Austin births a Roller Derby revolution
By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 27, 2009
The worst sound in Roller Derby is silence.
That means a skater is down and hasn't gotten back up. As the crowd reminds overzealous referees, flat-track Roller Derby is a full-contact sport, but when a skater falls and the EMTs hit the track, an eerie quiet descends. Midway through the Women's Flat Track Derby Association's 2009 national championship title bout on Nov. 15, Vicious Van Go Go of the Texecutioners is on the floor and not moving. Her teammates from Austin's Texas Rollergirls league and their rivals, the Oly Rollers from Washington State, take a knee. This could be serious, as the injured skaters on crutches or in wheelchairs around the track can testify. When Vicious rises to her skates, bruised but fine, the 2,000 fans in Hall A in Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Convention Center applaud. And the skaters go back to knocking one another across the track.
A week earlier, Vicious' teammates Lucille Brawl and Cat Tastrophe were at Scholz Garten, on a lunch break from their state jobs. The night before, both trained hard for two hours at Playland Skate Center with the rest of the league: drills, scrimmage, endurance training, repeat. They've kept that schedule all year, four nights a week, plus seven home bouts, multiple traveling games, speed classes, hosting boot camps for rookie skaters from across the nation, administrative jobs with the league, and whatever extra workouts they can fit in. Across the nation, 11 other teams who had fought their way through regional qualifiers were preparing for nationals the same way, with the same dedication. Cat, known outside of derby as Franny Zarate, said: "It takes over your life, but you get to travel the whole country and stay with all these new friends. That's something we only dreamed of in the beginning."
Not every Austinite knows about women's flat-track Roller Derby. Fewer are aware that it's played here. A subsection may know that the modern flat-track derby revolution started here at the turn of the millennium and has spread like wildfire. There are now an estimated 400 Roller Derby leagues internationally. Some skate on expensive and custom-built banked tracks, but most simply tape the track outline on a flat space and play there. The majority of leagues are U.S.-based, but there are others in Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and even the United Arab Emirates. There are dozens of bouts every weekend, interleague tournaments, and an annual convention (RollerCon in Las Vegas). The sport has its own superstars, such as Austin's own speedy little Rice Rocket or the imposing Beyonslay from New York's Gotham Girls. There are two glossy magazines (FiveOnFive and Blood & Thunder) and even fashion lines, such as Derby or Die and Derbylove. The sport also has its own governing body: 78 leagues are full-fledged members of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, 24 more are in the apprentice program, and more leagues inquire all the time. Cat explained, "The revolution is about flat-track derby and how many people can do it and how you just need a flat space."
There is no such thing as an archetypal female Roller Derby player, no standard age or size or build. There are ex-competitive speed and figure skaters, former rugby and soccer players, and women who have avoided sports since high school. And, contrary to the trite myth, tattoos and an expert knowledge of every bar on Red River aren't mandatory. What's required instead is commitment. Derby isn't a hobby to be strapped on like knee pads once a month, but is so all-consuming and character-defining that some players respond to their adopted derby names quicker than their real names.
From day one, modern flat-track derby has been about all-female teams, all-female management, and everyone working and skating on an amateur and volunteer basis. Not only have the Texas Rollergirls consistently placed highly in the national rankings, but they have been part of Roller Derby's growth at every turn of the track. Without the Texies (as fans know them), odds are there would have been no Philly nationals, but the speed of the revolution still astounds the hometown team. Lucille (nonderby name Lara Bell) explained: "I always used to say, 'Not in my derby lifetime.' I knew it was coming, but it just happened so much faster than anyone could ever think."
Once Upon a Time at Playland
The timeline seems impossible. A decade ago, there was no modern Roller Derby, until Daniel "Devil Dan" Policarpo held a recruitment shindig at Casino el Camino in 2001. By 2002, Policarpo was gone, and approximately 80 skaters formed Bad Girl, Good Woman Productions, the nation's first contemporary women's Roller Derby league. The fledgling sport nearly died again in 2003 when internal tensions ripped the league apart. Instead, two leagues emerged: the banked-track TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls and the flat-track Texas Rollergirls. Initially, both concentrated on home bouts, but while TXRD has primarily stayed local, the Texas Rollergirls took a different path. Cat explained, "After the split, we really wanted to grow the sport nationally and internationally." There was also a little bit of self-interest. She added, "We have four home teams [the Hustlers, the Hell Marys, the Honky Tonk Heartbreakers, and the Hotrod Honeys] that play each other season after season, and we just wanted to play other people and see what they had to offer."
Fortunately, the eyes of Roller Derby were upon Texas. From day one, skaters from fledgling leagues in New York, Wisconsin, and Minnesota traveled to watch Austin bouts and learn from the innovators. Cat said: "There was no footage on the Internet, so they'd come to see us, and it started this whole conversation. That's where the WFTDA started." Beyond providing a talking shop for rules debates, the WFTDA also facilitated the growth of interleague play, and Texas participated in the first-ever travel team bouts, visiting Arizona in 2004 for a doubleheader against teams from Tucson and Phoenix. While the new competition was great, Cat said, sacrificing total autonomy and total control of their sport took some getting used to for Texas, because "there's a national association that's changing the game we invented. But it makes it better, because we have people to play with. There are more minds thinking about it, so it makes it make more sense."
From Texas to Philly and Madison and ...
It also means that there are more teams to help spread the word and carry the administrative load. But even as more leagues excel within the sport and become WFTDA cornerstones, Philly Roller Girl Vanessa "Euro Thrash" Jackson proposed one word that summed up how those other leagues feel about Texas: "respect." She knows exactly what it takes to build this sport: As a Philly league board member, she helped organize the annual midsummer East Coast Derby Extravaganza and the 2009 nationals, nicknamed this year the Declaration of Derby in honor of the host town. Set up in the control room above the rink during nationals, keeping one eye on the track, she recalled her first experience skating against the Texies. "I will never forget, at nationals last year, standing on the line next to skaters whose names I had been hearing for years, who I knew were legends in the Roller Derby community as founders of this sport. It was just one of the most amazing feelings."
That reputation was made both on and off the track. Although the rules and management of WFTDA are decided by a nationally selected board and by the constant involvement of member leagues, some pivotal elements distinguishing contemporary women's flat-track Roller Derby – like that democratic, grassroots decisionmaking process – were defined in Austin. From the "by the skaters, for the skaters" ethos to the sassy skate names and even to the inscription on the championship cup (the Hydra, named after a founding Texas Rollergirls member and former WFTDA president), the Texies' mark has been left. Cat explained: "You'd go to another city and go: 'That track size? We made that.'"
Every year the Texies try to stay competitive as new leagues form and old teams get smarter and faster. Their reputation remains strong enough that some players, lovingly dubbed the Transfercutioners, move to Austin just to roll with them. Crackerjack, formerly of the Mad Rollin' Dolls from Madison, Wis., is one of those imports. She said: "I got into [derby] because of the Texas Rollergirls. Anyone who started playing in 2004, that's the answer." She had another reason to move to Austin, since off the rink she's Colleen Bell, sister of Lara Bell. It was watching her sister skate with "Lucille Brawl" on her uniform that inspired her. In the crowd for an inaugural season bout, she said, "I felt the stirring, and I had to see if it could be done in Madison."
Following the Texas model, she hosted a recruiting party that summer. She said, "We had hot wings, and that brought people as much as Roller Derby, because nobody had any idea what we were talking about." A DVD of a Texas bout helped, but so did having a real Texas skater present. Crackerjack recalled: "Hydra was up for her work as a hydrologist. She talked to us a lot, gave us good advice and good direction, even skated with us in our open skate." Five months later, Madison started bouting. Five years later Crackerjack, now a Hotrod Honey and a Texecutioner, is WFTDA president, and she's seen the Austin-born DIY ethos flourish. She explained, "At the end of the day, it's about someone knuckling down and taking care of business, and there are a lot of women who do that."
Spreading the Derby Love
2009 has been a critical year for the WFTDA. The exponential and continual growth of teams and leagues was putting pressure on the volunteer management. This had happened before, in 2006, when the association hit its self-imposed cap of 30 leagues. Back then the solution was to split into two regions, delineated by the Mississippi River. After a member league vote earlier this year, the association became four regions, and two full-time employees were hired to handle the increased workload. Again, the Texies were there: Salt City Derby Girls referee Shelli Wiggins became the first WFTDA insurance administrator, while Juliana Gonzales, better known to Texas Rollergirls fans as the long, lean Bloody Mary, became its first executive director. A Roller Derby player since 2002, like most skaters she's always kept one wheel on the track and one in the management side – again, a cultural legacy from Austin and the early leagues. Bloody Mary said: "In Texas Rollergirls, each of the girls has to have a league job. That can be anything from chief of operations in charge of bout productions to entering the data to the statistics." New recruits have to work crew on a bout before they can play on a team. That way, she said, they learn that "the modern flat-track Roller Derby movement is a balance of a female-owned sports organization and a recreational sport. Most of our members have that pretty well in balance, and that's why it tends to take over your life."
It also takes a physical toll: Serious accidents are fortunately rare, but nagging injuries are as common as stinky wrist guards and pusher-foot calluses from where the skate rubs. Watching can be an education in pain. The first time Euro Thrash took her parents to see Philly vs. Madison, a skater landed so hard on her tail bone right in front of them that tears of shock came out. Thrash said, "My mom came up to me at half-time and goes, 'You find that girl, and you let me know if she's OK, because you girls are tough and she is crying.'" After the bout, she came back up and told her daughter, "You girls have pulled off something completely amazing." At the time, Thrash was working two jobs: "Skating three times a week and still helping pull off the [East Coast Derby Extravaganza]. She knows that all the other girls are just like me and will dedicate all this time to just making stuff happen."
Derby Wives, Derby Widowers
There can also be an emotional cost. With a skater around, partners and families have to find a place for derby and skaters in their lives. Most skaters develop a Roller Derby wife – a combination travel buddy, training pal, and confidante – some going as far as getting tattooed with her name. That massive time and emotional commitment can be tough on spouses and partners. Lucille Brawl explained: "They think they're being supportive because their lady's going to be doing something fun and hot, and then a year down the line, they're like, 'Do you remember me?' They stop being so hot in their cute little outfit."
For John Porter, husband of veteran Texie Desi Cration, finding his place in the sport was easy, since derby came first. A lifelong sports fan and a veteran of Austin's ComedySportz improv show, back in the Bad Girl, Good Woman days he saw an advert in the Chronicle for the second-ever bout. He said: "I lived across the street from Playland Skate rink, so Sunday afternoon, I dropped over there. I just remember getting a bunch of Lone Stars, smoking cigarettes inside, and, somewhere around the second quarter, going, 'Oh, the girl with the star on her head – she's the one scoring points.'" Two years later, he became league announcer Jim "Kool-Aid" Jones (no favoritism – he met Desi when she was still skating for the Minnesota RollerGirls, and, in true derby fashion, he proposed to her on the track). Now better known as just Koolaid, he's the Texecutioners' coach. He admitted, "I didn't expect this was where it was going to end up." It puts him in the odd position of being one of the few men near the track, but that's nothing new. "I'm a registered nurse, so I work in a traditionally female-dominated profession. I'm not entirely unaware of being in a high-pressure environment." As for his job as coach, he said: "I'm not a big strategy guy. All that comes from the team and [coach Black Widow], who manages the bench. I'm more the camp counselor, because I'm surrounded by 25 women with different backgrounds and different issues, and somehow I have to help stabilize that into a cohesive unit."
There can be a place for men around the sport, as many refs, photographers, coaches, and EMTs carry a Y chromosome. Sometimes it takes a little of the trademark Roller Derby DIY instinct, like the superfans that get adopted by teams as crowd wranglers. Hurt Reynolds ("government name Chris Seale," he joked drily) is one of the managing editors of Derby News Network, the sport's dedicated online news and stats service. At the Philly tournament, he was on the announcers' podium, running a streaming-text boutcast and keeping an eye on points and penalties. In between bouts, he said: "In 2004 there weren't even a dozen intercity bouts. This year, there were about 2,000, and I expect that to double next year." This is a big weekend for DNN, but the Roller Derby world doesn't stop for nationals. He said, "I have a pile of scores from bouts all over the world that I have to enter, and I'm busy here."
A former scorekeeper for Seattle's Rat City Rollergirls, he describes the Texies as "the mothers of it all. They were the best, they were unbeatable for the longest time, and they are the one that tens of thousands of women in the sport look up to." As for men who think that they can horn in on the sport, he has a simple warning: "The women who get involved in this are savvy and can smell it a mile away. If you're not sincere, if you're not coming into it because the whole package appeals to you, you're not going to be welcome." That's actually a bonus for those who are serious about the sport. He noted, "In an environment where everybody has to pass that trust threshold, everyone in it has passed that threshold with each other."
Back on the track, the quest for Texas' second Hydra in four years ended in defeat. The Oly Rollers took the title bout, 178-100. There were tears on the Texecutioner bench. Koolaid, in his trademark fedora, consoled the team, and then there were cheers and photo ops as each member received her medal.
After recovering from the bouts and the travel and the afterparty hangovers, the training begins again. There's a draft of new recruits – some seasoned transfers, some determined newcomers – to replace retirees. Then the double countdown starts ticking to the next home season and to regionals for a slot at the 2010 WFTDA finals, the Uproar on the Lakeshore, in Chicago next November. Before then, the Texas Rollergirls' Hustlers will make more history in March when they travel to the UK to face London Brawling in the first-ever intercontinental bout. There will be wins, and there will be losses, but before Philly, Lucille Brawl talked about the first time Texas ever lost a bout. Dec. 2, 2006: the Tucson Saddletramps rocked the Roller Derby world when they beat the Texecutioners in overtime, 62-60. She explained: "I was trackside, and I was happy to lose. I was like: 'Look what we made. If we're not winning all the time, it's a real sport now.'"
For Bloody Mary, there's still one hill to climb. She said: "We go to tournaments, and people hug us, crying, and say, 'Thank you for starting Roller Derby.' But in Austin, Texas, 99 percent of the population has no idea who we are. That's fine from a personal standpoint, but I would love it to be one of our city's points of pride."
The Texas Rollergirls hold their annual boot camp for skaters from beginners to veterans Dec. 11-13, and the new home season begins Feb. 28 at Playland Skate Center. Members of the league will also be competing as part of the Queen of the Hive open invitational, Dec. 5-6, at DFW Roller Sports in Fort Worth.