Derby Girls Get it Done

GT031413Santa Cruz’s powerful parade of estrogen is ready to roll—again. A provocative look inside the new season of the Derby Girls, the league’s addictive charm and how these gals embody a fierce spirit of accomplishment.

Modern roller derby needs no introduction in Santa Cruz. We’re funny that way; ahead of the curve. Pun intended. Five seasons of derby at sold-out bouts Saturday after Saturday adds up to approximately 40 bouts in front of roughly 40,000 seats, all filled with screaming fans. If you are personally unfamiliar with this thing called flat track roller derby, if you don’t know a jammer from a shortstop, or if you think a CoraZone is a delightful Italian lunch …  simply turn to your neighbor and he or she will set you straight.

This local version of the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is “Two Degrees of Roller Derby.” Try it. Ask anyone: Do you know a derby girl? The answer will start to be:
1 ) No, but my sister’s friend …
2 ) Yes, my accountant …
3 ) Me!

Still feeling out of the loop? Here’s the elevator speech: Womens Flat Track Roller Derby is the fastest growing sport in the world. It is a fast-paced, aggressive, full-contact game played on an oval track by teams of five players on roller skates, with points scored by passing opposing players. (That is possibly the shortest and driest description you’ll ever hear. Ask any fan and he or she will immediately draw an oval on the nearest café napkin, sand dune, or bar counter and dive into the positions and rules con mucho gusto.)

cover derbyNew2In 2002 there was one league—in Austin, Texas. Today there are more than 1,500 leagues—worldwide. One hundred seventy two of those leagues are members of WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) and play sanctioned bouts for rankings and championships. The Santa Cruz Derby Girls are one of those select leagues. Got it?

Full disclosure: I am a derby girl. I am a Santa Cruz Derby Girl. Everything I say here may be used against me in a court of “What have you been doing for the last five years?” My answer is murky, like that of a weekend bender survivor, piecing together the cloudy events of the previous night.  I could say, “skating and stuff,” which doesn’t come close to inferring what is entailed in full immersion in a volunteer-driven non-profit organization. A sweaty, hi-octane, competition-based non-profit organization.

My answer aligns closely with “What has Santa Cruz been doing for the last five years?” Falling in love with roller derby. Falling deeply in love with the sport, the skaters, teams, fellow-fans and culture. And, along with everyone else, falling in love with the process of watching a burgeoning sport take root, grow and flourish, not only here in Santa Cruz, but world-wide.

Does this sound like a love letter? Guilty. I tried in vain to write semi-objectively about roller derby, but each attempt landed squarely in the Elizabeth Barrett Browning category, “How do I Love Thee, Let me Count the Ways.” The ways I counted sickened even me (really, how can I love the smell of a skate bag?) Futile attempts to take on an edgier, sexier voice a la E.L. James (“Fifty Shades of Black and Blue” maybe?) resulted in more treacle and sap. My internal process finally narrowed my passion down to its core, most clearly stated thusly: Derby girls get it done. “Getting it done” is something I admire. So in that spirit, and with a grateful nod (and perhaps an apology) to author Stephen R. Covey for his highly effective insight (and manageable number of bullet points), I offer you the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Roller Derby:

1. Be Proactive. Take initiative in life…

Translation: Start a roller derby league.

In the metaphorical wee morning hours of 2007, a group of local women strapped on old-school quad skates and started turning-left-with-purpose at the Santa Cruz Roller Palladium, learning the ins and outs, ups and downs (literally) of this re-born sport. I’ll call them rag-tag, because it fits: full-time moms, paralegals, middle school teachers, grad students, insurance agents. Not only was this the first iteration of modern flat track roller derby in Santa Cruz, it was part of the first wave of the movement worldwide, a mere five years after the dawn of the modern roller derby age itself.

cover derby2Newly formed leagues around the country held bouts at roller rinks, but Santa Cruz skaters had a bigger vision. Live competition exploded in March of 2008 at none other than our 1930s-era Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, a venue that has housed a variety of cultural events including (but certainly not limited to) the Miss California Pageant, the Santa Cruz County Symphony, the Ramones, local basketball, and in the 1960s and ’70s, exhibition roller derby featuring the Bay Bombers.

In their most recent and boldest proactive move, the Santa Cruz Derby Girls took the major step of moving across downtown to Kaiser Permanente Arena, the first professional sports venue in Santa Cruz. You’ve heard “go big or go home?” They are choosing the former. Built as the home of the Santa Cruz Warriors NBA D-League basketball team, the arena will provide twice the seating capacity of their former home, room for a larger track, and better viewing for fans.

Victoria Platt (who skates as Victoria Mayhem) points out, “Moving to the new arena will benefit the league in many ways but the most exciting part is that we can now have a regulation size track, which means that all but one of the Boardwalk Bombshell bouts will be counting towards their WFDTA rankings.” Habit 1, accomplished.

2. Begin with the End in Mind. Self-discover and clarify your deeply important character values and life goals.

Translation: Who are you?

Clarifying character values and life goals as an individual is difficult—see the self-help section of any bookstore for proof.  Defining them as a league of nearly 100 people is understandably more complex. To put real day-to-day meaning to the league’s values, an official Code of Conduct was adopted. “Code of conduct” and “full contact roller derby” might appear to go together like oil and water, but all successful sports organizations employ C.O.C., including those that, to the casual observer, seem at odds with the underlying essence of the codes. Even the National Hockey League Official Rules includes Rule 75.1 Unsportsmanlike Conduct, which requires that players and all personnel  “… must endeavor to prevent disorderly conduct before, during or after the game, on or off the ice and any place in the rink.” There is, however, no Hockey-to-English translation of the term “disorderly conduct.”

The SCDG Code of Conduct includes rules to live by such as limiting competitive rivalries to game time (aka leaving it on the track), being modest in success and gracious in defeat, and my favorite includes the term schadenfreude. (I would disclose more, but that would be a clear violation of the last bullet point in the list, in re: sharing institutional information.)

Who is a derby girl? There are currently 100 answers.

“I am a super fan turned skater,” states Sabrina Bohbot (who skates under the name Shanks A. Million). “I have attended SCDG bouts since the very beginning. I stood in the long lines, bought the $8 beers, lost my voice cheering, and celebrated my favorite sports team. In 2009 I became a ‘Grom Mom’ when my daughter became a skater in the junior roller derby league. It wasn’t until last season that the planets aligned and it was my turn to lace up my skates.”

cover derbyNew1Luckily, the league’s values align with hers. “Santa Cruz invested in the athleticism of this sport, and not in the spectacle. I have always appreciated that. And the community outreach is an important part of what the league does.” Habit 2, done.

3. Put First Things First. Prioritize, plan, and execute your week’s tasks based on importance rather than urgency.

Translation: Shut up and skate.

As in any area of life that requires trying and failing, intense human interaction and competition, and an ongoing inner battle between doubt and dominance, the reminder to lose the internal and external drama and focus on the task at hand is crucial. “Shut up and skate” means more than ceasing with the chatter. It means drop the pretense, as a skater and as a league. It means lose the fear. It means get over yourself. As a sports organization it means “play the sport.”  Don’t be the band with T-shirts before songs; don’t be the derby league with image before skills.

Andrea Lilly (aka Hell Louise) exemplifies the “shut up and skate” ethic. She has served on the league’s board of directors for years, has coached the junior derby teams, and is intimately involved with all aspects of its administrative workings. However, at the end of the day, one primary focus remains.

“One of my favorite things is taking out two or more people at a time and hearing the sweet quiet sound of defeat come from the opposing jammer behind me. Sometimes there is no actual noise, but I can still hear it.” Habit 3, over and out.

4. Think Win-Win. Genuinely strive for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships.

Translation: Duh, winning on the track, winning in the community!

There are so many ways to win at this habit, from setting aside egos for effective team dynamics on the track, to reaching out to the community for partnerships and support, to maintaining beneficial relationships with fellow leagues. Failure is not an option in any regard. Skate as an individual and the team fails. Operate in a bubble and the business fails.

 The Santa Cruz Derby Girls have a proven track record of “playing well with others.”  They play well with other teams on the track, and as of this writing the 2013 WFTDA Boardwalk Bombshells are undefeated (3-0) in sanctioned play. They play well with a host of loyal sponsors who insist, year after year, in supporting the league in myriad ways. They play well with their fans, as the sea of homemade signs in the stands attest. They play well with the State of California, operating as a 501(c)3 Non-profit organization. They play well with the City of Santa Cruz, having been among the most reliable producers at the Civic, and now the newest tenant at the arena on Front Street. They play well with other nonprofit organizations, giving cash, time and the public’s eye to help local charities help Santa Cruz. Heard enough?  They’re the kid who’s a delight to have over for a playdate. They are Eddie Haskell.

cover scdg logoWith a recent revision of WFTDA divisions, Santa Cruz will now have a chance to “play well with others” in a more equitable ranking system. Until this year, teams played for seeding based on geographic regions, SCDG being part of the highly competitive West Region. The new system pits skill level over location and will give the A team a clearer shot at placing higher in the new Division II.

“We are really excited about the implementation of divisions. Santa Cruz is a small town,” says Aisha Brown (aka Foxee Firestorm) about the general sense of anticipation and excitement for the season. “It’s been both an incredible challenge and somewhat disheartening to be regionally located to some of the most talented teams in the world. The switch to divisions will allow us to compete for a real chance at playoffs and championships.” Habit 4, won!

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. Use empathic listening to be genuinely influenced by a person.

Translation: Give the people what they want.

“The people” are fans, supporters, spouses, neighbors, and skaters. They are the families wearing the black and blue, the fans with painted bare bellies (yes, believe it), and the derby enthusiasts world-wide who watch events streaming on the internet. The beauty in being part of a new and growing sport is that “the people” have a respected voice, and derby listens. An example here at home is the switch in 2009 from competing home teams to interleague play. (Santa Cruz is notoriously house proud, and the desire for Us vs. Them is true to our collective character. We tend to really like Us.) A new roller derby rule set effective Jan. 1 clearly reflects input from the derby community at large. The game you see played this season will be faster and cleaner, just how you wanted it – no more pesky minor penalties, and one whistle to start all skaters. Fans in the West Region, and specifically the greater Bay Area are familiar with spectators’ rallying moan of “booooring!” during slow play, and will be thrilled with the faster pace the new rule-set encourages. Do not despair—we’re sure a new rallying moan will emerge from the Bay Area soon.

Aisha Brown, on the changes: “The new rule set has really got us working closely with our leagues referees. What used to be a lesser error, cutting the track for example, can now change the outcome of an entire game. The change has allowed us to play more ferociously while making imperative the need for controlled, and precise skating. The Bombshells have been working hard to master the faster paced game.”

Established sports have a checkered history of listening to its fans. Until 1867, a baseball caught after the first bounce was still ruled an out. Fans (and players) found this childish, and the rule changed. Basketball’s adoption of the shot clock in 1954 followed spectators’ frustration with ball-hogging teams (we’re looking to you, Pistons.) And the NFL is under scrutiny today as fans tire of cringing after hard hits to soft heads. Soccer, however, insists on keeping the shootout. I blame the Euro. Habit 5, achieved.

6. Synergize.  Combine the strengths of people through positive teamwork, so as to achieve goals no one person could have done alone.

Translation: Get thee to a committee meeting.

In derby, one expects to train hard, play hard, and hit hard. Another set of expectations grows out of the sport’s enduring DIY ethic. In its infancy, the league, which continues to be run by dues-paying members, focused at least one eye toward empowering its individuals as they in turn empowered the organization as a whole. Job skills were learned hands-on, in areas as diverse as graphic design, accounting, retail management, marketing, conflict resolution, event cover derby1production, contract negotiation and public speaking. Come for the skating, stay for the Life 101 degree. This is a clear illustration of the derby motto “by the skaters, for the skaters.” Unfortunately, this leads to the formation and management of committees (the C word.) Every member has required committee work. It’s almost like being a Unitarian, but with more spandex and better nicknames.

Case in point: Regan Eymann (aka Shamrock N. Roller), arguably one of the most feared blockers on the track, pays her dues in cash and committee work. “I have been with the league since its inception, skating on the Bombshells,” she says. “I coached for a season when I was pregnant with my daughter. I have been the director of Sponsorship, an Interleague Liaison, and am currently one of the WFTDA Representatives. I have also done numerous other jobs and tasks for the league including building the (internal communication) forum and the league’s website, which I still maintain.” Habit 6, exhausted.

7. Sharpen the Saw. Balance and renew your resources, energy, and health to create a sustainable, long-term, effective lifestyle.

Translation: Life is like an oval … track.

The average competitive life span of a derby girl is five years. Injuries, burnout, family and life tend to demand the retiring-of-the-skates to some degree or another after a few years. Renewing its resources is one of roller derby’s strengths, as the sport continues to grow and attract more and higher-skilled players.

The Santa Cruz league holds popular Boot Camps for interested women, and a recent tryout yielded 14 new skaters. The junior derby program has produced four skaters who went on to join the adult league. The officiating crew welcomes men and women for on- and off-skates positions. There is even a place for the rolling-impaired – the Derby Deckhands handle league business without the bruises.

As far as saws go, the Santa Cruz Derby Girls is one of the sharpest. The league has grown from three home teams to three travel teams and a traveling youth program. The Boardwalk Bombshells play at the national level, the Harbor Hellcats and Seabright Sirens play regionally, as well as the Santa Cruz Derby Groms. All of the teams will enjoy the bright lights and regulation track at Kaiser Permanente Arena. The league is not about to let is saw become dull. Habit 7, sharpened.

My love letter would not be complete without a moment of unfulfilled longing, and to that end I offer my despair at being an utter failure as a competitive skater. Oh, agility, why do you abandon me! You, dear reader, may not be prepared for, interested in, or even capable of the deep commitment I have made to this sport. That’s OK. But I invite you to date derby on a casual basis and see how you get along. Sit in the bleachers (or track-side) and see if it tickles your fancy. I bet you dollars to donuts you will be smitten. (New habit: roller derby.)

The Santa Cruz Derby Girls 2013 Season Opener is Saturday, March 16th at Kaiser Permanente Arena. Full schedule and league information can be found at santacruzderbygirls.org. Kim Luke is a former skater and youth coach for the derby girls, and current announcer. She will gladly play matchmaker if you’d like to hook up with derby. [email protected]

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