windy city rollers

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.

Nerd Meat: Prelude

Nerd Meat: The Nerd Does Derby

PRELUDE

I was a big roller derby fan. By the end of 2010, I’d been to too many bouts to count, seen numerous leagues in action, had to set aside a new space in my closet just for roller derby t-shirts, and my partner had become a skater on the Death Track Dolls. At some point I’d begun to write fairly regularly about it and took road trips just to see bouts; I had even done some colour commentary in Montreal and was lined up to announce ToRD’s locally televised championship game. I was as big a fan of roller derby that you could find.

Then I went to the 2010 Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) Championships and everything changed.

Uproar on the Lakeshore has proven to be a seminal moment for flat track roller derby

On November 5th, 2010, I walked into the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, Illinois, for day one of the Uproar on the Lakeshore. Early on in the tournament and it was already in full swing. There were thousands of fans crammed into the lower bowl of the Pavilion, vendours hawking their wares on the concourse, beer and popcorn sellers squeezing their way through the face-painted, sign-sporting fans in the seats. It was like walking into any North American sporting event, only in the centre of it all was a blue, sport-court track, and skating around it were two roller derby teams. The B.ay A.rea D.erby Girls (San Fransisco) and the legendary Texecutioners (Austin) were already well into the first bout of the tournament, and were engaged in a defensive duel that was taking the fans by surprise: the precocious skaters from the left coast were not only keeping up with the women who’d invented the sport, they were frustrating them to no end. In the end the defending runners-up from Texas held on for a low-scoring victory that would end up being the first sign of a massive paradigm shift in the sport. But at the time, I wasn’t capable of thinking on that scale: I spent most of that first day staring in amazement, my neck swiveling in wide circles attempting to take it all in. Figure out what it all meant.

It probably didn’t coalesce as nicely as I like to remember it, but I eventually came to some realizations that weekend. Thoughts that I’d been having about the sport—the state of the game, its role in my life and the world, the future of it, thoughts that every rollergirl and superfan have probably had—were finally forming into something coherent. I realized that in roller derby, and in women’s flat track roller derby in particular, I was seeing the early stages of the 21st century playing out (at least from a Western perspective). It was a fully wired, internet driven, grass roots (yet increasingly global), non-partisan, ant-judgmental, post revolution…revolution.

The Rocky Mountain Rollergirls are the 2010 WFTDA Champions

Now, I don’t want to sound too hyperbolic, but in the simplest way, I realized that roller derby had grown so beyond its roots—a bunch of strong-willed women in a roller rink in Austin, Texas, concluding that roller derby didn’t need to be banked—that it was here to stay. This had been something that I’d never taken for granted before. Everyone—even my grandmother—was aware of roller derby’s semi-dubious history, its ebbs and flows and shifts and alterations; its languishing in the dregs of sports entertainment; basically, its unshakable status as a spectacle. No matter what the incarnation, it had never lasted, always fading when the novelty of the latest spectacle faded. But in Chicago that weekend, beginning when the Gotham Girls (New York) crushed the Texacutioners in the quarterfinals and ending when the Rocky Mountain Roller Girls were in the midst of a late-game comeback that would see them defeat the defending champion Oly Rollers in the most dramatic fashion imaginable—a bout that at least in these early days of flat track lore will undoubtedly carry the mantle of “The Greatest Game”—it became quite apparent to me that roller derby had grown beyond the Texas Rollergirls, it had grown beyond all of the skaters in the Chicago that weekend, the thousands of fans in the building, the many tuning in to DNN for live coverage, and when we were all gone the sport would not be and it would be played by someone else and watched by countless others, and changed, tinkered with, made better—but for the first time in its somewhat troubled history, roller derby was not going to fade away.

When I got back to Toronto, I decided that I needed to put on some skates.

So I signed up for ToRD’s next fresh meat session, headed to Cardinal Skate Co. to get suited up by Rollerbug (AKA: Kandy Barr of the Gore-Gore Rollergirls), went to the Hangar for the meat and greet session, paid my dues and got insurance, determined to gain a new perspective on this sport that I’d come to love, to get to know it from the inside out.

Word on the Track

WFTDA RANKINGS RELEASED: MONTREAL 6th IN EASTERN REGION

The final, pre-regionals WFTDA rankings were released this month, and the match ups for each of the regional playoffs have been made. Montreal’s New Skids on the Block qualified in 6th place in the Eastern Region, getting the final of the six byes into the second round where they will face their cross-border rivals, the Boston Massacre. The skaters on these two teams know each other well and this should be a fantastic bout. Montreal has been reeling in the Eastern Region teams at a remarkable clip all season. After suffering a 100-point blowout to this team in 2009, Montreal managed to cut the deficit in half the last time they met in May (and were actually within 10 points at the half before uncharacteristic penalty troubles allowed Boston to pull away). Despite the amazing development MTLRD has undergone this season, you have to wonder if it will it be enough to get them past Boston and into a potential semifinal showdown with the Philly Rollergirls. To find out, you’ll just have to buy some neon and join the New Skids on the Block’s Neon Army as it heads to White Plains, New York, on September 24th for the Eastern Regionals.

Montreal plays Boston at Regionals

This year’s WFTDA Regionals will play out over four weekends stretching between September and October. The top seeds have remained the same all season, with Gotham (who were upset in last year’s Eastern final by Philly) holding on to top spot in the East. The defending WFTDA champion Oly Rollers, who are in the midst of a record-setting 20 bout winning streak, remain #1 in a very competitive Western Region, while traditional powers Windy City and Texas (last year’s finalists) stay on top in the North Central and South Central.

DERBY NERD ON HIATUS DURING A BUSY MONTH

Sadly, The Derby Nerd will be on hiatus for the next month, a month that happens to be packed with exciting roller derby action. But you can trust that I will be doing my best to spread the word to the far reaches of the globe.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 7

One of the most anticipated roller derby bouts in Montreal’s history will be played on this night. The defending champion Les Filles du Roi will face their original Montreal rivals Les Contrabanditas. When these two teams met during the regular season it was a brutal tug of war that came down to the final jam and a single point. Both of these rosters are loaded with talented skaters at every position. This is going to be one explosive bout.

Across the border into Ontario on the same night, the Rideau Valley Roller Girls will be hosting two of their southern neighbours for a double header. The Riot Squad will face off against the GTAR’s Chrome Mollys (who have won their only two bouts this season), while the Slaugher Daughters will line up against ToRD’s Smoke City Betties. Facing such a strong opponent will be a valuable learning opportunity for the Betties during a critical part of a rebuilding season. With a group of eager rookies short on experience but big on heart, this bout couldn’t have come at a better time. With only one game left of the regular season, this could be an important step toward a strong showing.

ToRD hosts a mid-season travel team double header

SATURDAY, AUGUST 21

August 21st will see The Hangar’s first double header, and it is a big night for a number of reasons. In what seems to be becoming tradition, the CN Power will host a mid-season neighbour from south of the border. QCRG’s Lake Effect Furies will be the visitors in CN Power’s first bout since ToRD’s acceptance into WFTDA’s apprenticeship (joining the Tri-City Roller Girls as they only other Canadian WFTDA apprentice league—TCRG Thunder will be in Syracuse, NY, on this night to take on Assault City).

Durham Region Roller Derby makes its debut

In another historic moment, two new teams will be making their debut to kick off the double header. Durham Region Roller Derby will be taking part in their first bout as a league. Featuring a small core of former ToRD skaters led by former Doll Bones Brigade, DRRD (playing out of Oshawa) are another exciting addition to an ever-expanding roller derby landscape: They’ve taken their time to get things right and this should be an entertaining debut. Speaking of exciting futures, they will be facing off against the resurrected D-VAS, only this version is a farm team featuring the skaters who will be eligible for ToRD’s 2011 off-season draft. It will be an interesting bout to watch to get a sense of the next generation of skaters.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 28

And finally, the Death Track Dolls will conclude their season a week later (on August 28th) against the undefeated Gore-Gore Rollergirls (they actually haven’t lost to a non-Montreal team since the 2008 championship bout against the Chicks Ahoy!). The Dolls’ patience through restructuring seems to be paying off as they are having a statement-making year. They will look to add emphasis to that statement with a strong showing against the defending champs.

The Derby Nerd will return in September.