Two teenage girls are roller-skating across the Oaks Park Roller Rink parking lot. With striped socks and jangly belly-dancer togs, these junior roller derby girls are offering drinks and snacks to the attendees of the Rose City Rollers' boot camp.
It's a hot August day and the skaters are doing sweaty, complicated footwork drills on the scorching hot blacktop that's nearly in the shadow of the Hangar, a lofty warehouse at Oaks Park. This is the official headquarters of the over 250 active skaters in the Rose City Rollers league. It's where they run drills, talk strategy, knock each other down, and call out loving insults and endearments. This is where some women find the first sport they've ever loved.
The boot camp is a three-day immersion in strength training, strategy, and scrimmaging for about 100 women from around the Pacific Northwest. I ask Rocket Mean (AKA Kim Stegeman, AKA head honcho for the Rose City Rollers) if any of the boot camp students will be playing at the upcoming 2011 West Region Playoffs. She laughs and says no, these are roller girls who are involved in recreational leagues or skate for their home teams in Bend and Boise and Olympia—in other words, they're not the all-stars, they're not the ones who made the travel teams, they're not going to the show. But they're here to learn from the ladies who are.
The Big Day
The show. It's the Bridgetown Brawl, and it's here in Portland. Ten teams, 200 women, from the West Region of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) will descend on Portland in a whirl of roller skates, helmets, and booty shorts for three grueling days filled with 17 bouts, starting on Friday, September 23, at the Memorial Coliseum. The stakes are high: There are only three open spots for the 2011 Championships in the toughest, most knockdown region in the league. And it's not going to be easy for the women of Rose City. The competition is fierce.
As of this month, Portland is ranked #5 in the world on the flat track, according to the Derby News Network. Founded in 2004, Rose City is also the largest roller derby league in the world, with 250 active skaters. But for the 2011 WFTDA West Region Playoffs, AKA Bridgetown Brawl, the win comes down on the shoulders of just 20 players—Rose City Rollers' all-star travel team, the Wheels of Justice. It's a roster that's already seen one injured Portland skater—long-time player Rhea DeRange (street name: Heather Washburn), who fractured her back in a non-sports-related accident. They're a team of women you've probably seen around town in their various alter egos—social worker, first-grade teacher, student, musician, mother—all hugely invested in their sport. Each player devotes countless hours to training, playing, and mentoring in the Rose City Rollers. It's a labor of love after their desk job is done—they're pro athletes in a homespun amateur sports league. All those hours are spent in hopes of making it to the Championships.
Rose City is surrounded by victory-hungry rivals in their bid to make the Championships in Denver. While it seems that a couple powerhouse teams will most certainly advance—like the juggernaut roller gals from Olympia, Washington and last year's champs Rocky Mountain Rollergirls out of Denver—that third ticket to the Championships is well within Portland's reach. And Portland wants it bad. Rose City has long been the bridesmaid (never the bride) in their roller journey to victory, and it will all come down to snatching the bouquet out of the hands of their initial playoff competitors at Bridgetown Brawl—the gold-clad athletes of the Bay Area Derby Girls.
"Our first game of the tournament is against Bay Area, who is hands down our biggest rival. One of our merch girls almost made a black shirt with gold lettering, and I was like, 'Nooo! Do you know you'd be hated by fans and our all-star team? People would do mean things to you,'" says Rocket Mean, laughing as we sit in the small Rose City Rollers office underneath the scoreboard at the Hangar.
And she's right. Rose City lost to Bay Area last year at Playoffs—the second time those foggy city derby dames knocked Portland out of the running for Championships. Needless to say, Stumptown wants to send their hearts back to San Francisco, broken and stomped. This team is a thorn in the side of Rose City.
They must win this crucial bout, because without the all-important win on Friday against Bay Area, Portland loses their chance at Championships. It would be a bitter, bitter pill to swallow—especially since Rose City is hosting the huge tournament. Worse, they would still have 12 more weekend bouts to thinly smile through, playing disappointed hosts to a party they can't fully enjoy. (Just like in 2008, when Rose City hosted Nationals without being able to participate. By the way, "Nationals" is the former name of "Championships." It's roller derby... you get used to things evolving at a rapid clip).
It's going to be a squeaker, but Rose City's prospects are very good, if nail-bitingly close. They've had a solid season, with four losses (including two narrow defeats at the hands of regional rivals Denver and one to Rocky Mountain). Their last match with Bay Area saw Rose City skate away with a win—but Portland's past losses to Bay Area at Playoffs could be a huge mental factor in Friday's game. As Playoffs Tournament Director Draggin Lady says, this third-place prize is going to be a "head game." (Full disclosure: Like all things roller derby, Draggin Lady has a second name, and that's Nami Bigos, Mercury ad designer.)
Rocket Mean agrees, "One of the things that is very difficult is that these girls have been skating so hard, putting in their all, and they're together all the time... so it's interpersonal relationships and conflicts that really start affecting us on the track.
"We're not discounting this game at all because every time we've discounted our first-round qualifier, we've gotten knocked out," Rocket Mean continues. "I've had big, big bar tabs after those games. Unlimited shots for the team last year.
"I'm nervous about my players going out there and playing their best game ever. I really, really want them to make it to Champs. It's funny 'til they make fun of us, 'Oh Rose City are the bridesmaids of the West,' because the West Region has six of the top 10 teams in it. It's the most competitive region out there," Rocket Mean says after showing me her brand-new engagement ring. She means business about not being anyone's maid of honor.
But what happens if Portland can clear the Bay Area hurdle on Friday? Rocket Mean explains, "Then we [most likely] play Olympia on Saturday. We're coming into the tournament in fourth place [in the region]; Olympia's coming in first place. I love my girls and I'd love to see them beat Olympia, but if they don't, then the following game would be, likely, Portland versus Denver. Not Rocky Mountain, but Denver. So they're the other huge obstacle." If Rocket Mean's predictions prove correct, it would put Rose City in the coveted third place seat to Championships.
But, again, that all hinges on Friday's outcome.
"I want people to feel the journey we're on," says Rocket Mean. "I'm so passionate about wanting my girls to make it to Champs, it's insane. When they didn't last year, I couldn't talk for a few hours. I was in tears. This team has so much heart and the girls have been practicing so hard. I would say each girl is working out, on average, 20 hours a week right now. They're eating like horses—there's probably restaurants going broke from these girls—if there's a buffet around, watch out. They are so intense and so focused right now. That's what I want the audience to feel. I want the audience to know what awesome thing is in their backyard."
That backyard is about to be crawling with diehard and casual roller derby fans alike, volunteers, skaters, and referees. In fact, Draggin Lady describes her event-planning role as something akin to being a wedding planner.
"It's a 9,000-person wedding I'm arranging for three days in a row," she laughs, between discussing the logistics of getting a truckload of comfortable couches into the Memorial Coliseum for volunteers and staff. Not to mention the needs of hundreds of roller girls getting ready to play one of the biggest games of their lives. "You've got 200 brides going dee-dee-dee," as she pantomimes pointing for different necessities, like blister band-aids and water.
To make Bridgetown Brawl even more of a crowd-pleaser, the Rose City Rollers configured the schedule to ensure all the big-ticket match-ups between the 10 teams happen during prime time for maximum high-octane excitement. "We pushed the most competitive bouts to the end of the evening, so they'll be the best. For the casual fan, we're going to show the world what's possible," says Draggin Lady.
It's exciting to see the planners, players, and fans pumped to host such a huge tournament. So come out and support your Portland players—they're the most accessible athletes in town, and they don't get paid millions, don't have contracts, and don't get the glory they rightfully deserve for being high-caliber athletes.
This is amateur sports at its finest and most fun, with the thrill of strategy, hard-hitting action, and women on skates. Rocket Mean says it best: "Last year I had one of the ladies from ESPNW sitting next to me [at the Championships]. The championship game was an upset with Rocky Mountain beating Olympia, and I was sitting right on the sidelines with her. It was crazy. I looked over at her once the game was over and said, 'You can tell your sports writers to fuck off, 'cause that's SPORTS.' Immediately I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm really sorry about that.' But that's how a lot of us feel: We're so tired of people thinking we're just girls ambling around in fishnets and mini-skirts."
Bridgetown Brawl, Memorial Coliseum, 300 Winning Way, Fri Sept 23-Sun Sept 25, single day tickets $16-40, three-day passes $75-100, see bridgetownbrawl.com for schedule and bracket, check Blogtown for tournament coverage