In the early morning of Thursday, December 4th, 2014, at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, a half-awake group of announcers, volunteers, and staff was groggily standing in line to check in for credentials at the 2014 Blood and Thunder Roller Derby World Cup. Nearby, and snaking all along the interior wall of the cathedral-like mezzanine of the auditorium, were hundreds of fans who’d arrived early to gain entry or pick up last-minute tickets to the event. There was a murmur in the Center, the buzz of half-formed expectations and fully realized anticipation, but it was muted by the early morning hour, by the remnants of jet lag yet to be shaken.
A set of doors at the near-end of the hall sprung open and out walked Team Argentina, unmistakable in their baby-blue and white striped kit, skates in hand, but mostly geared up for warm ups for their early-morning game on Day 1 of the second Roller Derby World Cup.
It took a moment for the groggy mass in the hall to take note of the arrival of the team, but when they did, one part of the sleepy line of fans suddenly erupted: dancing, chanting, singing, flags of Argentina materialized and waved proudly. The singing accompanied the blushing and appreciative team as it entered the World Cup stadium and disappeared from our view.
Yet the singing continued. The dancing continued, and it would do so nearly unabated for the next four days.
It was my first “World Cup Moment” and proved to be just one of a countless number of World Cup Moments that would touch and inspire everyone who gathered in Dallas, Texas, for what would turn out to be—so far anyway—flat track roller derby’s greatest moment, an incredible crowning achievement for a sport only a decade into its very existence.
It’s actually been quite a year for flat track roller derby, a bounce back year in many ways for its leading governing body, the WFTDA, through whom the vast majority of the participants at the event were introduced to the game. The WFTDA Playoffs were an incredible success on the track, including a Division 2 tournament that provided the most parity of any flat track tournament in history, and globally the game had grown far beyond even the thirty teams in attendance in Dallas, evidenced by the donations of gear being collected on site for the emerging league in Beirut and the buzz around the newly formed league in Cairo. And for a potentially defining year in flat track roller derby, the 2014 World Cup proved to be a fitting end.
No, it was not a highly competitive tournament, though arguably more competitive than some thought it would be, and no the dominance of the United States was not negated, though the Americans were tested more than any thought possible. What it was, was a celebration of the sport, a global coming-out party on a scale that far eclipsed that of the inaugural World Cup in Toronto in 2011. Of course, through the sheer force of evolution, this event was way bigger and way better than that previous one, but that is as it should be, and undoubtedly the next event will be way better than this one (though it is hard to see how it could be any bigger, at least in terms of participation). And along with being a wildly celebratory party, it was also (perhaps most importantly) the largest “swap meet” the sport has ever seen: a sharing of the game, of strategies, of training.
There were some muted grumblings about the one-sided nature of some of the scores, particularly in the round-robin portion of the event where established nations like Australia (515-5 over Italy), Canada (301-23 over Denmark), England (329-50 over Ireland), Finland (312-38 over Mexico), and Sweden (459-0 over Japan) smothered their competition, but it would be hard to argue that anything else was expected in those rounds: Italy did not come into the World Cup thinking it would triumph over Australia, Denmark was probably quite content to score 23 points against Canada, and when Puerto Rican jammer Goomba Toomba managed three points in a 637-3 loss to USA, the room erupted as if they’d just won the very World Cup trophy itself.
It actually isn’t that unprecedented in the history of sport to have initially one-sided international events. For example, in ice hockey’s first forays into international competition at the 1920 and ’24 Olympics, the scores were often absurd (A Canadian amateur team won its three 1924 round robin games by a combined score of 85-0), yet hockey historians universally look back upon those two tournaments as being instrumental in the global growth of the sport; similarly, it’s undeniable that historians will one day look back upon these initial Roller Derby World Cups with the same sort of favour.
And honestly, except for the top four teams (and really just the second- through to fourth-place teams) winning and losing was not necessarily the number one goal. This tournament was about so much more than that.
Even Jerry Seltzer, who has been known to be publicly critical of the flat track game, seemed overwhelmed by the event, and wrote a long glowing piece about it on his blog. It was fitting to see “The Commish” at the tournament, shuffling wide-eyed around the tracks and posing for photos at every turn, always willing to share a thought or a story. Beginning with Transcontinental Roller Derby in the ‘30s and ending with the World Skating League’s RollerJam in the ‘90s, the Seltzer name was roller derby. From patriarch Leo and his brother Oscar through to Leo’s son Jerry and daughter Gloria, the Seltzer named had been the beating heart of the sport for seven decades before the flat track revolution brought the game to a level that transcended any individual name.
And it’s not hard to see why Jerry was so taken by the event. In a 2010 interview at the WFTDA Championships in Chicago (part of which you can see here), Jerry pointed out that “all (Leo) wanted was a legitimate game that could be played at the Olympics.” It never came to pass in Leo’s lifetime, nor even with Jerry at the reigns, yet here it is, not the Olympics exactly, but truly global, and even if growth has slowed somewhat in North American, it is a sport still very much growing on the rest of the planet.
Despite the disparity in some games, competitive growth in the sport was indeed evident. Brazil and Argentina were virtual doormats in 2011 but entered the 2014 event with a certain air of confidence. Winless three years prior, both notched round-robin victories (tight wins over Portugal and Switzerland for Brazil and a dominant performance over Denmark for the Argentinians), before Argentina scored the upset of the event in a very physical 205-143 victory over France in the Round of 16. France had finished 7th in 2011 and was expected by most to be a lock for a Top 8 finish in Dallas. Similarly, other returning nations like Ireland, Scotland and New Zealand have emerged as leaders of the global game.
And there was shifting at the top too, with England gaining revenge on a Canadian team that had topped them three years before with a hard fought 156-112 win in the semifinals, and then Australia did so as well, taking advantage of a spent Canadian squad with a thoroughly impressive 197-128 victory in the bronze medal matchup. And finally, England shattered all expectations and won over the hearts of the world with a performance for the ages against the Americans, truly winning the silver medal in a 219-105 loss in the gold medal game (no national team had ever held the Americans to such a low total or managed to score so many).
But despite the giddiness of that result (and the 54 points Australia managed against the American juggernaut in the semifinals), lets not kid ourselves too much: USA still represents the best in the world. At the conclusion of the final, England, battered, bruised and exhausted, looked as if they’d truly left it all on the track, while the Americans—still very much bigger, faster, stronger—appeared as if they were ready to play at least another 60 minutes.
There is still no jammer who possesses the blend of speed and strength of Atomatrix or the unflappable composure of Nicole Williams. In the pack, the wily Akers and the bluntly powerful Sexy Sladie continue to be forces, while Smarty Pants remains a marvel, always in the right spot, seemingly teleporting herself around the track, showing an unbelievable intelligence and vision for the game honed through a decade of commitment to the sport.
And to show they too are continuing to grow, this Team USA has also advanced, and has been slowly taken over by a new generation of skaters from jammers Vanessa Sites’ and Scald Eagle’s combination of strength and agility, to the on-track leadership of Penelope Nederlander and Shaina Serelson. Serelson herself—in her heart-on-her-sleeve intensity—harkens back to that first generation of USA skaters as well, now representing the fiery core of the national team once occupied by the sisters DeRanged and Psycho Babble, although Serelson represents an evolution of even those fine skaters, sporting a discipline that allows her to better focus that intensity into controlled, well-calculated aggression.
So even if the bar does not quite seem as high as it once was, it is still the Americans who are setting it.
On so many levels the 2014 Roller Derby World Cup was an absolute success, but interestingly, the greatest harbinger of the sport may have come in an exhibition game. On Sunday, right before the bronze and gold medal games, the Junior Roller Derby Association held an all-star game. It was a stunning bout, a shockingly well-skated game, a display of talent by teenagers who will, in time, change the sport in ways unimaginable.
From the women who trekked from every corner of six continents of the globe, to the boys and girls who left fans with jaws agape in the JRDA all-star game, perhaps the most heartening conclusion to be taken from this World Cup is that the game of roller derby—right now already healthier than it has ever been—is in unbelievably good hands.
***For full results and links to specific team websites, visit the official World Cup website. You can also find all the results and stats (where available) on flattrackstats.com.