Off The Beaten Track
On the track, she strikes an intimidating pose: tall, stern, with shocks of red hair spitting out from under her helmet. She’s grown certain on her skates and performs with a confidence and fluidity natural for someone who has been skating week-in and week-out since 2007 when Toronto Roller Derby first began. During league games in Canada’s largest city, she’s as ubiquitous as the very roller skates the game is played on. She’s developed a certain nod when discussing things with coaches and captains in those heated moments in the centre of the track—head tilted, eyebrows raised, never mean or angry. It’s almost teacher-like in its certainty. She’ll listen to you and hear you out; she’ll even seem sympathetic in the moment, but in the end you can just tell that she knows she’s right. No matter how certain you may feel, she’s going to get her way in the end.
When you meet Toronto Roller Derby’s head ref in person, Penny Whistler strikes the same kind of pose. Only stripped of the referee’s black and whites and without the helmet and whistle she’s much less intimidating and it’s more striking than anything. But there is little of the awkwardness you see in some people as tall as long and as lanky: it’s a comfort born from familiarity. Though it certainly wasn’t always that way. She reached the six foot mark at the age of fourteen, but at that time, in adolescence, she was far from what you would call athletic.
“I hated sports,” she admits now. “I preferred art class, math, anything that didn’t require being coordinated.” And off the track, that’s not surprising to hear; there is little of the “jock” in her attitude or style, the sternness of competition and confrontation leaves her very quickly when the final whistle blows and the gear comes off. She fits right in, in the artsy/hipster hood of Parkdale in downtown Toronto’s west end.
Raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she began the migration north when she moved to Minneapolis to study at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities)and ended up staying in the city for eight years. It was there where her initiation into sport finally took place. “I tried rowing at university and was actually really good at it. It totally turned me into an athlete and saved me from the ‘Freshmen 15.’ ” She rowed for five years and after university found a job with a travel agency. The job allowed her to travel and broaden her view of the world at a very important time. “I never pictured myself staying there,” she says of Minnesota, and with a three-year relationship ending and her company announcing an expansion into Canada, the opportunity arose for her to move on. “I’d only been to Toronto once before, on a three-hour day trip, but I was ready to try someplace new,” she explains. In 2002, she made the move, heading north to open up a new company branch in Toronto.
Things seemed to click into place for Penny. She made friends quickly, befriending a guy named Andrew Wencer within a few weeks of moving to the city, and through another friend connecting with Monica Mitchell (another transplanted American) through LiveJournal. To help broaden her community, she tried rowing again (but it didn’t quite work out) and volunteered at TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival (which she continues to do to this day). She and Andrew eventually began dating and very quickly she began to put down roots in a new city and a new country.
She couldn’t have known that around the time she left Minnesota, the stirrings of a new sport had started to take shape in the city. The Minnesota Roller Girls were part of the first wave of the flat track roller derby expansion. Quietly, in American cities like Austin, Tucson, Seattle, New York, and Denver, the flat track revolution was just beginning to take shape. By 2006, the sport was on the verge of exploding into the international consciousness. Through the A&E series Rollergirls and the documentary Hell on Wheels, the world was slowly beginning to pay attention. Penny Whistler very quickly discovered that the sport was making its way into her life as well. “I started hearing from my friends in Minneapolis and Milwaukee about roller derby leagues starting there, and they were all getting involved,” and she followed her friends’ progress closely. “I was really envious; it just sounded liked something unique and fun.”
Then, as it eventually began to happen for so many, roller derby came to her.
On LiveJournal, she noticed her friend Monica (soon to be known as Monichrome) began to post about the creation of a new league in Toronto and that she was going to try out; then she posted that the fledgling league was in need of referees. For Penny, something clicked. Still searching for that sense of community she’d discovered through rowing, she immediately considered roller derby an option. “If all the cool people I knew in Minneapolis and Milwaukee were getting involved in (roller derby), then that meant there were cool people getting involved in Toronto,” she says of her immediate interest. Having never seen a game (there was simply nowhere to do so, the boutcast boom had yet to begin and as slick and polished as Rollergirls was, it was short on sport and big on drama), she actually saw her first roller derby bout in Milwaukee on a visit home when one of Minnesota’s home teams, the Atomic Bombshells, came to town to school Milwaukee’s newly formed travel team, The Brewcity Bruisers.
Refereeing appealed to her immediately. “Officiating really chose me,” she admits. “I thought it would be fun to skate (as a player), but I hadn’t been on skates in years and since I wasn’t at the point where I could just jump into it and there wasn’t really the training program we have now…there was never a calling to (play).” And even watching that first game she was drawn to the officials. “I was already watching the refs,” she says of that first game, and she even noticed a mistake when both jammer refs signaled their jammer was lead.
Beyond just ability and experience, reffing appealed to her personality as well. “I’m more comfortable in the background of things,” she admits. “(Roller derby) is a sport ‘by the skaters, for the skaters,’ and as an official you’re mostly in the background; you’re in the middle of everything but barely there.” The subculture within the subculture. “I’ve always been sort of a reject, so I’m right at home as a referee,” she laughs at her own use of the term reject. “We’re kind of like the underdog team,” she clarifies. “And I’m an introvert, so the nerdy part of me likes the whole methodical process of it and the challenge.”
And she makes a good point. In many ways, roller derby has gone out of its way to avoid the trappings of the mainstream North American sports culture; it’s aggressively carved its own path. But the one thing in roller derby that has directly translated from mainstream sports is the vitriol and anger often directed at referees. Penny seems unable to explain why this is, but explains that their role in the sport is much like the roles of referees in all sports. “We have a lot of responsibility as officials to show that roller derby is a credible sport, so we have dress codes and codes of conduct,” she says, searching for words. “We’re expected to be sports officials at the same time we’re volunteer sports officials, but we’re held up to the same standards.” In the end she says what referees in every sport say: “You can’t take that sort of thing personally, and most of the time I don’t think it is…it just goes with the job.”
That first season in Toronto was one of experimentation. Although a ref crew from Detroit came up to help train the officials, there was still a lot of trial and error. Generally, there were four referees outside and five inside, but it wasn’t consistent: “The first season, we did something different every game.” Although the United Leagues Coalition (quickly changed to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) had formed and disseminated the rules widely, there wasn’t as much overarching control as there would be, and the rules themselves were still far from refined. Changes happened often and were usually major compared to the tweaks that occur now.
“For those first few years there were a lot of inconsistencies…so you’d have two teams come together playing under different rules (interpretations).” But she thinks the rules are always getting better “little by little,” and she thinks that WFTDA is necessary for the consistent and steady growth of the sport. “It has helped package roller derby where a group in a small town can download the rules and lay the track and start playing the game the same way everyone else does.” And she does believe that the moves made have helped and is looking forward to the elimination of minor penalties in 2013. “I think it’s a positive move on a few different levels: it will make it more accessible to the fans. (Right now) people don’t know why skaters go to the box, and it will eliminate a lot of messes with tracking and making mistakes. But it will also be good for the leagues. It takes a lot of staff to track those minors, so…the whole process will be streamlined. It will keep the game moving and make things a little more cut and dry.”
While she certainly seems to think that the sport is on the right path, she’s a little more guarded than some on the immediate future of sport: She still thinks that we’re far away from seeing roller derby at an event like the Olympics. “You need derby to be a little more universal. We still need to have a few more world cups.” The inaugural, Toronto hosted, Roller Derby World Cup remains one of the highlights of her long and varied career. She still expresses genuine amazement at “being a part of that first world cup and seeing all of these countries come to this tournament to play this weird sport that we do.” She also, wisely, says that more than the Olympics, the future of the sport is in the burgeoning junior roller derby movement. “There will be a whole new level of skill,” she says of when this generation of junior skaters begins to infiltrate the ranks of the senior leagues.
What started as a hobby and as a way to gain a community of like-minded friends has turned into much more than that for Penny Whistler. It’s a grueling, hard, almost selfless job that sees her traveling around Ontario and even the United States now with CN Power and she’ll be NSOing this year’s WFTDA North Central Regionals for the first time. It’s become, essentially, a second job. “I didn’t quite know what I was getting into and I don’t think that any of us at that time necessarily did, which was kind of fun to all start at that level and figure it out together,” she says. And she has a history of diving into things fully. “When I was on the rowing team I was the treasurer and really involved in the organization; I’m not one to sit back and do anything half-assed: If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.”
One thing about a new and developing sport is that there hasn’t been any traditional career trajectories laid out. No one knows what constitutes a full and successful career. “I haven’t given myself a deadline. As long as I’m still getting something out of it,” she explains when asked about her own personal timelines. But even after all these years, officiating the sport still challenges and intrigues her. “I don’t think I’ll ever really know everything about being a roller derby official because it’s always changing and there are a lot of complexities to officiating. There is always something I can improve on.”
But then she gets to the heart of being involved in this nascent sport: “It’s more being able to balance volunteering at this and real life. As an official you have to be at every game and you are at the mercy of the schedule. To be a good official, it’s not something you can do only six months of the year.” But after years of transience and transition, things seem to be settling down in Toronto. “We have a solid crew in Toronto and being able to delegate responsibilities will allow me to have a few more years in derby,” she says hopefully.
She’s already accomplished quite a lot in the game, from helping to start one of Canada’s largest and most successful leagues, to muscling her way into the “boy’s club” of roller derby refereeing. “Being the first certified female referee in Canada was a proud moment, but I certainly don’t want to be the only one!” she says of her position as a role model for female Canadian refs (and others, like Tri-City’s Jules and Regulations have quickly followed). “It’s okay to be a woman in roller derby and not be a skater.”
Despite all of these accomplishments, she is certainly not resting on her laurels and still has clear goals. “Right now there is only one female Level 5 WFTDA certified referee and one Level 4,” she says without explanation. And none is needed. Someday, it almost goes without saying, we will certainly see the name Penny Whistler added to that very exclusive list.