claire used to vary between playing handler and mid and Marita was a great deep cutter. I think most of our points at WUGC 2004 in Finland were from me hucking to Marita straight from the pull!

 

Then you went to DCU, how did you find that?

It’s funny, I remember sitting in the computers room in Loreto in 6th year – around the time we were filling out our CAO forms – and emailing Brian MacDevitt in a mini panic because I couldn’t see Ultimate Frisbee listed on the DCU Clubs and Societies website! He assured me there was a club but it was in the early days hence there was no web presence yet. So I rocked up to the stand during freshers week and the lads were so surprised when they learned I had played before. At the first session I arrived at the hall and was so chuffed when Brian (who coached us a bit) recognised me. In hindsight I pity the girl who was paired up to throw with me that night – let’s just say I had a problem with the speed of my throws in that I didn’t know how to throw softly! Her poor hands. I should also thank Chris Stokes at this point who very frankly pointed out that I was being an idiot when throwing a right handed backhand and a left handed forehand – “clearly you are left-handed, learn how to throw your backhand with your left hand!”.

I loved playing with DCU and quickly got involved with the organisational and administration side of things with Barry McCaul and Rob Staunton (or Red Rob as he’s commonly known). We had a brilliant time in the first few years in the club. The Sligo indoors tournament in 2003 is still probably in my top 10 tournaments. Yourself and Chris Stokes played us with that year. I remember at one point on the line, you announced that I was handling with you and then threw the pull. In my head I was like “what the hell does that mean??”. I kept running up the pitch and you would have to call me back each time. I got the hang of it eventually though!

I loved my time playing with DCU and am very grateful to have been able to be a part of building the club and watch it grow.  Unfortunately we never got the open varsity title while I played open (maybe that’s why!) but I was lucky enough to have the chance to play in and win the women intervarsity title indoors and outdoors.

I feel like I can’t talk about my time in DCU without mentioning Whacking Day. The idea for Whacking Day was first proposed at the IFDA AGM which I think was held in Sparky Booker’s house in town. Oisin Flanagan suggested the addition of a one-day beginners tournament in Dublin to get new players interested early and get some experience before Edinburgh beginner’s. He came up with the name too I think. I offered to run it and hold it at DCU (I’ve just realised I was only 18 years old hosting the first Whacking Day!). It had 12 teams competing from across the country. After the tournament I was keen for it to grow so the next year we had 18 teams and then in 2005 I managed to round up 24 teams and for the first time in Irish Ultimate history (I think – correct me if I’m wrong there) we had two divisions at a tournament with 8 women’s teams competing alongside the open division. The party that year was in sweaty Doyle’s with the theme being I wish I was… which led to some interesting and very clever costumes!

Barry McCaul seemed to do a great job in keeping the team together, applying for funding, being super organised. Some really great players came out of it, Fergus, Seamus, even if they were bit dubiously initially about the idea they had a lot of potential. How was it on the women’s side?

It’s funny you say that because they weren’t the only ones who were dubious about it to begin with. In fact, Michéal Larkin and Séan Duffy first gave the game a go after I challenged them to stop slagging me about it and try it out for themselves – they were quickly hooked after that. Barry was great! I had big shoes to fill when I took up the position of captain after he left. He even helped me book my flights to the notorious Edinburgh Beginners tournament – I’m probably one of the few who ever flew over to Edinburgh beginners. And they say it’s the south siders who are posh 😉

With regard to the women’s side of things. There wasn’t really a side at all for my first couple of years. We had a few girls join up at Freshers Day but they dropped out pretty quickly. I was one of the lads! Then in my third year, I captained the club and thanks to a really great core group, including Ferg, Seamus, Rob, Michéal, Séan, Donall, Col etc., who worked really hard with recruitment we had loads of girls sign up and they kept playing. I’m pretty sure players such as Lorraine O’Donnell, Sandra Murphy, Ciara Fitzpatrick, Laura McGrath, Emer Mernagh and Claire Morgan all joined that year. We were very strong for the next few years really gelling as a women’s team and having a lot of fun in the process.

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DCU women won UK nationals I think. Tell us about that. You were still on the team ?

I was indeed! I was doing my PhD at the time and only played women’s then. Laura McGrath was captain of the women’s team that year (2008?). Alan Doyle was brought in to coach us. It was our third year to play at UK nationals. In 2006 I captained the first DCU women’s team to compete at UK Nationals. We finished 5th out of 16 and won the spirit award. Momentum kept building over the next couple of years and with Laura’s clear vision re: training and tactics in the 2008 season, we really wanted the win at Irish Nationals and across the water. The tournament in the UK was tough and it was a very tense final against Ro Sham Bo but we clinched the win 6-4. Great feeling and brilliant memories.

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I remember doing a little coaching of the women’s team (in 2003), over the next decade you became a pivotal member of the team. What was that process like?

Looking back now it was a bit of a whirlwind. Ultimate is the kind of sport that can just suck you right in but I was OK with that because I loved it so much and the community of people involved was so great. It’s funny, people often laugh and make jokes about the Irish Ladies national teams in 2003 and 2004 which, if I’m honest, upsets me a bit. We worked really hard with what we had at the time and you could see progress being made. It has to start somewhere and the effort put in by those teams built the foundations for the successes achieved by national teams in the years to follow.

I just really wanted the sport to grow in Ireland. Bróna ni Chobhthaigh and I set up MaC Ultimate club in 2005 and played in numerous tournaments at home and abroad. We were coached by Brian MacDevitt and Mark Earley and I think we were the only women’s club in the country but it was at least an outlet for female players in Dublin in those couple of in between years where there was no national team to train for. One moment that stands out for me was in the summer of 2005 where MaC competed at Tour 4 and Sparky Booker threw the winning huck to Lorraine “Jiggles” O’Donnell to beat Nice Bristols and secure the first ever win abroad for a women’s team from Ireland. We went crazy! I don’t think the opposition were aware of the significance of that win and so probably thought we were crazy too!

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The team got better and better too. There was a core of players who improved together. That must have helped team spirit.

That core group of players you mention are still all great friends of mine. Making that journey together over the years and experiencing and sharing such highs (for example surviving WUGC 2004 without being bageled and winning the Spirit of the Game award to beating GB for the first time ever at Windmill Wind-Up 2011), and lows (losing to France in our last match of EUC 2007, not making the top 8 of EUC 2011 and losing the final of ECBU 2013) meant that we formed a bond that doesn’t come easily in other friendships outside of the sport. That was always evident on the pitch for me. No matter what Irish team I was playing with, we never gave up, even if we knew the game wasn’t ours on the day and we always had our pride – at least that’s how I remember it.

Looking back is there anything you would have liked to have done differently with the national women’s teams?

Our main challenge was always growing the pool of players we had to chose from. It was always harder to attract and retain new female players compared to male. Perhaps a little easier now with a stronger club scene developing, as the saying goes, a crowd draws a crowd but back in the early days we were struggling just to get the players to fill the jerseys. We competed at WUGC 2004 in Finland with only 14 players with probably half of us eligible for juniors and a few of them not even based in Ireland. As that got easier the one thing I would have done differently would be more layout practice at women’s sessions!

Overall, not just with your school mates, but across ultimate in general there is a high female turnover rate (of stopping playing, not dropping the disc), possibly higher than for males. Any thoughts on why this might be?

Haha! Good save with the parentheses there Si!

It’s a good question – one that I don’t have a clear answer for. I can’t say it’s simply a gender thing because I don’t know the stats for gender balance in other sports in general. We used to discuss this often when it came to the topic of recruitment at AGMs etc. and tried many things: more emphasis on the social side to start out or less emphasis on the social side to attract more serious athletes, we were conscious of being “cliquey” and so we tried buddy systems. It’s a minority sport and lack of knowledge about it often meant people didn’t want to know. Unfortunately I can’t count how many times I was laughed at or asked “do you play it with a dog” which becomes at bit deflating after a while.

Looking at the future, how do you think women’s ultimate fits within Irish ultimate?

I’m not really sure how to answer this question. I’ve never considered the fact that it wouldn’t fit. It has to, in the same way that open has to fit! There is a new generation of female players in the three main women’s club teams who are now taking the lead and driving the momentum forward which is very exciting for development of the sport in Ireland. It’s a numbers game. The larger the player base the more clubs will form and hence competition will grow, on both club and national team levels. I do think it is important, however, to make sure that there is a platform where the more experienced players can continue to improve and don’t plateau. Of course the onus is on the individual also in this respect but it is important that clubs/university don’t just assume this will automatically happen and place all of their focus on recruitment.

And what recommendations would you make for it?

Keep forming new clubs!

Are you retired?

Hmmm, I think so. I’ve struggled for the last couple of years with the level of time and financial commitment required to continue to play ultimate in Ireland and so in January of this year I decided to take a break for a while. After 13 years I think that’s allowed. That break is still ongoing and I have no desire to return to that commitment in the very near future. I do miss seeing people and I think it could be good for me to play some non-competitive friendly ultimate every once in a while. Bring back the old days of pick-up on Sunday afternoons in Herbie! 🙂 I’ve enjoyed my year of new things so far and I have one more new thing coming up which I’m training for and excited/nervous about. And the high of ECBU 2013 wasn’t a bad place to end my international career.

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If so, what were your club highlights? How long did you play for, ’00 to 2013?

I’ve been playing for about 13 years now. Almost half my life!

Club highlights would have to include picking up All Ireland gold medals indoors and outdoors with LMS. Those games against Jabba the Huck were always great because you always knew going in to them that they would be absolute battles. Both teams fielded really strong players and you could never predict who would win on the day. The first tournament abroad with MaC (Tour 4 in 2005) is also in there for reasons already mentioned.

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What were you national team highlights? Best game, best win, best era?

I’m trying to rack my brains here..the best game is probably a toss up between Ireland vs USA, WUGC 2008 and the semi-final of ECBU 2013 against Portugal. The USA game came in the middle of the week in Vancouver. The team had struggled up until then and so the captains Linda Barry and Fiona McDonald decided to change tactics and move away from the O and D lines and just call lines instead. We lost the game 17-7 but that was most the USA conceded in that tournament except maybe for their semi-final and final so we were absolutely delighted with that. I assisted 4 out of 7 scores by taking some risks which paid off: two were backhand hucks where I made Sinead Flemming and Dee O’Breasail (now Weaver) run so fast for each because the disc was put so far out in front of them. Another was a hammer to a very surprised Catherine Gainey on the break side in the endzone and the fourth a crossfield forehand to Dee.

In the semi-final of ECBU 2013, we were neck and neck with Portugal for most of the game. I think we traded points up to 9-9 and eventually won out 11-9. The whole team just worked really hard and the support and encouragement was brilliant! I have to say it was the best feeling ever the moment Laura McGrath caught the last score and we realised we were going home with a European medal regardless of the outcome.

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Best win…again a toss up between the Ireland Portugal game above and beating Great Britain at Windmill Windup 2011 and EUC 2011 (17-15?). As regards national team highlights, I was so delighted to have been voted MVP of the Irish Women’s team at EUC 2007. I worked hard that season and was so proud of the how the team, which was led by Liz Schaffalitzky performed at that tournament. Giving up alcohol for the previous eight months may have helped too!

Best era, I would say the last few years in terms of potential to reach top eight at European level. The warm-up for EUC 2011 was very positive and we did well in tournaments leading up to it. The week in Slovenia didn’t quite go as planned which was tough. I found it particularly hard because I broke left hand (my throwing hand) in the first match of the tournament against Great Britain and had to miss the next two days play so I had no control over what was going on on the pitch. I won’t blame the schedule for us not making top eight but it does deserve to be mentioned because it was absolutely mental! I did get to play in the last few games though which we won so not all was lost.

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Mixed ultimate. Does it work?

Yes, definitely. It’s just a different game to open or women’s. I loved playing mixed with Throwin’ Shapes. Even though Rostock didn’t quite go as planned I still have very fond memories with that team in Ireland and abroad. Before I tried out for the Irish Mixed beach team last year it had been a while since I had played a season of mixed Ultimate and it was a refreshing change. There were the other elements of course like the fact that it was a season of beach instead of grass which completely changes the game in itself but when mixed works it really works. I found the change in dynamic from women’s Ultimate to mixed good for my game and getting to handle with Rory Kavanagh and Sam Mehigan was awesome! And I even got to be the deep cutter once or twice 🙂

However, I have seen it happen plenty of times where teams will play mixed and the game will only involve the three/four male players with the female players almost acting as number fillers. This never made sense to me. If you don’t like using both genders on the pitch then why are you playing mixed Ultimate?!

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You won 2 All Irelands (at least) with Throwing Shapes, how did that compare to playing womens?

I’m very grateful for all the All Ireland titles with Shapes and LMS for many reasons. I guess with LMS those wins were extra special because I had watched women’s ultimate grow from non-existent to multiple teams competing for gold at an All Ireland Championships. It finally felt like all the hard work in terms of development with the IFDA and recruitment of women into the sport had paid off.

 

In 2005 you were one of the handlers at Rostock, European Clubs, on a team that lost every game – but included many players who went on to achieve some great successes for Ireland soon afterwards. Was it a matter of not enough experience?

Possibly. It was so strange. Most games were only lost by one or two points which made those losses tougher to swallow. I guess the level of experience varied greatly across the team in terms of the length of time each player had been playing for and the varying levels of exposure to the pressure and expectation that comes with European National and Club Championships and this may have made a difference in those tight games. We just couldn’t close out the games and secure the win…perhaps just a little short on the rhythm, moves and grooves to come out victorious? (Sorry…)

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Sparky ‘role model’ Booker

Did you have any female role models within or outside of Irish ultimate when you started?

Sparky Booker – I first saw her play with Pookas in 2001, Diane Davis and Alia Ayub stood out for me when I watched Princess Layout at Dub Tourney in 2003 and Ruth Warrior Carlton after EUC 2003 and WUGC 2004.

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Top female players to have played for Ireland? Why?

This is not an easy question to answer because my brain is a fuzz right now and I will inevitably forget to mention someone so quickly off the top of my head from Irish teams I have played on…

Emer Mernagh – handling and throws, consistency

Laura McGrath – athleticism, speed, defence, consistency

Fiona Mernagh –  versatility, speed, endurance,

Liz Schaffalitzky – agression and dynamics when handling

Sinead Flemming – catching, deep game

Fiona MacDonald – breakforce throws and leadership

Sarah-Jane Monaghan – agression on defence and speed

Catherine Gainey – cutting and air presence

What should I have asked you?

Can’t think of anything right now.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just the opportunity to thank all the people, like yourself, who put in the hard graft in the early years and gave us all a solid foundation to build on! I, for one, really appreciate it!

To Ultimate players who happen to be job hunting – put it on your CV!! Will be the easiest question to answer in the interview and it looks great!

Finally, apologies if I have any of the facts in this interview wrong. Most are from memory so please excuse if any are a little off!

Oh, and best of luck to all Irish squads next year.

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4 thoughts on “Yvonne Halpin, from Loreto school player to European Silver medalist

  1. Retired!? I never thought that was possible. After Brian MacD you were possibly the most enthusiastic ultimate player I knew.

    Funny reading back on the DCU history, I remember that freshers day well!

    Hope the two of you are well!
    -Barry

    Like

    • Simon Cocking says:

      Delighted to hear from you Barry.

      You were one of the great DCU founders.

      Been trying to track you down for a while. Drop me a line, twitter @SimonCocking

      Like

  2. Pingback: The latest 7 Ultimate interviews, with added girl power | Sarah Paddle Swim

  3. Pingback: Dominick Smyth interview, part two | Sarah Paddle Swim

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