roller derby world cup

World Domination: Flat Track Roller Derby Takes Over Dallas for the 2014 World Cup

Team USA successfully defended the World Cup it had won in 2011. (Photography by Joe Mac)

Team USA successfully defended the World Cup it had first won in 2011. (Photography by Joe Mac)

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.

Team Canada marches during the Parade of Nations at the 2014 Roller Derby World Cup.

Team Canada marches during the Parade of Nations at the 2014 Roller Derby World Cup.

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.

Most fans were decked out in national colours all weekend, but Australian fans were particularly noticeable.

Most fans were decked out in national colours all weekend, but Australian fans were particularly noticeable.

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.

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***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

***Photos courtesy of Joe Mac. Visit his blog here.

Team Canada Outpaces a Scrappy Team Ontario While Misfits Hold Off Bruisers

Alliston, Ontario, was the site of a fantastic night of women’s flat track roller derby where Team Canada continued to tune up as the World Cup nears, the host Misfit Militia picked up a big win, and some of Eastern Canada’s best junior skaters took to the track for an all-star exhibition scrimmage.

Members of Team Ontario and Team Canada celebrate after their game. (Photography by Joe Mac)

Members of Team Ontario and Team Canada celebrate after their game. (Photography by Joe Mac)

It’s going to be a bittersweet 2014 Blood & Thunder Roller Derby World Cup for fans of Canadian roller derby. The team looks strong in the lead up to what will be the largest global roller derby event in the history of the sport (in any of its various incarnations), and it shoulders expectations to repeat as silver medalists. Yet at the same time, it will represent the final skate for many of our nation’s early stars of the sport, some of whom were featured front and centre on Saturday night at the Alliston Memorial Arena. 2011 World Cup MVP Smack Daddy, her Montreal counterparts Georgia W. Tush and Lil’ Mama, along with Toronto’s (Dusty) Watson, all have announced their intentions to retire after the 2014 season and were key pieces on Saturday as Canada held off Team Ontario 195-99 in a thrilling game of roller derby.

Although Team Ontario regulars Watson and Dyna Hurtcha were maple-leaf clad on Saturday, it was still arguably the best Team Ontario roster we have seen take the track yet, and one that included Team Canada members Murphy, USS DentHerPrize (of the Detroit Derby Girls), and Soul Rekker. This stacked provincial roster caught Canada off guard, overwhelming the national team at the opening whistle with Tri-City’s Ova’Kill taking the first lead of the game behind the support of a terrifying Ontario power line of Murphy, Sofanda Beatin, Margaret Choke and Wylde Leigh Coyote. The opening five minutes were actually dead even with the teams trading power jams and Canada just able to slip ahead 14-10. However, over the next 10 minutes the national team woke up and went on a dominant 10-minute run, outscoring Ontario 56-6 to take a 70-16 lead midway through the opening half.

Kim Jana finds an open outside lane for Team Canada. She was part of a deep Canadian rotation. (Photo by Joe Mac)

Kim Jana finds an open outside lane for Team Canada. She was part of a deep Canadian rotation. (Photo by Joe Mac)

Ova’Kill was joined on the jam line by Rideau Valley’s Soul Rekker and Toronto’s Motorhead Molly, with Rideau’s Austintatious getting in on the action as well. They faced off against a fearsome Team Canada rotation of Mel-e-Juana (Montreal), Kim Janna (Terminal City—she looked impressive coming back from a serious leg break), Watson (Toronto), and Calgary’s 2014 breakout star Kris Myass, who was virtually unstoppable in carving up the track for Team Canada and seems to be the anchor of the offense as we lead up to the World Cup.

After the flurry by Canada midway through the half, Ontario tightened things up once again. There were some incredible stand-outs in the Ontario pack led by Murphy (who formed great packs with RVRG teammates Bottema and Margaret Choke and Tri-City’s Wylde Leigh Coyote), but also featuring strong performances from across the board, including Sofanda Beatin, hometown skater Renny Rumble, and pivot Sister Disaster.

Stats were tight in the first half with the teams virtually even in leads and power jams (although Canada was much more successful in this regard and also more proficient on the power kill), and the final fifteen minutes of the half were a virtual stalemate with Canada barely outscoring Ontario 31-30 over that span to hold a 111-46 lead at half.

Canada pivot Demanda Lashing tries to open a lane between Murphy and USS DentHerPrize. (Photo by Joe Mac)

Canada pivot Demanda Lashing tries to open a lane between Murphy and USS DentHerPrize. (Photo by Joe Mac)

Following the World Cup rules that allow for substitutions from beyond the fourteen on the bench, Team Canada sat veterans Smack Daddy, Tush and Watson for the second half to bring in luludemon and the dynamic triple threat Dyna Hurtcha, who tore up the track at every role in the second half. While former Team Canada stars like Mackenzie, Jess Paternostro and Lil’ Mama remain key pieces, it feels as if there is a passing of the torch going on with Team Canada right now, and the new generation of skaters are stepping up to lead the way. Montreal’s Demanda Lashing and Hughes (Surgical Strike) along with Windy City’s KonichiWow, Terminal City’s Karlene Harvey (Buffy Sainte Fury), and Toronto’s Dyna Hurtcha were the dominant forces in this game and helped to maintain Canada’s lead, 145-61, at the midway point of the second.

Canada had a far greater lead jammer percentage in the second half (about 80% to 20% after being close to even in the first) allowing them to hold back an inspired Team Ontario and record the 195-99 win.

Nerd Glasses

This was the third meeting between the Bruisers and the Misfit Militia in the last three years; they'd split the first two games. (Photo by Joe Mac)

This was the third meeting between the Bruisers and the Misfit Militia in the last three years; they’d split the first two games. (Photo by Joe Mac)

The opening game of the double header featured the hometown Misfit Militia squaring off against their Toronto rivals, the Bay Street Bruisers (ToRD’s B-Travel Team). This was a rubber match of sorts as the teams split two decisions over two years leading up to this meeting. Things started tight with both teams trading early power jams and the Militia pulling ahead 10-9; the Bruisers would roar right back to take an 18-14 lead before the Militia stole the lead back 27-18, all before the 10-minute mark of the first period.

The turning point of the first half occurred near the 20-minute mark when Misfit Militia locked down the defense and jammer Smoka Cola managed four natural grand slams in a 23-point jam that gave the Militia the biggest lead of the game, 59-28, which they would maintain at half, leading 93-40 at that point (Smoka Cola had a remarkable 62 points at the break, while the Bruisers scoring was evenly spread out over its four jammers).

The home team went on an 18-6 run to start the second before the Bruisers began a sustained pushback, but the Toronto team was never quite able to overcome the gap. Remarkably, lead jammer status was nearly even throughout (with the Militia holding only a slight 20-19 advantage) as were power jams, but the stunning defense and stifling penalty kill of the Misfit Militia stole the show and kept the Bruisers at bay. In the end, Smoka Cola recorded a game high 87 points while Bellefast (skating for Toronto in her hometown) led the way for the visitors with 44 points (Sleeper Hold, who had a rough first half, bounced back big time in the second and ended up with 28 points). Although the Bruisers, who finish the season 7-5, slightly improved upon last year’s 90-point loss, with the 174-104 win, the Misfit Militia (7-1) proved once again that they are one of the (if not the) nation’s top non-WFTDA affiliated leagues.

Nerd Glasses

Despite rumblings to the contrary on social media and in roller derby forums, the sport of roller derby has never ever been as healthy as it is today (not even close): more people are playing it in more countries than ever, and more people are watching it and exposed to it than ever before. I was never more aware of this than on Saturday while sitting at an old-school wooden-bleacher iceless hockey arena in a rural Ontario town that itself has two distinct roller derby leagues, where our national team was facing off against one of its provincial counterparts, all under the awe-filled gaze of a group of junior-aged players who were in town to try out for their own national team.

Just fourteen years ago—less than two decades!!—not only would no one have believed this possible, no one would have even thought to consider it.

Next stop on the road may be Nashville for the WFTDA Championship, but just over the horizon, Dallas looms.

*** Check out for trackside video coverage, and local viewers check local listings for Rogers TV rebroadcasts of the game.

The Preview of Previews! Welcome to 2014

First off, if you’ve been a reader of the Nerd over the years, you’ve probably noticed that things look a little different around here. It’s a fresh new look for a fresh new year! But don’t worry, in terms of content and derby nerdiness, nothing will change. However, due to the change, you may notice some formatting inconsistencies, particularly when reading archived material. Feel free to let me know if anything looks truly messed up!

Men's World Cup Logo2013 was an incredible year for roller derby, and any way you look at it, 2014 is going to be an even bigger year. Internationally, this will truly be the year that roller derby goes global. The second women’s world cup is coming up, but first, the inaugural men’s world cup will take place in Birmingham, England, in March, making roller derby truly a global undertaking open to all. This global gender equality could very well be the first tentative step toward mainstream (IE: Olympic) international recognition.

A little closer to home, in 2013 Canada certainly announced itself as a power in competitive roller derby. After such a successful World Cup showing in 2011, it seemed only a matter of time before Canadian teams started to emerge as contenders in the WFTDA. This season, it all started with Montreal’s high playoff seeding and Tri-City’s impressive run in the D2 playoffs and was capped off with Vancouver and Toronto’s string of upsets in the D1 Divisionals.

This has set expectations for 2014 very high. Tri-City was recently awarded one of the WFTDA’s D2 playoff Divisional tournaments, which is a great achievement, but perhaps one year too late as all indications show Tri-City making a run at D1 this season. Similarly, while Montreal will be hard pressed to ascend to the ranking heights they hit in 2013, Toronto and Vancouver are poised to make noise and advance up the standings. Also, Rideau Valley (who just missed out on D2 playoffs last year) and Hammer City (who had one of the largest ranking jumps in the WFTDA last year) are both solid contenders in the second division.

In 2013, Tri-City will become the first non-US league to host a WFTDA playoff tournament.

In 2013, Tri-City will become the first non-US league to host a WFTDA playoff tournament.

AND on top of that, we now welcome Forest City, Calgary, Border City and GTA Rollergirls into the WFTDA fold. Last year Calgary made massive competitive strides and could be a team to watch this year and could even be in the mix in the second division. Forest City should be able to build on an inconsistent 2013, while Border City (who are going through a big organizational change) and GTA probably lack the depth of organization to compete in 2014, but nonetheless will help bring more exposure to Canadian roller derby in general, and Ontario roller derby in particular (it’s amazing that there are seven [!] full WFTDA member leagues in Ontario alone).

All of this makes the Nerd very excited to cover 2014!

On this site, you can expect the same Toronto and Eastern Canadian roller derby coverage that you’ve had for years now, but there will also be a very specific global focus as I cover both the Canadian men’s and women’s teams as they prepare for their respective World Cups (expect profiles and interviews). As usual, I’ll be taking the odd road trip as well and reporting back. Actually, that begins this weekend, as I’ll be heading to Detroit to be a guest announcer for the Detroit Derby Girls 2014 house league opener.

Writing as D.D. Miller, the Nerd's first book of fiction will be released in April. Roller Derby figures prominently in the title story.

Writing as D.D. Miller, the Nerd’s first book of fiction will be released in April. Roller Derby figures prominently in the title story.

Also, after an incredibly fun and informative first season of working on the Canadian Power Rankings with Captain Lou El Bammo, Dick Pounder and Jenny Fever, we’ll be back to track 2014 as well! Stay tuned for a separate Power Rankings Preview coming soon.

And finally, on a more personal note, this spring, I will be travelling around promoting a collection of short fiction written by my alter ego D.D. Miller. Not surprisingly, roller derby features prominently in the title story, “David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide.” As some of you know, I am also currently working on a book-length project about roller derby: so every league in Canada (and beyond!) be prepared to be hit up for interviews if I happen to pass through your town in 2014.

Thanks so much for the continued readership and support! Here’s to a phenomenal 2014!

– Nerd

Photo by Todd Burgess

Off the Beaten Track: Penny Whistler

Off The Beaten Track

Penny Whistler

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.

Penny officiates a game at the Hangar in 2010. (Photo by Derek Lang)

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.

Penny inspects equipment before a showdown between ToRD’s D-VAS and Tri-City’s TKOs in Kitchener. (Photo by Sean Murphy)

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.

Penny chats with her crew before this 2012 Toronto Roller Derby game. (Photo by Kevin Konnyu)

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.

Penny talks with Coach Adam of the Slaughter Daughters during the 2011 Beast of the East championship game. (Photo by Derek Lang)

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.”

Penny Whistler at The Hangar in 2010. (Photo by Lisa Mark)

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.

The crew for the Australia vs. England showdown at the inaugural Roller Derby World Cup (photo by Joe Mac)

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.”

Penny Whistler from the series “Facing Toronto: Roller Derby Volunteers” by Neil Gunner.

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.

Pondering the Playoffs 1: WFTDA’s Eastern Regionals

Pondering the Playoffs

One Nerd’s reflections on the WFTDA Eastern Region Playoffs

The more things change the more they stay the same.

That cliché has never felt truer than after watching this weekend’s WFTDA Eastern Region playoff tournament. When it was all said and done, the same three teams (Gotham, Philly and Charm City) that represented the east at last year’s WFTDA championship were through again, but the group of teams they left behind could not have been more different, and they game they were playing continues to evolve in exciting ways: stronger, faster, smarter seems to be the theme of the 2011 WFTDA playoffs.

The Eastern Regionals were co-hosted by the DC Rollergirls the Charm City Roller Girls.

The first day was one of upsets and, eventually, upset. London Brawling became only the second international team to play in the WFTDA playoffs and the first European team to do so and they made a grand entrance. Despite their high power ranking from DNN, much had been made of their inclusion in the top 10 given their relative lack of sanctioned experience, but they quickly proved those skeptics wrong with a one-sided upset (160-67) over 7th seed Carolina. It would be the only upset on the opening day (the top four would advance), but it would not turn out to be the story of the first round.

After an impressive 198-117 victory over 9th seed Maine, 8th seed Dutchland made the controversial decision to forfeit their quarterfinal bout against Gotham to avoid the inevitable defeat and “remain fresh” for the consolation round. Condemnation of the decision was swift and harsh as social media sites exploded with criticism. The decision, made in the heat of the moment one would hope, is probably one that the team has come to regret, and while the criticism may have been extreme and perhaps even a little too harsh, it was a decision that rankled many because it ran counter to roller derby’s inherent “give it your all” attitude. With a wide disparity even at the highest levels of the sport, the key to a team’s development is to play against those better, and sometimes even much better. Just ask Steel City. They were the team that would eventually fall in front of Gotham in the semifinal on Saturday.  They were slaughtered by one of the largest playoff margins in history, falling 404-30. The second half was particularly harrowing for the Pittsburgh skaters as Gotham thoroughly dominated from pack to jammer. But in deference to the pounding, Steel Hurtin never stopped fighting and continuously adapted to what they were facing. Finally, on the closing jam of the bout, the Shocker managed to pick up the first lead jammer status of the half for Pittsburgh. Facing unspeakable odds she flew into the pack and took the full two minutes to claw and drag her way through to pick up 3 points (of only 7 in the half). When Steel City skated off the track they didn’t look like a team that had been pummelled for 60 minutes: they were exhausted, battered, but there was a particular glint in their eyes as they skated off the track, that undeniable glimmer of pride that comes from facing the impossible and not backing down.

Gotham and Philly's infamous "jam that wasn't" caused some jam-starting refinements that were on display this weekend.

As it’s been since the 2006 Dust Devil, at this early stage in the flat track evolution these championship tournaments are as much a process of sharing and dissemination than anything else. And with increased exposure and the ability to watch the bouts in high definition from anywhere on the planet, the importance of the WFTDA’s Big 5 in the continued development of the sport cannot be denied. The Eastern Region introduced what seems to be the next great strategic leap in the sport: the battle that occurs between the jammer and pivot lines. Particularly in the early going of the championship bout (but seen clearly all over the tournament), it became evident that how teams react in those first seconds after the opening whistle is becoming increasingly important in determining the outcome of the jam. More and more the battle was being taken directly to the jammer line and slow, grinding starts were the norm. There were times during the Philly/Gotham final when the two packs were like one undulating blob slowing inching its way to turn number one; then suddenly a jammer would pop out seemingly from nowhere to take lead. We also saw the end of “dead” starts (such as in this example of a “jam that wasn’t”), the bane of many a fan’s experience, as teams began to find creative ways to create a no pack after the initial whistle had already blown so as not to incur a destruction of the pack penalty (taking advantage of rule

London Brawling, featuring 11 Team England skaters, helped provide a World Cup preview.

But interest in the Eastern Region playoffs actually extends beyond just the WFTDA tournament cycle. Owing to the inclusion of London and Montreal in this tournament, more than any other regional playoff it offered a brief glimpse of what the inaugural World Cup of Roller Derby might look like. 10 members of Team USA played in the tournament (including five from Gotham alone), while the cores of both Canada and England populated Montreal (six Team Canada skaters) and London (11 of England’s 20). Thus, the consolation final on Sunday between the Skids and the Brawling offered a little bit of a preview of the two teams who many believe could be in the running for second place at the World Cup. England actually has a huge advantage  in that so many of these players play together regularly and have proven that they are playing the sport as well as anyone on the planet. Montreal once again showed that they have a certain tenacity and focus that allows them to always play a full 60 minutes of straight-up derby every bout and remain calm in the most stressful and dire of situations. And if that extraordinary 5th place bout (137-135 for London when they held on after being outscored 8-4 on the final jam) is any indication, there is a lot to look forward to when the world comes to Toronto in December.

Gotham has proven beyond a doubt that they are contenders for this year's WFTDA championship.

But the story to carry forward is that Gotham is the real deal. Last WFTDA champions in 2008, they’ve been relegated to the second tier of flat track in the last two years as the top western teams have dominated at the national level. But after a thoroughly dominant performance here that saw them overwhelm a very, very good Philly team in the final (252-97), there should be no doubt that Gotham is ready to contend.

**The highly anticipated WFTDA Western Regionals are next weekend.**

**For bout-by-bout recaps visit**