Welcome to WRDN’s continuing Battle on the Bank IV Diary, a wrap-up of banked track derby’s national invitational tournament. This six-part diary will highlight six games and use them to comment about the event—and the state of derby in general—from a different perspective.
How did I have the best AND worst derby weekend of my life? What does it mean to take pride in your team—and your city? Why was the closest game of the weekend boring to me? And what does it mean for derby to see a superstar in the making? To find the answers to these and other questions, read on…
Los Angeles 65, San Diego 53
I love Los Angeles.
The city, I mean. I love any and all things about big cities, but there’s something about Los Angeles that gives me a feeling of pride and joy every time I journey into its bustling and beating heart. The constant activity, the mix-up of different backgrounds and cultures, and the size of space to explore makes me consider it my home. Though I don’t technically call it my home (yet), my travels have me come and go through L.A. so often that it might as well be.
I also love roller derby.
I’ve loved it ever since I can remember watching re-runs of old roller derby games on TV during my childhood. The Los Angeles Thunderbirds were my favorite team, or at least I think they were. They had to be, since they’re the only team which I remember watching, and liking. The 1980s were a long time ago, though, so I can’t remember specific details. Only the feelings I experienced.
A few years later, when David Sams and his Figure-8 roller derby track hit the airwaves in 1989, my favorite team was back on TV. I was thrilled to watch Rollergames action every week and cheer on the World-Famous, World Champion L.A. T-Birds. But even as a 9-year old roller derby fan, I started to suspect something was amiss when they brought out the alligators for sudden-death overtime.
Long story short, I yearned for legitimate roller derby ever since then.
It was fitting that when I finally stumbled onto the existence of the legit game some 18 years later, I first found it in Los Angeles, and with the L.A. Derby Dolls.
Oddly enough, the specifics of my discovering the Derby Dolls are also fuzzy. I’m somewhat confident it was a random YouTube video that I came across, although it also could have been a handbill or flier that pointed me to a website. I also know that my first LADD game was in 2007, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what month of the year it was without taking the time to look it up. Again, specifics escape me.
But I know the feeling I got the first time I saw them play. It was if I had never skipped a beat. Everything about the roller derby of the past and the roller derby of the present is very different, but for me, the feeling I experienced while watching was exactly the same.
I also know the feeling I get when I think of the City of Angels. It’s a feeling I’ve grown to know and love ever since my family took my brother and me to a Dodgers game at Chavez Ravine, or to the telescope at the Griffith Observatory, or to the history-rich buildings of old downtown, or to the Walk of Fame in Hollywood.
Such is why if someone asks me how long I’ve been a fan of the Derby Dolls, I would need to pause and recalculate before answering with the facts from my brain: Five years.
Because if I didn’t, the feelings I have for Los Angeles and the feelings I have for roller derby would mix up inside of me and have me answer that same question with the truth from my heart: Twenty years.
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Los Angeles was a strong favorite going into Battle on the Bank IV. The Ri-ettes came into 2011 with a new roster, a new coach, and a new mission. They scheduled tough opponents like Gotham and Rocky Mountain and performed beyond expectations. Although they lost to Team Legit earlier in the year, many attributed that to the lack of practice as a new unit.
In any case, L.A. came to the tournament with one goal: Win it all. They weren’t going to be happy with second, or with third. They wanted to win.
One way or another, Los Angeles had to get through their sisters to the south, the San Diego Derby Dolls Wildfires, in order to do that. Strange as it may seem, as close in proximity as the two teams are, they haven’t played a full-on non-exhibition game between each other since 2009, when San Diego defeated L.A. in the finals of Battle on the Bank II in Austin, Texas.
Although it’s been two years since there was something on the line, these two teams are no strangers to each other. Every year, L.A. and S.D. play an exhibition bout between each other during the Derby Dolls’ March Radness training camp, though it’s a game filled with top skaters in town for camp and not really a true representation of who’s better. Also, San Diego’s intraleague team, the Swarm, sees bits and pieces of the Ri-ettes when they play against L.A.’s four local squads.
San Diego, however, has lost a lot of top skating talent from their side since the start of the new year. Bonnie D. Stroir and Ivanna S. Pankin. had moved on to greener pastures, leaving San Diego lighter on experience than in years’ past. Though they were the two-time defending champs and still an elite team, they seemed to be coming in to the weekend as second or third favorites, trending downward.
So then, with Los Angeles looking strong and San Diego showing signs of weakness starting the weekend, compared to previous years, the match-up on paper would have favored L.A. by a fair margin. But you know what? Throw all of that out the window.
This was a rivalry game.
Ask your football buddies in Dallas what they think about the Washington Redskins. Or how Lakers fans think of the Boston Celtics. Tennessee-Connecticut, Yankees-Red Sox, North Carolina-Duke, Maple Leafs-Canadiens, Auburn-Alabama, Barcelona-Real Madrid; these are all some of the greatest rivalries in sports. They can be regional, national, historical, or personal. But the thing that makes rivalries begin, and endure, are the fans of the teams who cheer their home team and boo their rivals for no other reason than because it’s what you’re supposed to do.
In rivalry games, people like me take a lot of pride in knowing that our sports team beat your sports team. As a baseball fan, I like it when the Dodgers win, and I like it when the Giants lose. But when the Dodgers beat the Giants? That’s like a double-win.
This is also true in roller derby. I may be mistaken, but Derby Dolls intraleague games featuring the Swarm always seem to get the Doll Factory going that extra little bit louder. It may be because those prissies from San Diego come up in their fancy little party bus, decked in buzz-bee yellow, with cowbells in tow to cheer for their home team. To everyone else in attendance, they instantly become the outsiders, the villains…the enemy. The boos are always a little bit louder when they’re directed at San Diegans.
As a (quasi-)Angelino, there’s a rule that I’m supposed to “hate” San Diego’s roller derby team because those high-and-mighty snobs think that they’re better than we are. I have no other choice but to defend our honor.
So I boo at them too.
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In the semi-final game between Los Angeles and San Diego, I wasn’t the only one that wanted to see a win for L.A. Really, both teams wanted to win. Badly. Not just so they could move on to the championship game, but also because they wanted to move on to the championship game by simultaneously denying their SoCal rivals the opportunity. (The double-win.)
I wanted L.A. to win just as bad as L.A. did, and I’m sure San Diego wanted to win as badly as I wanted them to lose. As a fan of this regional rivarly, it would be shameful indeed for an L.A. Derby Dolls fan, like me, to go all the way to Phoenix in support of his favorite roller derby team—and in support of his favorite city—only to see them lose and see San Diego win at the same time: The dreaded double-loss.
Once the game got underway, things went about as you would expect: Lots of hard hitting, fast skating (and slow skating…San Diego strategy, you know), momentum shifts and points swings. It was readily obvious that this wasn’t just your average close game, either. Both teams wanted it. They also wanted each other, as San Diego’s Kung Pow Tina readily demonstrated:
The first half of the game was pretty much neck-and-neck, but San Diego opened the second half very strongly. At the point in the game where Kung Pow Tina went pow (as depicted in motion, above), San Diego had opened up the biggest lead of the game, for either team. And this was a lead that started to look like it was going to be tough to overcome that near the end of the game.
I started to worry. Is San Diego going to beat us? Are we going to lose? I put my faith in the Ri-ettes to do something about it.
And did they.
As if they knew the honor of their team and the honor of Los Angeles itself was on the line, the Ri-ettes responded with a 27-3 run in the final 7 minutes of the game to put the game out of reach, and with time to spare. San Diego was completely overwhelmed. I was completely overjoyed. And as if the Sporting Gods were with us that day, the last jam of the game was made to be a power jam for L.A., a glorified victory lap for us to relish the victory that was a mere 60 seconds away.
I spent the last few minutes of the game standing trackside when the outcome looked to be secure, anticipating a celebration. When the final whistle sounded and it was made official, we got one.
As I stood outside turn 2 and watched the team pile up in celebration, I pumped my fist into the air with an extra bit of vigor:
We beat San Diego.
I was feeling good. Even better, the loss put San Diego into the final game of the day, just one hour later. So not only did they lose, they couldn’t immediately retire and rest for the evening. (A masochistic part of my subconscious was no doubt smiling.) As far as I was concerned, my weekend was complete, and anything awesome that happened on Championship Sunday was gravy. Even if L.A. didn’t beat Team Legit in the finals, I thought at the time, I can go back to the Doll Factory and tell those antennae-clad Swarm fans that L.A. beat S.D. when it mattered the most. And there’s nothing they do or say that would ever trump that. (At least until next year.)
As I continued to internally gloat at the outcome (mostly in jest, as it was), that last thought struck a chord with me. A second, mental “fist-pump” went off in my head. As I was celebrating the victory of the team, I suddenly understood the gravity of what had really happened on that day, in that sports arena, in the city of Phoenix, Ariz.:
Los Angeles beat San Diego.
At that moment, the love of my favorite roller derby team immediately took a back seat to the love of my favorite sport, and the love of my favorite city.
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There’s a thing about sports that people don’t think about, but I feel it’s more true than people realize.
Think of your favorite sports team in your favorite non-roller derby sport. Me? I’m an L.A. Kings fan. (That’s hockey, for you non-Canadians.) When I think of the team, I think of the sport they play, the city they play in, and the fans that support them.
More accurately, I feel that true fans (remember my rule) of their local sports team, like me, will love the sport above all else. It just so happens that the local team (the Kings) is the one that is representing the city (Los Angeles) they love, through a sports league (the NHL) that is prevalent on an (inter)national level.
In other words, Kings fans in L.A. are people who simultaneously love hockey and love the city of Los Angeles, and the Kings hockey club is the ways and means people who love Los Angeles fans let all the other hockey fans in the United States and Canada know about it.
I mean, could you truly love your local sports team if you didn’t really love the city you were living in?
I look to Chicago and the Chicago Cubs as a perfect example. Even though the Cubs are known nationally as “The Lovable Losers,” are cursed with billy goats and Bartmen, and haven’t won a championship in 103 years—
I find it necessary to repeat this in a separate paragraph: The Chicago Cubs have not won the World Series in 103 years.
—Chicago still loves the Chicago Cubs. They don’t “put up” with the Cubs. They don’t “tolerate” the Cubs. They don’t “like” the Cubs. They love the Cubs.
A sane person (read: a White Sox fan) would wonder why on earth anyone would love a team that is perennially bad at winning, or incapable winning when it matters most. Well, think about it. Would someone who doesn’t love baseball, love the Cubs? More importantly, would someone who doesn’t love Chicago, love the Cubs?
I have a friend here in Los Angeles who was born and raised in Chicago, and I can tell by the way she talks about visiting her family “back home” that she really loves (and misses) the place. She’s also a Cubs fan, and I pull no punches in reminding her in her team’s futility. But you know what? She’s still proud of her Cubbies in spite of it all.
I have a ton of respect for Cubs fans. It’s not exactly because their fans stick with their team even as another season goes down in flames. (Admirable, yes. But shouldn’t only the captain go down with his ship?) It’s because there are baseball fans out there that love Chicago so goddamn much, they’re proud to let the rest of America know it by supporting the Chicago Cubs, the baseball team that represents their city on the national stage.
In doing so, I feel that they’re communicating that love of their city to other baseball fans around the country. And that they continue to do it through a century of Cubs futility only further proves how deep runs their love of the game—and pride in their city.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
So about that extra mental fist-pump I had.
Los Angeles beat San Diego.
For as long as I have loved the sport of roller derby, this moment was the first time in my life that I truly felt I could be proud of it as a sport, on the national scale. Roller derby is getting big enough to the point where I could say “Los Angeles beat San Diego,” or “Arizona beat Texas,” much the same way that I could say that in baseball, or football, or any other national sport.
Of course, WFTDA has been having regional and national tournaments featuring flat track teams from coast to coast. And banked track derby teams from different parts of the country have played against each other before. So it’s not as if this wasn’t happening before.
But there was just something in that moment that clicked for me. In the games before LA/SD, I took for granted how, loud, proud, and numerous were fans from Seattle, Austin, Houston, Anaheim, Phoenix, and Tuscon.
However, when I experienced the moment of pride in my favorite city (by way of the L.A. Derby Dolls), I understood that all those other fans were all feeling the same thing I was, but for their favorite city. Tilted Thunder fans love Seattle. TXRD fans love Texas. Even those snarky San Diego Derby Dolls fans love the city of San Diego.
And the one thing we all had in common is that we all freakin’ love roller derby. So the way fans from those cities show everyone else in the derby community (including me) their love for their hometowns are to cheer on the roller derby team that is representing their favorite city, on a national stage.
There’s more. As roller derby continues to expand nationally, and internationally, having teams truly represent their cities will become another important step towards national acceptance and sports legitimacy.
If I found a random sports fan that hasn’t heard of roller derby and asked if he or she was interested in seeing a game between Montreal and Texas, before you even need to explain the basics and modern revival of roller derby to him or her, they’ll immediately know 1) where these teams are located, providing social, cultural, and geographical relevance, and 2) know that whomever these teams are, for them to be playing each other across geographical (and international) boundaries, the sport they play must be established enough to be nationally relevant.
Right from the word go, they’ll have those built-in positives to build from if they care to learn more about the sport. It’s a universal truth regardless of where you are in the country, or the world. If I were to say there was a derby game between Seattle and Baltimore that people might want to check out, people in Des Moines, St. Louis, Cleveland, Miami, London, Berlin, Shanghai or else where would immediately have those two points to build off of.
(Would that same universality work if I said “Rat City vs. Charm City” instead? Just something to think about.)
If we start thinking of cities or regions playing each other instead of teams playing each other, that will start to grow the sport within the region, across state borders, and across international borders. But before you can reach across the pond (Aside: Personally, I think that it’s too much of a stretch to have teams from the U.S. play London or other Euro derby teams regularly. That shit ain’t cheap to do!), teams need to focus on those nearby.
Regional rivalries are pure gold in fostering the growth and continued success of a sport. It gives fans of a team—and the city or region they represent—something extra to care about. Take for example the blossoming rivalry between Rat City and Rose City. They seem to run into each other quite a bit throughout the year, and they also have a special interaleague event where each of the respective home teams of each league plays each other. I’m told the fans love it.
Don’t think that this is happening just because they happen to be two competitive derby leagues in geographical proximity to each other; Seattle and Portland have had a few decades-long sports rivalries in soccer and (until 2008) basketball before roller derby came to town. The sport may be different, but the feelings the fans have for their respective cities is what makes the rivalry endure.
Whether they knew it or not beforehand, the feelings that a Seattle or Portland fan has for their city is amplified when that other city thinks they can cheer for their team more loudly. This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to roller derby. It’s one built into society, and into sports. Derby is just another the conduit for people to show pride in their favorite sport and their favorite city at the same time.
More importantly, regional rivalries also feeds back into the product on the track. If the fans of rival teams want their team to win, that is reflected in players themselves. Do you think that the L.A. Derby Dolls wanted to beat the San Diego Derby Dolls (and vice-versa) more than the average team? Hell yes, they did. For that reason, the teams are going to work that little bit more for it, that little extra harder for it. And when the double-win comes, it’s really one win for the winning team, and one win for the ever-growing sport of roller derby.
Maybe that’s my mental first-pump was all about instead, I think. At that moment, I stopped thinking “we beat San Diego,” and realized, “roller derby is going get better and grow on a national scale.” I thought of the budding (banked track) rivalry between Arizona and Texas. I thought of current rivalries on the flat track, like Gotham/Philly, Texas/Kansas City, or Rocky Mountain/Denver.
The teams on the lower end of those pairs don’t like getting beat by their neighbors. You’d have to think they’ll work extra-hard to do what it takes to beat them next time. (Goodness, just think of Texas’ recent schedule!) When they overcome and beat them, the team on the other side of the fence will do the same. And so the bar is raised. The games they play against each other would have to be good; otherwise, a guy like me, who is miles and miles away from these cities and regions, have heard about them. Because they’re good teams playing in good games.
So really, I think my second fist-pump was a combination of two things: That roller derby is going to get really good due to teams in proximity wanting to really beat each other and up their games against each other, and that a guy who loves Los Angeles can be in Phoenix to watch a game between San Diego and Texas while talking with someone from Seattle about the two common things tying it all together:
The love we have for roller derby, and the pride we have in our favorite cities.
Archived footage of this game is available through Derbydolls.tv:
Los Angeles vs. San Diego