Houston Roller Derby Returns For the Scoring Pass
By Jennifer Fox Bennett
Art by Blake Jones
Modern (aka, “flat track”) roller derby is now entering its second decade. Modern derby was born in Austin, TX around 2000, but it became “official” in 2004 when the United Leagues Coalition formed, representing a handful of cities. The following year, the ULC morphed into the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), a skater-run administrative body that oversees all aspects of game play from rules to safety to sanctioning to tournaments, much like the NBA and NFL — but different in some fundamental ways (more on that in a minute). While the game in its current form has roots from the 1930s, WFTDA legitimized fair game play and also fostered its international growth. While there are a handful of banked track leagues and leagues that skate under a different rule set, WFTDA remains, by several strides, the most common type of play you will see around the globe. The Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA) even plays by the WFTDA rule set.
While modern women’s roller derby appears feminist from the outside — with strong, powerful women engaging in grueling, team-based, full-contact competition according to their own rules — that’s probably because it is on the inside, too — whether or not skaters choose to identify as feminists. WFTDA requires its member leagues be majority-owned and -operated by the skaters of women-only leagues. Additionally, one tenet of WFTDA membership requires that each member league self-govern following democratic principles and practices. Each league must identify a minimum of two representatives to the WFTDA who are given duties within the organization, voting rights, and a voice in its operations and ruleset. Tournaments are run by WFTDA skaters. Rulesets are argued over by WFTDA skaters. Games are sanctioned by WFTDA skaters. Not only does WFTDA expect its leagues to self-govern democratically, but it holds itself, as a greater administrative body, to the same standard. No other major sports league in the history of American or International sports can stake that claim. What a radical idea.
And in case you were wondering how WFTDA defines who “women” are, WFTDA scripted one of the first gender policies for inclusion of trans-identified skaters in competition, ahead of the International Olympic Committee. It’s not perfect, but unlike the IOC, it has greater leeway for self-identification and privacy and does not require sex-reassignment surgery.
So dedicated has WFTDA been to the promotion of the sport that the organization has attracted skaters to form leagues in all but one continent. Nowhere was this more apparent than the second inaugural Roller Derby World Cup (hosted by a private entity, but played with the WFTDA ruleset) in Dallas this past December. In 2011, the very first World Cup attracted 13 national teams. Two months ago, the World Cup had 30 national teams competing with Team USA taking the gold, Team England silver, and Team Australia won over Team Canada for bronze. New to the World Cup were the first teams from Asia (Team Japan) and Africa (Team South Africa).
While the full-contact nature of roller derby can lead to serious lower-body injuries (upper-body injuries are less common and concussions are rare), rollerskating is actually a low-impact sport. This peculiar property of roller derby also allows for a tremendous spectrum of body types to excel at the sport: there is room for everyone, one need only get through the intense training regimen. To highlight this point, one can look at the two world class jammers from the 2014 World Champion WFTDA team from New York City, the Gotham Girls All Stars. Suzy Hotrod, one of the most respected jammers in the world was a featured athlete for her muscular physique in the NSFW 2011 ESPN Body Issue alongside Olympians Apolo Ohno and Julie Chu. Her teammate, Bonnie Thunders, is even more decorated, with nearly double Hotrod’s point-per-jam averages at international championship level-play. And Thunders stands a few inches over 5 feet and barely broke a 100 pounds a few years ago. Her agility and speed set the gold standard for roller derby and she earned the nickname “the LeBron James of roller derby.” If anything has changed about Thunders, its been her — and countless other skaters’ in the top 10 teams — dedication to packing on the muscle in the off-season to keep up with the change in strategy.
Speaking of, strategy has been the biggest change in the sport in the past five years behind its breath-taking growth. The sport has become more controlled with short bursts of speed and changes of direction (mimicking hockey movements) than the traditional skate-forward-fast-turn-left of the early days. As a Canadian derby blogger writes, “thinking that the strategies that defined the banked track would survive forever on the flat one is equivalent to thinking that ice hockey strategies could be transported to field hockey: different surfaces, different games.” The nature of the flattened track allows for the game to function at multiple speeds, but most efficiently, at slower speeds. The slower speed also allows for greater foot agility. And while some may think that slower means lazier, the heavy focus on defense means that jammers have to increase their core strength to push against multiple-blocker walls. Blockers have to up their high-intensity interval training to constantly dart in all directions to maintain position over opposing jammers. This increased physicality means that skaters at the top of their games work out as much as five or six times a week, easily exerting 1,000 calories or more in a workout. High-competition skaters regularly do CrossFit in their spare time to keep up.
But, the big question remains — where it will go from here? This same question popped up in the 2011 documentary “Derby Baby,” which hinted that some skaters wanted to go pro or move into a relationship with the existing USA Roller Sports organization. There was a brief campaign in 2011 to have it included as one of the roller sports in the 2020 Olympic Games, but that lost. There was hotly contested internal debate about whether or not the sport was even ready, as WFTDA had made some significant revisions to rules in the previous years. The skaters that comprise the sport don’t seem to have any answers to their direction, except that they want to continue growing the sport, it’s clear that no one wants to give up their autonomy. With its inherent “by the skaters, for the skaters” mission, why would any WFTDA skater want to give up that kind of self-determination?
2015 Season Preview
The 2015 season at Houston Roller Derby season starts Saturday, February 21 at 7 p.m. at the Bayou Music Center with a double-header of the league’s four home teams. The season continues every 3rd Saturday until August. Here is a look ahead of what to expect from the home teams.
One of the biggest losses that The Brawlers will feel this season is long-time crowd-pleaser and jam skater phenom, Freight Train. The quick-footed tour-de-force recently moved from Houston to Austin, where she will very likely join the ranks at the ground zero of roller derby, The Texas Rollergirls. Missing, too, will be powerhouse Pattin Painz and stalwart D’Amity. But before you get too weepy, too quickly, the Brawlers will keep vets, Radium DK, Flyon Maiden, and 2xForce. Their biggest goal to a Champs run will be cultivating their returning skaters to take it up to the next level and making haste with up-and-coming rookie, Chi Chi’s Rodrigues.
The thunderous goddesses return this season to be lead by vets, Hot Assets and Dutch Destroyer — both members of the Houston All-Stars. They will also be suffering a gap left by Goldie Bloxx who retired after almost a decade with HRD. But, the crowd will be happy to see the athletic and quick Speed’O return to jammer duties. This year should see sophomore, Kelly Killpowski, stepping up her derby game from her previous skating life as a hockey star. And the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed rookie, Tchaikillsky, will be joining them in 2015.
Bayou City Bosses
The second-placed Bosses will also be missing big talents from their offense in Photo Finish, and their defensive beasts, Mayhem Angelou and Sox Star. Returning to their deadly defense in 2015 are Jenetic Defect, Betty Watchitt, and Mommy Fearest. And, Big Bad Voodoo Dollie will continue to zip warp-speed around the track as a jammer, alongside foxy-sly Feisty this year. Keep your eye on rookie Pseudonym.
Psych Ward Sirens
Of all the teams returning in 2015, the Sirens had the smallest change in their lineup and will be returning with crowd-pleasers, Brand-aid, Jekyll and Heidi, Mistilla, and Singapore Rogue, all members of the All-Stars. Many will recognize the face of one “new” skater on the 2015 squad, The Angie-Christ will be donning skates once again from a several-year hiatus from home-team skating, though she’s been tearing up half-marathons across Texas. Additionally, SyRenge will be returning from a maternity leave to stand alongside vet Bustin’ Beaver on the jam line. Their offense will be rounded up with the ravenous upcoming rookie, Mad Cap’nCap.
As with many WFTDA leagues around the country, the home cities of their respective All Stars rarely get to see the holistic display of talent at home. Much of All-Stars training occurs at closed practices and at multi-day tournaments out-of-town. Additionally, to a notable conundrum, many cities have trouble attracting crowds to All-Stars games. The treat of getting to watch the league’s best skate together as a team on the world-wide stage of international roller derby, or of seeing the skills of international skaters and teams, is somewhat lost on home crowds. If anyone knows why, send me an email to explain, because I don’t get it, but I might be biased as a rabid fan of international play.
The 2015 Houston All-Stars actually began their season in December with sanctioned and unsanctioned games against Team Columbia, Team South Africa, and the Sun State Roller Girls from Queensland, Australia. The All-Stars typically host home games at their practice space, Houston Indoor Sports, near I-45N and the Beltway. They have a tentative game against long-time rivals, Tampa in April, and another scheduled against the Oklahoma Valley Victor Dolls from Norman, OK in July.
At the end of 2014, the All-Stars took a dangerous dive in Division 1 rankings at one of the annual four WFTDA Regional Tournaments, losing all three games and placing last of 10 teams at the tourney. They are currently ranked 42nd from an all time high in the top 20 in 2012. They are painfully close to losing their Division 1 ranking and dropping into Division 2, if they don’t squeak above the 40th cutoff point by June. They will have a fresh start with returning coach, Spanky, as Chris and Dylan will be stepping down from coaching. The squad will be missing long-time vets from their offense, Brandi Brown (Brand-aid) and Freight Train. But they keep the ever-charismatic, talented, and sassy Death By Chocolate, HRD’s unofficial ambassador to all things derby. Nature abhors a vacuum, and it will be fun to see how the returning skaters and new rookies will fill the retiree’s shoes.
If women’s roller derby is considered somewhat “underground,” men’s roller derby would be hovering below the earth’s crust. Despite having existed in a handful of cities for almost seven years, it’s taken much longer to get off of the ground. But, it’s gaining traction. The Rocket City Rollers in nearby Deer Park are fomenting a powerful group of lads in the HardWood Rollers. Catch one of their games to see what the guys are doing with the traditionally female sport. Hint: it is a bit different.
Lastly, I’d be remiss to not say something about the Texas Rollergirls (Austin, TX). They are the godmothers of roller derby, but more importantly, remain one of the top leagues in the entire world, consistently ranked in the top 5, coming microscopically close to a world title in 2013. If you have the opportunity to catch one of their All-Stars game (The Texecutioners) or even a home game, grab it. Texas! Texas! Kill! Kill! Kill!
The opinions in the article are the author’s, only, and do not necessarily reflect Houston Roller Derby or the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.
by Guest Author