The Story on the Flat Track

One of the beautiful things about watching sports is when you get to see beautiful moments play out in front of your eyes. I’m not just talking about a play that might never be matched, although those moments carry a certain level of joy. No, instead I am talking about those moments when a story unfolds in such a truly perfect way that you would be told it was unbelievable if you incorporated it into a piece of fiction. Moments like the Miracle on Ice stand out, because they are moments that transcend the entire realm of sports, or at least the realm of the sports during which they encompass. Instead, they become something bigger, something truer, and something that becomes legend in the eyes of many.

I truly believe that I witnessed one of those moments take place last weekend at the 2015 International WFTDA Championships, which took place in Saint Paul.

There are many things that stand out with this story. The fact that it was the culmination of the WFTDA’s tenth playoff season was certainly an element, as was the setting, being at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, a historic and legendary space. Having the games carried for the first time on ESPN3 helped bring new eyes into the experience of roller derby, and the fact that each tournament day got better than the one previous, with the first day already being incredible, only help to cement the storybook that was presented. However, if you take away all of those elements, you’re still given a beautiful moment. A moment that stands out in my eyes on par with any of the other legendary sports moments. A moment that, I believe, will help define the next ten years of roller derby in the world.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m already talking about the impact of the story. I’m not talking about the story itself. Nor have I yet touched on the main players, the Gotham Girls Roller Derby All-Stars (New York, NY) and the Rose City Rollers Wheels of Justice (Portland, OR).

The story begins on Friday morning. It is early, over an hour before the first contests of the championship tournament are set to begin. Due to a quirk of scheduling, largely for broadcast purposes, the opening ceremonies end up being sparsely attended. Those that were present, or who watched later online, witnessed the standard “welcome to this year’s tournament”, along with entrances from the best WFTDA teams in the world. Anthems were sung, one from each country in attendance, and the stage was set for a tremendous weekend, one that would culminate in one team lifting the Hydra, the top prize in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. That alone wouldn’t have stood out as being dramatically different from other tournaments, and still would have set the stage for the epic battles that were yet to unfold.

But that wasn’t all. In the opening ceremonies, there was a tribute moment. It was a moment to remember and thank a man who had been a huge part of roller derby in general since the revival, and who had unfortunately passed away earlier in the year. In the derby world, he went by the name Rob Lobster, and his passing deeply affected so many who knew him. He had also been involved with the Rose City Rollers pretty much since day one. His imprint was all over the Wheels of Justice, and the tournament having a moment to remember him almost felt like an omen. Rob had been part of bringing Rose City to the final game of the 2014 season, where they fell to second place thanks to a squeaker of a win, a mere 3 points, dealt by Gotham. The tribute felt like it was basically setting the stage, telling Rose City that the story had been written, but it was up to them to complete the final chapter.

That was Friday. And that was the start of a day that contained an incredible amount of intense play from all of the teams involved. However, we don’t pick up this story again until Saturday, when Gotham and Rose City played their first games of the weekend, thanks to entering as top seeds from their playoffs. Rose City and Gotham both advanced through their quarterfinal games, looking ahead to later in the night when they would play their semifinal contests, and learn if they would be in the running to take home the Hydra. The first semifinal game pitted Rose City against the London Rollergirls London Brawling, which was a tightly contested game. As the final whistle blew, Rose City had cemented a 12-point victory, a mere pittance in roller derby, and waited to see who their opponent would be. On one hand, Gotham loomed as the potential opponent, with all of the history that name entails. On the other hand, Victorian Roller Derby League had earlier stomped all over Texas, and they were looking to become the first non-US team to snag roller derby’s top prize. The second semifinal game began, and ended up being one of the games of the tournament. Throughout much of the game, VRDL found themselves with the lead, and yet, try though they might, they just couldn’t create enough separation from Gotham to ever rest easy. Late in the game, the overarching story reared its head, and the final result saw Gotham escape with a 2-point victory. Not only did it keep their winning streak intact at just over 5 years (5 years and 1 day by most accounts), but it set the stage for a rematch of the previous season’s championship contest.

I allude to story above, and how it seemed to dictate some of the events that happened. Make no mistake; had VRDL defeated Gotham, the Roy Wilkins Auditorium would have erupted with an insane amount of energy. The majority of those in the arena wanted to see the giant fall, and they were primed to celebrate. In fact, when Gotham took the lead late in the game, it felt like the air had left the building in a rush. However, as amazing as watching VRDL and Rose City battle for the Hydra would have been, it would have lacked the poetry and parallels of the previous season. Instead, by pitting Rose City against Gotham once again, there was a certain amount of book-ending that had been set in place, and that match-up created even more subplots for the championship game. There was the redemption angle, the rematch, and the memory of Rob Lobster.

That brings us to the game itself on Sunday. Throughout the game, it looked like Gotham was going to keep their winning streak intact. Much like VRDL had challenged Gotham on Saturday, now they were the ones challenging Rose City on Sunday. And, much like the game against VRDL, the team that was in front absorbed punches, but was never quite able to pull away far enough to really make the road to victory abundantly obvious. In the first two jams of the game, Rose City had opened up a 22-0 lead, but they found themselves down 170-179 with under 4 minutes left. They had only held a lead a couple of times in the second half, and each time by only 2 points. Staring at a 9-point deficit with so little time on the clock, facing the best team in the world, could have been a daunting task. However, story once again strode forward, setting its mark on the weekend. In the game’s penultimate jam, each team sent their top jammer to the line. For Rose City, the skater wearing the star was Scald Eagle. For Gotham, the jammer was the woman spoken of as the LeBron James of roller derby, Bonnie Thunders. These were the same two skaters who had faced each other the previous year in the final jam, where Gotham was able to turn a 12-point deficit into a 3-point victory. This year, however, the story was written differently, as Scald Eagle and Rose City contained Bonnie Thunders (and, later, Fisher Twice, thanks to a star-pass), while racking up scoring pass after scoring pass. When the jam came to its conclusion, the scoreboard now stood at 198-187, Rose City having reclaimed the lead, and Gotham’s jammer sitting in the penalty box thanks to a forearm penalty.

The stage was set. The circumstances were eerily similar to the 2014 championships. Rose City held an 11-point lead over Gotham, in comparison to the 12-point lead from the year before. A jammer was stuck in the penalty box, handing a power jam to one of the teams, except this year it was Rose City who owned the power jam, and Gotham who needed a penalty kill. After a timeout, there was time for one final jam, and all Rose City needed to do was secure lead jammer status, allow the period clock to run down, and end the game. Gotham needed to hold, and not only get their jammer out of the penalty box, but hope that they were able to keep Rose City from becoming lead jammer and getting enough points on the board to at least force overtime.

Story wasn’t done playing with us yet.

The Rose City jammer was Loren Mutch, a young skater who has definitely made an impact for the Wheels of Justice. Loren’s counterpart from Gotham was Fisher Twice, sitting in the penalty box at the start of the jam. To keep things interesting, the timeout allowed for Gotham to give Bonnie Thunders a brief rest, and she was back on the track, wearing the pivot cap, and potentially able to receive the jammer star from Fisher. Again, all Loren needed to do was get through the pack cleanly, be declared lead jammer, and kill off the rest of the period clock, and the game would have been over. However, that was not what story had in mind, as Loren’s pass through the pack resulted in her not being declared lead jammer. The door was open, and it almost felt as though Gotham was about to steal the typewriter for their own ending. Fisher Twice, passing the star. Bonnie Thunders, jamming for Gotham. Loren Mutch, trying to at the very least hold serve with Gotham, and keep as much of the 11-point lead intact. The noise was deafening. The importance of story even allowed the DJ to start playing The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” at just the perfect moment for the slower part of the song to be carried over the loudspeakers during one of Loren’s loops around, the drums and guitar hitting just as the back of the pack was engaged with. The final whistles blew, and the audience inside the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, and those watching around the world online, either through or through ESPN3, witnessed history happen, and the story book received the final chapter that seemed almost destined from the moment of the opening ceremonies, and possibly back even further than last year’s championships.

Rose City stood tall, and they had defeated Gotham by a final score of 206-195. The Gotham Girls, who had helped redefine the sport of roller derby, and who had raised the bar time and time again for teams all around the world, had been defeated. The giant had fallen, and, by a weird quirk of sports, had gained new fans. Everyone loves an underdog story, and Gotham’s defeat will once again allow fans to root for them, and to do it loudly and proudly. As for story? Story had one more moment to give to everyone, and a moment that encapsulated everything that’s right, not just about roller derby, not just about sports, but about every sort of competitive contest. The final whistles blew, and one of the first moments on the track was seeing Loren Mutch, the jammer who had sealed the deal for Rose City, getting hugged fiercely and proudly by Bonnie Thunders.

Because, sometimes, the story wants to make sure that there are no villains. There are only heroes. And, on this past weekend, as so many other weekends in so many locations worldwide, those heroes wore four wheels on each foot.