A Force to be Reckoned With

July 01, 2013

Dr. Dominique Fontenette squeezes a career in Ultimate Frisbee around her work in medicine.

WRITTEN BY SHARI ROAN, PHOTOGRAPHED BY WILLIAM BROTMAN / ULTIPHOTOS AND VINCE TAROC

Dominique Fontenette frisbee career
Dominique Fontenette's frisbee career
For most people, taking classes in human biology at one of the nation’s most demanding colleges would be challenge enough. But most people aren’t like Dominique Fontenette, MD.

While preparing to enter Stanford University in her freshman year, 1993, she had the nagging sense that something was missing. A natural athlete who had played softball, basketball and tennis growing up, she wanted to participate in one of Stanford’s sports programs but faced long odds of making a team.

“Stanford’s teams were so good; you had to be number-one in the nation to make the basketball or tennis team,” recalls Dr. Fontenette, now an attending emergency room physician at Saint John’s Health Center. “I talked to the softball coach about being a walk-on player, but I knew it would be a tough road to get any actual playing time.”

She was taking a welcome-to-college tour of the campus, however, when she spotted a group of students playing Frisbee. “I was walking down one of the sidewalks, and there was a huge field and there were all these really tan people throwing a Frisbee around. I said, ‘I want to do that.’”

That was the start of a 20-year career as one the nation’s top female athletes in the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. Dr. Fontenette, who is approaching her 38th birthday, has an athletic resume studded with accomplishments.

She led Stanford to its first undefeated season and first Ultimate Players Association College Championship in 1997 and won the Callahan Award given to the most valuable player. She’s been a member of several semi-professional Ultimate Frisbee teams, earning her first national title with the San Francisco Fury in 1999. She’s a veteran of the USA National team, and last year she competed on the Women’s Masters Team USA, comprised of athletes age 30 or older.

And she accomplished it all while attending college, helping launch an Internet business, completing medical school, fulfilling her residency and establishing her medical career.

“I think I needed Frisbee,” says Dr. Fontenette. “It’s my outlet. It’s where I feel good about myself. It’s where I feel the most confidence. When you feel confident about one thing, I feel it permeates the rest of the things you do.”

In Ultimate Frisbee, the disc is passed among players down the field in pursuit of a score by catching the disc in an end zone. It’s similar to basketball in that players must play offense and defense, adapt to quick transitions and maintain a rapid pace.

“I was in a position to become a good Ultimate Frisbee player because you have to be good at a lot of aspects of the game,” Dr. Fontenette says. “You need to be able to throw the Frisbee – my background in softball helped with that – and the mechanics of hitting a tennis ball are similar. And you need to be able to run and jump.”

But, she adds, “The actual key to being good was passion. I threw myself into the sport.”

Dr. Fontenette has spent much of her Ultimate Frisbee career commuting to play with teams (she now plays for the Seattle Riot.) She says she benefited from understanding teammates who tolerated many missed practices due to her medical career as well as medical school deans who sometimes allowed her to take exams early so she could attend a tournament.

Dominique Fontenette, MD
Dominique Fontenette, MD
Life as an emergency room physician also suited her well. Nowadays, her ability to schedule ER shifts allows her time to travel to tournaments. Working in the ER “was something that fit my personality a lot,” she explains. “People say ER doctors are adrenaline junkies; I think there is some truth to that.”

She certainly knows how her patients feel when they appear in the ER with injuries sustained in a game.

Dr. Fontenette has had two ACL replacement surgeries, among dozens of other bumps, bruises, scrapes and strains accumulated on the playing field.

“I see a lot of injuries, and I can relate to those patients a lot,” she says. “I definitely feel like it gives me an advantage of being able to relate to how much pain they’re in or what they’re experiencing mentally, thinking, ‘When can I play again?’”

Working in the ER and playing Ultimate Frisbee both provide the deep satisfaction of being part of a skilled and highly functioning team, Dr. Fontenette says. “The camaraderie between nurses, techs and staff is what I enjoy. Every member is an invaluable person on the team in the ER – everyone from the custodial staff to the volunteers to the nurses to the techs. You need everyone equally to succeed.”