Kansas City Roller Warriors

Conquered but not Divided: Gotham Becomes First Two-time WFTDA Champ

You’ve just walked into the 1st Bank Center on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. It’s the third game of the 2011 WFTDA Championship and the first thing you hear is the roar of a crowd; then the already ragged voice of an over-excited track-side announcer calling a “grand slam.” You rush along the crowded concourse passing derby vendors and over-priced beer hawkers until finally finding an opening. You rush up a set of stairs and for a brief moment, as you gaze out over the thousands for that first glimpse of big-stadium derby, the track looking impossibly larger and smaller than anything you’ve seen before because of the scope of the game and the grandness of the stage, your breath is taken away. So taken by the sight are you that it takes a moment to gather yourself, to look about for a place to sit. You feel like you’ve somehow stumbled onto an oracle summoning the future of flat track roller derby; until, of course, you manage to sit and gather yourself, take a deep breath and realise: the future is now.

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For the second year in a row the extraordinarily talented Oly Rollers lost in the WFTDA Championship bout to a team that played a more sophisticated game; a grittier, slower, more nuanced version of the sport, one that has evolved on the flat track and that each year looks a little more different from the banked track game that preceded it. And that could be at the heart of Oly’s inability to hold their position at the top of the heap: in many ways they still play a banked track version of the sport on a flat surface, what has on the digital pages of this site been referred to as “hit and run” roller derby.

Oly and Gotham in the 2011 final.

Oly is, without a doubt, a team of immensely proficient skaters, and one-on-one, a player such as the magnificent Sassy is still able to mesmerize with her timing and instinct, and so good are they—so mind-bogglingly talented are they—that they are still able to dominate pretty much any team on the planet that is playing the game. While last year, it took late-game heroics for Rocky Mountain to foil Oly’s attempt to defend the title, this year in the final they often looked perplexed against Gotham. Stunned at times in the second half of their surprisingly undisciplined 140-97 loss, for here was a team that embraced the tactics emerging organically from playing the game on a flat surface, but here also was a team that could skate. They could hit, they had the footwork, the endurance and raw skill. In the final of the 2011 WFTDA Championship Gotham Girls Roller Derby may have emerged as the first perfect flat track team. Not just a perfect roller derby team, but a perfect flat track one. In a sport as young and as “unfinished” as this one is, we may finally have ourselves a model off which to base the future.

While there was still some resistance to change at this year’s championship, there wasn’t as much of the cynicism that sometimes marred the experience of last year’s tournament (the insulting and narrow-minded “Slow Derby Sucks” movement, for example, that among other things, called for boycotts of particular teams in propaganda-ish flyers). And while boos did reign down when things didn’t get moving at the start line (hopefully for the teams that allowed it to happen and not those who were taking advantage of the teams who didn’t know what to do, or didn’t realize it was to their detriment), there was less meanness behind it, and the signs in the crowd that insulted teams last year were replaced in 2011 by more good-natured, even playful ones like “Occupy The Pivot Line,” or “The Pivot Line Needs Love Too.”

Minnesota All Stars were a much different team from the one that lost in the first round in 2010.

While a lot of the fans have certainly embraced the multi-speed nature of the flat track game (remember, as recently as 2009 fans were still booing trapping tactics on power jams), it seems that all of the top teams have come around as well. The Minnesota Girls All Stars are probably the best example of a league and a team that has finally come to embrace the flat track game. Although one of the oldest leagues in flat track history, only one year ago, at last year’s championship, it looked as though the sport had passed them by. They seemed reluctant to play the slow-game tactics that had come to define flat track, and relied on traditional hit and run strategies. They were destroyed in the opening round by the multi-speed, multi-strategy Charm City Roller Girls 249-118.

What a difference a year makes.

After a thrilling run at the North Central Regionals that came up just short, Minnesota was drawn in the first round against Charm City once again. While it was a similar Charm team to last year’s, Minnesota could not have been more different, or more prepared. They played a slower, more patient game, and the bout was full of nerdy derby as nearly every jam began with what is coming to be called a “rugby” or “scrum” start. Minnesota, looking like a revitalized team, got their revenge, 160-121.

Kansas City, champions in 2007, was the breakout team of the 2011 tournament.

As exciting as it was to see an original WFTDA team buy into the more contemporary version of the sport, as fitting as it seemed that Texas returned (after only one year’s absence) to the final four, and as thrilling as it was to see WFTDA crown its first two-time champion, this was a tournament of breakouts. While Sassy may still be the smartest and best one-on-one blocker in the game, her teammate, Hockey Honey (a Jet City transfer), looks to be a super-blocker in training and needs to add just a bit of control to her game to become considered one of the best there is. And finally, surprising tournament MVP and super-breakout player Kelly Young (along with her big-time blocker teammate Eclipse) led the breakout team of the tournament, Kansas City Roller Warriors, all the way to a surprising birth in the final four (they seemed to run out of steam against Texas in the third place bout leading early on before fading in the end and falling 136-112). Though it should be noted that Kelley Young has had a storied career in the sport, this was the year her name finally lit up the marquee and the larger flat track community took notice. Finally, Gotham, who seemed a top player or two on the depth chart away from competing last year, was pushed over the edge by transfer skaters Sexy Slaydie (a monster in the pack from Nashville) and Wild Cherri (Tampa Bay) who finally gave the team a consistent and formidable three-jammer rotation that was untouchable in the tournament and was a huge factor in their championship victory.

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As you follow the stream of spent fans exiting 1st Bank Centre, your head humming, the roar of the crowd still echoing, you come to the realization that with each passing WFTDA Championship, that with each passing season, the game continues to find itself; this year it seemed more stable in its identity, more confident in what it has become. Born from a game of speed and agility on a banked surface, it has evolved into its own species: a game of pace and stability on a flat track that looks less and less like the sport that parented it less than a decade ago. And as you pull out of Denver, the sounds of the games still ringing in your ears, the city rising up among the mountains that fall away as your plane ascends, you think to yourself, contentedly, that the sport of flat track roller derby has finally become what it will be.

**For complete game-by-game recaps, visit DNN

Nerd Meat Part 8: The Great Leap Forward

Nerd Meat: The Nerd Does Derby

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).

The Philly-hosted 2009 WFTDA champioships was a pivotal tournament for flat track roller derby.

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.

Denver (seen here playing Windy City in the 2009 quarterfinals) brought trapping and isolation strategies to a larger audience at the 2009 WFTDA championship. (photo by Derek Lang)

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.

A few Canadians, Mega Bouche (ToRD) and Lock N Roll (HCRG), show their love for slow derby at the 2010 WFTDA Championships. (Photo by Lucid Lou)

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.