Very happy to bring you part one of an up close, and carefully considered, interview with Dominick Smyth. He has been a mainstay of Irish ultimate since the late 90’s. It could be argued that he was the first ‘native’ to really go native, and get the bug for ultimate and keep playing it. As an ex-basketball player, and pretty much every other sport going too, it shows again the value of looking wide and broad for potential ultimate players.
There have been many accolades for Dominick over the years, so it’s fitting to celebrate the conclusion of his latest chapter as a high level ultimate player. This interview in many ways is an apt reflection of just how much time, thought and energy Dominick has put into the sport.
Sport/s played in school? basketball, anything else at TCD?
I played pretty much every sport I could as a kid, either for fun or in competitions. Football, swimming, tennis, bowling, karate, athletics, cricket, table tennis all got a fair bit of attention over the years. My main sports though were rugby (10 years in school), basketball (8 years through college and beyond) and water polo (4 years through college).
Tell us about how you remember your first ultimate encounter. I remember calling up to you and some others cos we were short a few players in the sports hall at TCD. What did you think of it?
That’s exactly how I remember it too. We went to the balcony to watch you guys after playing basketball. I think 3 or 4 of us joined in when you asked. I honestly can’t remember anything of that game but when you started talking about The Dublin Tournament that weekend I was seriously tempted. Come Friday evening I went to the Pav to find you and it has all just kind of snowballed from there.
Why did you keep playing?
It was a sport to run around, throw and catch. That appealed to the sportsman in me. I don’t think I was even aware at the time but the self-refereeing was a big thing too. I was always really annoyed at opponents getting away with things in other sports just because the ref didn’t see it. I felt this was simply cheating and it always left a really sour taste for me afterwards.
Suddenly ultimate was offering something different. Like I said, I don’t know if I thought about it but here was an environment where I could point out the cheats and they wouldn’t get away with it. Even better than that, I quickly realised, and loved, was that there weren’t many cheaters to begin with.
Dominic back row, centre. Mentor Brian Good front row middle, with a sheep rather than a monkey on his back
You played world clubs in 99, how did you find that? Tell us about your thoughts about spiking the disc, a first and possibly only time? Brian Good took you aside and had a one to one about how we wanted to play the game?
I was still very much just playing for fun before going to St. Andrews. I had played The Dublin Tournament 3 years in a row and a summer league in Albany, New York – that’s it! I had no idea about the scale of WUCC or that we were going to get destroyed by nearly every team. It was simply a chance to play for a week against teams from all over the world. Sounded pretty cool.
Once we got started and I saw the difference in skill, organisation and tactical levels, the competitor in my came out. That celebration (I threw the disc high in the air) was against Ultimatum from France. In theory they should have been beating us easy but we were within 1 or 2 late in the game so I was pretty pumped to score. Brian Goode was the best player that I knew so when he started telling me it wasn’t on, I listened.
I’ve spiked the disc many times since then though. I view it as something directed towards myself and my team mates. A release or a celebration. Maybe emphasising the point to each other that we just scored. I have no problem with others, including opponents, doing likewise. I don’t take it too kindly though if someone celebrates in order to belittle an opponent. I don’t think that’s appropriate at any stage in life, let alone on the pitch.
How did you see Dublin ultimate in the 90’s? After worlds you didn’t play a summer tournament again with us until 03? I remember Dec Moore was keen to get you back in 01. Time out, burn out?
My early days of ultimate were equal parts fun and frustrating. It was great getting out playing but having been involved in organised team sports since the age of six it was very annoying that there was rarely enough people to play full games. Thus I only ever saw it as a bit of fun on a Sunday afternoon.
The absence from summer ultimate was purely because I was working on a camp in the States all that time (I skipped half a summer to play in ’99). Given the choice of fun on Sundays and a trip away to play for a week versus a summer of fun at camp? I chose camp every year. While I was starting to play more and more, and had just been introduced to beach hat tournaments and the European club scene, Ultimate in Ireland didn’t have anything to compete with camp.
Irish Ultimate in the 00’s, your point of view?
I don’t think it can be considered as a 10 year block. Things were changing so fast that even one year to the next could be a completely different landscape. New competitions (Inter Varsities in 2003 which became Cork Open in 2004), new colleges (DCU, UCC, DIT), teams starting to travel more often, groups forming their own identity and competing as that instead of under the one umbrella.
It was a fantastic time of growth to be around and be a part of. Seeing the sport blossom so much in such a short period was brilliant.
In 2003, both Open and Women’s national teams struggled to get full squads. By 2007, both squads had try outs, fitness plans and players with extensive competitive experience.
In 2001 there were 2 Irish teams at the Dublin Tournament. As soon as 2003 we had enough college teams for an outdoor Inter Varsity competition. By 2008 we had enough clubs for an All-Ireland Championship.
We have to talk about Chimpo. Most players these days don’t even know who they were, tell us what you liked / disliked about the period of orange domination?
The Johnny Chimpo Collective and Institute for Higher Thought – “The most dominant force in the history of Irish ultimate” – ok, maybe it’s just me that says that.
At the most basic level what I liked was that we played. Regularly, consistently and as the same group of people. Yes winning was great craic but I never went into a competition thinking “this will be great because we’re going to win”. I thought “this will be great because I get to hang out with a bunch of chimps and play a load of games”.
Being around a bunch of mates and playing the sport that, by this point, I well and truly loved was absolute heaven as far as I was concerned.
Internally my dislikes would have been that we didn’t grow as a club (new members were rare) and we didn’t train very often (only a little before competitions). Externally my only dislike was that people had a negative view of us. I’m not saying I wanted everyone to, or imagined they would, love us, but I remember hearing people talk about “hating Chimpo” and thinking we were “a pack of a**holes” and feeling quite hurt that they had got the complete wrong impression of us.
We were a bunch of mates that wanted to play and have fun together. We would all admit that some of our jokes off the pitch might have been a bit crude but on the pitch we always played hard and fair. Regardless of score, we always pushed to execute as well as we could, take opportunities that came up and put all our effort into each play. Be it playing DIT 2 on in the pools or beating Broc in another final (sorry, couldn’t resist) we went hard to get the job done.
I will admit though that even at the time I did think that people’s dislike of us was serving a purpose. It galvanised teams to try beat us. It motivated people to invest their energies into their own clubs in an effort to show a viable alternative. While I doubt many people would admit it, the collective dislike of Chimpo helped give ultimate in Ireland a nice little push in the mid to late 00s.
Your time with Chimpo was interrupted by a move overseas to play for Fire of London? How would you rate your experience? Did it work out as planned?
Moving to London in 2006 to play is something that I massively regret. While the number of people involved in the club was more than was active in Dublin, the standard of training sessions was probably the same. The environment, however, was completely different.
Everyone had come to the club randomly so there was little or no history between the players involved. What history there was seemed to exist between small groups of individuals but never spread to include the club. Then, with London being so big, everyone was spread out. This meant there was rarely anything done together off the pitch. I’m by no means a party animal but I’d say in the year I was there I had the chance to go out with teammates about a half dozen times.
While it was nice being part of a club with two teams and a lot of people at training, I grew to feel quite isolated and insignificant during that year. I got very depressed towards the end of my time there and although I tried to make plans to change my situation or come up with things to look forward to, the damage had been done and it had too big an effect on me. I’ve been trying to deal with the consequences ever since.
What effect has this had on your playing, and your personal life, in the years since?
I spent some time in a psychiatric hospital on suicide watch when I moved back to Dublin and since then have been doing my best to cope with my depression. In a paradoxical way, it is both difficult and reassuring being part of a team while feeling insignificant. I’ve thought about it many times and, uncomfortable as I nearly always feel when around a group (and usually individuals as well), it is not an understatement to say that being part of the Irish ultimate community has kept me alive
Physically, I gained a lot of weight and have never been able to shed it all. This slowed me down and killed my fitness for a few years. Mentally, I have gone through bouts of having little or no confidence in my playing ability. I also had to force myself to be around people when all I wanted to do was crawl under a rock. I’ve felt out of place because, in my view of the world, I am not wanted. Not a great feeling when spending evenings, and between games, with team mates at tournaments.
There aren’t many people that I feel comfortable around which is something I have had to accept. I’ve asked a lot of those people over the years and, unfortunately, have pushed some of them away. I only have myself to blame for that. In essence I’m caught in a vicious cycle of isolating myself because I feel insignificant, leading to feeling insignificant because I’m isolated. The fact that I’m aware of this doesn’t mean I can do anything to change it. In my mind, this is how the world is and there is nothing I can do about it.
Wow, that got a lot more serious than I would have expected. How about we get back to ultimate?
OK, what are your favourtie tournaments / finals played
So many to name, for so many reasons. UK Tour for competition and focus. Bar do Peixe, Porro Open, Red Hat and New Years Beach for the people. EUC and WUGC because I got to represent Ireland. Read part two here