By B. David Zarley
MILWAUKEE -- It is an oddly Trappist notion, held sacred by people whose livelihood depends upon rhetoric and communication: There is no cheering in the press box. And here, in Milwaukee's U.S. Cellular Arena, is a real test.
The Gotham Girls Roller Derby All-Stars are ranked No. 1 in the world, having won 42 consecutive bouts and the last two Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) championships. They're coming off of a 509-64 (!) win over the Ohio Roller Girls -- perhaps the most artistic dismantling this arena has seen since Robert Indiana's floor was removed -- and a narrow 174-125 knife fight with the second-ranked B.ay A.rea D.erby Girls (B.A.D. Girls, get it?), but they're not only being played close in the final bout, they are losing in the second half to the Texecutioners, the third-ranked team and champions of Derby's de facto home of Austin. Texas' blockers have done the extraordinarily difficult, neutralizing Gotham jammers Vicious Van GoGo and Claire D. Way, and the nearly impossible, serving as speed bumps and more than minor nuisances for Suzy Hotrod, one half of Gotham's legendary scoring duo.
Bloody Mary and Hauss the Boss have taken advantage, racking up 76 and 65 points, respectively, often in a spectacular manner -- Bloody Mary seems particularly good at getting ridden to the very boundaries of the track, pulling up hard en pointe onto her toe brakes, then ripping of a vicious little spin and glide, skirting whoever was in her way like Odysseus did Scylla. Here in jam 6 of the second half, Hauss has just reeled off 25 points on six spectacular passes, the "Miracle in Milwaukee" ledes are beginning to materialize in your head, and the arena echoes with cries of "Texas! Texas! Kill Kill Kill!"
* * *
Roller derby, particularly the flat track, WFTDA-associated kind, is the most impressive display of amateur athleticism one can witness outside of the NCAA and the Olympics. The best teams in the world converged on Milwaukee last week for the Hydra Trophy -- a bronzed skate, of course -- and some form of preternatural talent was on display in every jam of every bout. To realize just how impressive this upper echelon play is, a preliminary understanding of the game is required.
Flat track roller derby pits two teams of five skaters apiece against one another on a track with an outside circumference of 236 feet, 6 inches and an inside circumference of 148 feet, 6 inches. The teams skate around this track in units called jams, which can last up to two minutes; a bout is comprised of however many jams can fit into two 30-minute periods. Each team fields a jammer, who wears a star upon her helmet, and four blockers, one of whom, the "pivot," wears a helmet with a stripe. The star-headed jammers are the only skaters capable of scoring points, which they do by passing members of the other team; blockers must constantly be shifting priorities from defensive blocking -- slowing down or, if possible, removing the other team's jammer -- and offensive blocking, facilitating passes for their own jammer. The closest analogy would be one continuous, ever-evolving running football play, albeit one in which both lines were blocking both ways at once.
The first time a jammer passes the entire opposing team, she becomes "lead jammer." This earns her the right to call off the jam at any time, which she does with a patting motion of her hips. A perfectly executed jam would see the lead jammer break free while her opponent is tied up, make a scoring pass or two before her counterpart has passed once, and then call off the jam as her foil is rounding their second lap.
Each jam begins with the skaters taking position on the line, and already tactical decisions are being made: Do they attempt to open up a path for their jammer, allowing her quick access to the lead? Do they focus their energies on stopping the opposing jammer? Should the jammer join in the defense?
Managing all of this requires a coaching staff, normally comprised of two or three positions. "We have two coaches," said Maiden Hades, the heliotrope-haired and exquisitely tattooed coach of the Division 2 Santa Cruz Derby girls. (WFTDA uses a complex algorithm to rank teams; there are 212 Full Member Leagues, the top 40 of which constitute Division 1, with Division 2 made up of the teams ranked 41-100 and Division 3 being everyone else).
"My bench manager and I work in conjunction to watch how the players are playing, and to make sure that the rotations are appropriate, that we have appropriate jammer matchups," Hades said. In addition to adjusting strategies and personnel to the on-track action, the coaching staff needs to coordinate player traffic in and out of the penalty box, as well as regulating the ebb and flow of the bench.
Hades also makes a point of studying video. "I do heavy, heavy scouting," Hades said. "We watch a lot of bout footage. I have the entire team watch bout footage… I try to keep up to date on rosters, knowing which players are in and out. Especially knowing the strengths and weaknesses of jammers tends to be really helpful; who the strong minds are and who the strong bodies are in the pack. Who you really need to be aware of, who you need to break away from the pack, who you kind of need to steal their soul."
Hades smiled. "Because, you know, one stolen soul can take down a whole team sometimes."
There are myriad ways in which a skater can obtain a penalty, but for the purposes of this abridged rule set it is crucial only to know that they must leave the track when they have been assigned one, that they foul out at seven, and that when a jammer heads to the penalty box, the opposing team is said to be on the power jam. A power jam can swiftly swing bouts.
If all of this seems a touch complicated, that's because, quite frankly, it is. Even without all the many nuances of the rules, the very notion of constantly playing both offense and defense while whirling about in a veritable maelstrom of ill-intentioned women ready and willing to bang bodies and bleed for a few extra points would be enough to send most amateur athletes rushing to the exits. If you know nothing else about roller derby, you most likely know that it attracts a special kind.
* * *
"This is like our Super Bowl," Kelly told me on the first day of competition, which pitted the two and three seeds against each other. "Except I can afford to go to this." Kelly, an affable blonde skater from the west coast, ended up sitting in my row, much to my good fortune. I had become familiar with roller derby while living in Pottstown, Pa., but the jump from that young league to the WFTDA Championships was akin to leaping from high school to the NFL. Kelly's many insights and elucidations were invaluable.
"The first thing people ask me when they learn I skate is if I skate in fishnets," Kelly said. The leggings, ubiquitous in popular depictions of roller derby, are something of a political garment now, vestiges of a checkered past that for too long has overshadowed the sport. For the record, not a single skater this weekend had her legs bound up and cross hatched; no doubt they did not want to provide valuable handholds for crafty blockers to hook fingers through. The other famous derby convention, however, was alive and well represented: skater names.
Derby nicknames are often supremely clever or delightfully vulgar. They can be subversive, ridiculous, salacious and are, as a whole, excellent, perhaps the most enjoyable collections of puns available anywhere. They extend to skater numbers, coaches, officials and derby-centric media members, and the very best of them read as a conflation of P. G. Wodehouse and Ghostface Killah. A representative sampling: Alpha Q. Up; Beth Amphetamine; Nasty Nikki Nightstick; Heavy Flo; Hyper Lynx (number 404, natch); Hell Vetica Black; Queen Loseyateefa; Ghetto Fabu-lez; and my personal favorites, belle RIGHT hooks, Olivia Shootin' John and Sintripetal Force.
The team names also demonstrate a wit and verve most big time sports franchises lack. Sacramento's team is the Capitol Punishers, while the U.K. contingent skates under the name London Brawling.
Some squads, most notably Denver's Mile High Club, buck the trend. "There is a movement toward skating under real names," Kelly told me. "They want to be treated as athletes, and derby as a credible sport." But Kelly skates under a skater name, and as long as Gotham, Texas and Bay Area, arguably the sport's standard bearers, continue to use them, it's tough to see the practice fading away.
People of every size, shape and color wandered about the arena, some shattering the conventional notions of derby girls, some personifying it. Really, the one overarching theme that bound them all together was friendly, affable confidence. Roller derby is wonderfully inclusive, accepting skaters of nearly every body and personality type, something which extends to the fan base as well.
* * *
The first bout of the weekend pitted London Brawling against Atlanta's Dirty South Derby Girls.
A cardboard cutout of the Queen and a legion of fans bedecked in London's incandescent pink and jet-black colors had traveled with Brawling from England, and the first international participant in the WFTDA Championships was a heavy crowd favorite. Perhaps since it is still a small world that derby girls live in, it is not unusual to see them sporting not only their own team's logos and gear but others' as well. This holds especially true for powerhouse programs like Gotham or Bay Area. Still, the London support went well beyond that, and the crowd seemed genuinely thrilled to see Brawling in person and at the top of the pyramid -- living, breathing, skating proof that roller derby is alive and well outside the U.S.
Despite the royal treatment, their indomitable blocker Stef Mainey, and the 75 percent lead jam percentage of Kamikaze Kitten, Brawling was simply worn down by Atlanta's blocking duo of Wild Cherry and Queen Loseyateefa, combined with a 78-point night from Jammunition. Atlanta played a physical game, slowly grinding Brawling down, and emerged with the 184-169 win.
The second bout saw the Angel City Derby Girls knocking off Rocky Mountain, 228-198, in their first tournament appearance. The Hollywood Scarlets rode a balanced jamming rotation -- Chica Go Lightening, Mickispeedia, Cris Dobbins, Ghetto Fabu-lez and Satan's Little Helper all scored more than 30 points -- which offset the especially pugnacious defense of Rox Yorr Soxov, an undersized blocker with a propensity for spinning around, playing face to face, and delivering impressive shots with her hips and shoulders. In the third bout, Ohio defeated Seattle's Rat City, thanks in no small part to Phoenix Bunz' 101-point night. Cheers of "Bunz! Bunz! Bunz!" showered her every time she towed the line.
Friday's main event saw the Windy City Rollers -- practically the home team, by virtue of proximity -- go up against the Philly Roller Girls. Style makes the bout, and the jamming practices of Windy City and the Liberty Belles could not be further afield. Philadelphia's most potent offensive weapon was Vanessa "V-Diva" Sites, a steamroller of a skater who punished blockers with a combination of power and balance. Juxtaposed was Windy City's Sandrine Rangeon, swift and slight, a French national currently training for a spot on the 2018 short track speed skating Olympic squad in Milwaukee and capable of crossing over a blocker like Allen Iverson and circumventing the entire curve of the track with one well-timed leap ("jumping the apex"). Respected Chicago skater Jackie Daniels, in addition to being a fine blocker, jammed with an effective blending of the two styles.
Availing themselves of Rangeon's ability to nimbly navigate blockers when left to her own devices, and using Daniels as a changeup, Windy City devoted most of their energies to stopping V-Diva. The plan worked, pushing Diva to the edge of penalty trouble with 5, and Windy City held on to make the second day.
* * *
"Wait until you see Gotham play," Kelly told me on the second day of competition. The Gotham Girls were generally spoken of with reverence, saturating conversations and clothing before ever hitting the track. Led by legendary jammers Bonnie Thunders -- a former synchronized figure skater -- and Suzy Hotrod, Gotham, by virtue of their long string of dominance, had risen to the pinnacle of the sport.
Other one-seeds were in action, however, and all advanced to the penultimate round, riding similar styles of play. The Texecutioners, Mile High Club and B.ay A.rea D.erby Girls utilized heavily physical blocking and, in Texas' case, some outstanding jammer performances, to oust Atlanta, Angel City and Chicago, respectively. Bay Area, resplendent in black and gold, demolished Rangeon and Windy City; Demanda Riot, replete with intimidating face paint, and Belle Right Hooks effectively stifled Rangeon and Jackie Daniels while clearing the way for LuLu Lockjaw and Bricktator, who paced the scoring with 80 points.
Sandwiched between Denver and Bay Area's first games was Gotham's evisceration of the Ohio Roller Girls. Seeing the defending champs in action for the first time is bewildering. "It's like they're playing a different game," I muttered to myself as the scoreboard kept spinning. "They are," a Detroit skater behind me said. "For them, it is a different game."
Any talk of Gotham must begin with Bonnie Thunders. Tall and thin, Thunders plays with a deceptive physicality, and stopping her is like holding water in your hands. Any tiny hole, any sliver of daylight she spotted in Ohio's blocking walls was quickly tested and, if weak, exploited; should the unfortunate blockers hold strong, she quickly darted around them, often skirting the very edges of the track, lateral quickness and spatial awareness dovetailing perfectly into a 100 percent lead jammer percentage.
Remember the outline of a perfect jam listed above? That was Bonnie Thunders on almost every trip around the track. She would squirt through the scrum in front of her, scream around the track, rack up her four or five points and call off the jam, leaving Ohio looking at zero. "One of the things I most respect about Bonnie Thunders is her composure," Kelly told me. "Her whole game. She never makes mistakes." Her pack awareness -- knowing where her skaters were in comparison to the opposition's, as well as the location of the opposing jammer, all critical variables in figuring out how many more points she could squeeze out of a pass before allowing Ohio to gain any -- was impeccable. Ohio was held scoreless for four jams, with Thunders calling the shots for two of them.
"They'd rather get a few points and prevent yours than keep going," Kelly said. "It's a mind game. They want to call off a jam at 3-0, rather than 4-1, to make you look at that zero. It's hard doing all that work only to get nothing."
Counterbalancing Thunders' surgical and cerebral vivisection of the Ohio Roller Girls was Suzy Hotrod's electrifying recklessness and Vicious Van GoGo's brutal battering. The prodigiously inked Hotrod has just as much lateral quickness as Thunders, if not more so -- and really, it is in their ability to play horizontally, to get blockers rolling one way and then go the other, that makes the best jammers the best -- and she applies it with a savage aplomb, practically sprinting into blockers on her toe brakes and driving until breaking free, en route to a blocker-splattering high-speed reel around the track.
The eye-popping offensive numbers showed off Gotham's enviable depth at jammer -- Thunders scored 165 points, Van GoGo 148 and Hotrod 110, all making Team USA-caliber player Claire D. Way's 86-point effort look pedestrian by comparison. But even more impressive was their blocking.
As the results indicate, roller derby is often a high-scoring game. A shutout seems practically impossible, thanks to esoteric rules involving the concept of a pack and pack play, which basically boil down to the fact that, even if a blocker was playing perfect defense on a jammer, doing so too far from the other skaters would allow her to be set free, upon threat of a penalty. Operating under such restrictions, Gotham's blockers held Phoneix Bunz, who had brought the arena to its feet by crossing the century mark on her own the night before, to four points. Even though Gotham's third-round roughing-up at the hands of Bay Area provided a blueprint of sorts (namely a heavy reliance on superb blocking), the writing was on the wall: Bay Area held the Gotham jammers to something approaching a 50-percent lead jammer rate, and still lost.
* * *
"Texas! Texas! Kill Kill Kill!" Hauss the Boss has just completed her six immaculate passes, the scoreboard reads 127-126 in favor of the Texecutioners, and Milwaukee is roaring, the air charged with the electricity befitting the metaphorical thunder that roller derby so often inspires. The Gotham Girls must not only contend with the other team every bout, but also with expectations and environment; despite a universal appreciation for their talents, most anyone not directly affiliated with Gotham is cheering rabidly against them. Every big Texas block, every assumption of the lead jammer position, every time a Texecutioner manages to steal a few points before Bonnie Thunders demurely taps her hips -- this happens exactly twice when Bonnie is the lead, Kelly was not exaggerating her mistake-free play -- was met with histrionics.
"You wanted to see them played close," Kelly yells over the din. "Here it is!"
Bonnie Thunders takes lead jammer on the next jam and rolls to an unanswered four points, putting Gotham back on top. "They're just going to go Bonnie/Suzy, Bonnie/Suzy until they win, aren't they?" I ask Kelly. She nods.
Thunders and Hotrod make impossible pass after impossible pass against the Texas blockers. Thunders does not look like the laser scalpel she was against Ohio; she is playing more like Hotrod now, less knifing, more dancing, spinning, pushing with all her might. She reels off 24 devastating points in jam 14 at the expense of Olivia Shootin' John; OSJ returns the favor the very next round, gashing Gotham for 20. Slowly, the tide turns, until finally the Thunders/Hotrod combination breaks through: 13 unanswered points from Bonnie Thunders in jam 18 and 10 for Suzy Hotrod to Bloody Mary's five in the following. Hauss closes the gap to 26 in the penultimate jam; one more Texas lead could blow The Cell sky high.
But Bonnie Thunders is on the line, and Bonnie Thunders does not make mistakes. She slashes her way to the lead position, skates out the clock, and taps her hips for the win.
The dynasty, of course, cannot last. A fourth consecutive win would be exceedingly difficult. There is footage now, actual video evidence, of mighty Gotham looking decidedly mortal, and coaches like Hades will suss out whose souls can be stolen. But tonight, for a third time, they are champions. They are the best roller derby team in the world.
Kelly goes down to the floor for the victory lap. "They were all crying," she says upon her return. "They were skating around in tears."
* * *
B. David Zarley is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His work can be seen in VICE, The Atlantic, The Classical, The Myrtle Beach Sun News, The Chicago Reader, Paste and numerous other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @BDavidZarley.