Part 8: The Great Leap Forward
We ended a recent fresh meat session with an endurance check (the 25 laps in 5 minutes minimum skill requirement). I hit my 25 once again, but I felt like I should be getting better, getting more laps, and wasn’t sure how to improve. During my cool down a couple of astute skaters gave me with the same advice. Apparently I was skating too much like a hockey player: straightforward and without respect to the shape of the track. They made a few minor adjustments to my upper body, forcing me to overcompensate with the way I was taking turns: my inside arm was glued to my back, I looked as far beyond my position as possible. The results were noticeable almost immediately. Just a little tweak changed everything.
This wasn’t the first time either. Loosened trucks gave me better mobility; new, thinner wheels gave me more speed and allowed me to stop better. And it only makes sense that when you get to a certain level (in any sport), the adjustments that are made become increasingly smaller. Also, the changes become less about physical ability and more strategic (physical positioning and footwork, for example, instead of raw physical athleticism).
By 2009, the sport of flat track roller derby had reached a similar point, it was growing without changing. But the continued development of WFTDA as a governing body for the sport was aiding in a massive spurt in the number of teams. There were literally hundreds of leagues (where only three years prior there’d barely been dozens), and from that first Dust Devil National Championship tournament in 2006, the competitive organization had grown quickly as well. By 2009 the organization was divided into four regions for the first time: East, West, North Central and South Central. With this expansion and the increased number of people playing and competing, teams were looking for a way to get an advantage over others. Whispers of change from the west, and hints of an altered approach to the game began to filter through derby circles. It all came to a head at the 2009 WFTDA Nationals in Philadelphia, when the sport of flat track roller derby changed forever.
The Denver Roller Dolls all star team, the Mile High Club, entered the tournament as an almost after thought as the third seed in the West, but there were subtle hints that this was a team poised for change. Like many of the all star teams, their uniforms were more athletic than the often theatrical costumes worn by home teams, and many of the Denver all stars had even reverted to using their real names. They opened the tournament against Kansas City, the second seed in the South Central and WFTDA champions in 2007. There was a slow and scrappy start to the bout; evenly matched in athleticism and ability, neither team could pull away for an advantage, and almost ten minutes in, Denver held a nail-biting 7-6 lead. The first power jam of the bout went Denver’s way, and very quickly, their pack took over. After eventually dividing the opposition pack and isolating one of the KC blockers at the back, Denver ground the pack to a screeching halt, shocking the confused blockers and drawing uncomfortable murmurs from the crowd. The jammer quickly picked up 20 points sailing by the dead pack, opening up a big lead that they would not relent. Denver never looked back that weekend, shocking the derby world with a third place finish in the tournament, but more importantly ushering in an era of strategic evolution that would define what the sport would look like. It was, in every way, a great leap forward for flat track roller derby, a sport-defining evolution that would finally, strategically any way, sever the remaining ties with the banked-track version of the sport that had preceded it.
As with all change, the isolation strategies have not been accepted lightly. Denver’s brilliant strategic play ignited a furious debate in the derby world that would continue right through to the 2010 WFTDA Championship. There was much skepticism and confusion over what was seen as a “manipulation” of the rules of the sport, culminating in the formation of the Slow Derby Sucks (SDS) movement that was out in full force at the 2010 tournament. Along with wearing SDS shirts and holding signs, in flyers distributed at the event the group urged people to boycott teams who employed slow pack strategies, despite the fact that in some way or another, the majority of the teams at the tournament employed pace strategies.
Astonishingly, the confusion continues. In an awkward article in the most recent issue of Blood & Thunder (“To Stop or Not to Stop,” Issue 16), the writer can’t seem to grasp the concept at all, and—despite the best attempts of the Denver skaters interviewed to explain that isolation strategies allow a team to control the pace of the pack—continually refers to this as intentionally destroying the pack (perhaps confusing it with the “taking-a-knee” strategy that often, inexplicably, gets lumped into the “slow game” controversy). SDS also continues to rally against this kind of change, seeming to centre their argument around the fact that they find it boring. “Skaters say that slow techniques are difficult,” a spokesperson explained in a recent interview, “and therefore showcasing skating skill, but are missing the point that the spectators want to be excited by the dramatic speed and agility which is the result of fast and furious, tight pack play.” While they do believe the sport should evolve, they are dead set against what they call the “extreme strategy” that is employed when the pack is stopped dead or even moves backwards.
But I believe this thinking—which panders too much to the audience while at the same time questioning this audience’s ability to grasp strategies and skating techniques and appreciate them—is backward. The reality is, is that the isolation and trap strategies that have now become an essential part of any competitive team’s arsenal represent the logical evolution of the sport (and the dramatic trapping that often occurred in 2009 rarely occurs anymore against teams that are evenly matched); for me, all this confusion lies in a misunderstanding of what the nature of the game really is. No matter what anyone says, roller derby is not, by nature or definition, exclusively a fast sport. Unarguably, the goal in roller derby is for a team to advance its jammer past the opposing team’s blockers to score points. The easiest way to accomplish this goal is, logically, to slow down the blockers (conversely, the best way to avoid being scored on is to speed up!). Therefore, one could easily argue that by nature and definition roller derby is just as much a slow game as it is a fast one.
Traditionally, roller derby was played in a fast, forward-moving way because it was played on a velodrome. When the track was flattened, this need to be in perpetual motion disappeared, freeing up skaters to explore the possibilities of being on a slower, much more controlled surface, and allowing them to find better ways to impede the progress of the opposing team’s blockers. As of the summer of 2011 pretty much every competitive flat track team employs some sort of isolation strategy (at the very least during power jams), and in most circles, the controversy seems to be a thing of the past.
The sport continues to grow, though not with quite the same leaps and bounds; on a macro level, the strategies of the game continue to be refined. On a micro level, players continue to make the slightest physical and equipment adjustments in an attempt to glean some kind of advantage. Increasingly, this is beginning to occur as early on as during the fresh meat process or on farm teams, before skaters ever take to the track competitively.
It was through all of these changes—the focus on strategic play, the necessity of increased training—that flat track roller derby has been defined; through these evolutions, the sport has finally found its identity.