Sometimes when you give performers a stage larger than any other that they have ever been on, they wilt under the spotlight. But sometimes they also rise up to meet that grandeur of that stage and give the performance of their life. At this weekend’s WFTDA Championship not one, but two teams were placed under the glaring light of that spotlight and were inspired to give the kinds of performances that will go down in history.
At the 9th Women’s Flattrack Derby Association championship, Gotham Girls Roller Derby, the sport’s greatest team thus far, won its fourth championship and third in a row, continuing an unprecedented run that had up until this weekend been defined by its dominance. Having won more than 40 games in a row over three years, with the final 22 of them having been by more than 100 points, the defending champs entered the weekend seeming very much like a monolith of dominance. And while they maintained their streak and proved—definitively once more—that they are the best there is, it was the opposition that stole the show.
In its first championship, Ohio offered little resistance to Gotham in the quarterfinals (although they narrowly managed to avoid being part of a record-setting defeat with a comparatively strong second half in the 509-64 loss), and while everyone expected the Bay Area Derby Girls to do considerably better, no one in Milwaukee’s US Cellular Arena gave them much of a shot. Down 22-2 after three jams, things seemed to be unfolding as expected for Bay Area: Mighty Gotham once again tightening the noose early. But then something interesting happened: The B.A.D. Girls wouldn’t go away. Only a late 20-point power jam kept Gotham ahead by a significant amount (102-47 at half). The second half was much the same, with Bay Area winning over the hearts of the crowd and keeping pace with their opponents before succumbing to the champs 174-125, which was, impressively, the tightest margin Gotham had won by since June 2012.
The Texas Rollergirls Texacutioners, the grandmothers of our modern game, were apparently watching that semifinal (they’d already handily dispatched Denver in their semifinal 298-129) and must have drawn confidence from it; nonetheless, there were few, if any, who gave the skaters from Austin much of a chance in the final—indeed word around the track was that the B.A.D. vs. Gotham semi had essentially been the championship game. (Bay Area went on to finish third, handling Denver 224-174).
Gotham and Texas have a history that dates back all the way to the first WFTDA championship in 2006, where Texas defeated Gotham 32-16 in a ten-minute round robin seeding-game. Since then, they have met six times in sanctioned bouts with Gotham winning them all by increasingly larger margins culminating in Gotham’s 247 point victory (313-66) just six months ago at ECDX. With similar rosters and not much time between games, who would have expected anything different?
Unlike the Bay Area showdown though, Gotham was unable to even pull ahead early with Texas leading 23-14 after four jams. Indeed, the two teams would trade leads throughout and only a very late 25-3 run over three jams would allow Gotham to pull away and successfully defend its Hydra with a narrow 199-173 win. In the pack, Smarty Pants, Polly Gone and Fifi Nomenon cemented their status as superstars, and while tournament MVP Bloody Mary led the way with the star, it was Hauss the Boss who would be the shocker in the final, pirouetting and leaping her way around Gotham packs and not looking out of place at all on the game’s grandest stage.
Beyond the shocker of those two games, the 2013 tournament was the best yet, and displayed an incredible growth of the game from a strategic and athletic point of view. Friday’s first-round matchups provided one of the greatest days of derby in tournament history, with an average margin of victory in the 20s. And while the quarterfinals didn’t quite provide the same level of intensity, there were moments of brilliance: for example in the Texas vs. Atlanta quarterfinal there was a jam that began as a tightly knit scrum start that didn’t break apart as it approached and then moved beyond turn one; then turn two. As the amoebic-like mass of bodies churned and grinded its way around the track, the crowd slowly began to clap, then cheer, then stand to applaud the gritty, sticky brilliance of the defensive derby on display: it was flat track roller derby at its very best.
The WFTDA ruleset has taken a lot of criticism, with many saying that the game is too slow, but there was little of those kinds of discussions this weekend, and one can expect that there won’t be many more to come. As slow as the slowest moments in the games were, there were breathtaking bursts of speed—the fastest roller derby ever seen. And this is the beauty of the WFTDA ruleset: that contrast between grinding slowness and blazing speed that can be achieved. And while the rules are still in relative infancy and will continue to evolve (for example, there are still too many no-impact penalties called in the game, and there is still some discomfort over allowing a pack speed of absolute 0), but the quibbles of the recent years seem fairly insignificant after the display of the potential for the game seen this weekend. That Texas vs. Gotham final was as good a game of roller derby that has ever been played, with a level of intensity and excitement worthy of any sport at any level.
And not to be overlooked, the first ever Division 2 final between Santa Cruz and Jet City was just as exciting as its D1 counterpart; a last-jam one-point thriller (195-194 for Jet City) capping off a successful D2 experiment that is providing a massive competitive platform for the next generation of Ohios and Angel Citys and Atlantas—teams that could crack the top of the WFTDA list some day.
As hard as it is to walk away from another season, a brilliant season that saw international teams compete at an increasingly higher level (hello London, welcome to champs, and Melbourne, Toronto, Vancouver welcome to the party), that saw the sport reach new heights of competitive parity–as hard as it is to walk away, we can all take comfort in knowing how strong the future of flat track really is.
**A special thanks (and congrats) to the Brew City Bruisers for hosting such a fantastic tournament.
**All games were boutcast live and will be archived on WFTDA.TV.