Shock, Gotham and Your Mom

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Inside the roller derby world the name “Gotham” conjures up all kinds of images. For many it represent Gotham Girls Roller Derby (GGRD)…the top team and gold standard in the sport. To others we see Bonnie Thunders, the Lebron James of roller derby or Suzy Hotrod who opened millions of eyes to our sport in the ESPN Magazine “Bodies” issue. Lately, Gotham has also become synonymous with New York Shock Exchange (NYSE)…the nearly unbeatable men’s team and one of the originals in men’s roller derby. This last weekend, I got to experience first hand what Gotham roller derby was all about and I can only say that it was even greater than I anticipated.

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Saturday evening, we would be playing at Abe Stark Arena located in famous Coney Island. The venue was perfect for the game as every seat in the balcony was a good one and those lucky enough to grab seats around the rink were treated to fast paced derby action up close. The first game was between two Gotham home teams, The Queens of Pain and the Manhattan Mayhem. One might expect a lower level of derby when your talent is diluted into a handful of home teams but not with Gotham. The talent in the home league was amazing. The women were very fierce and organized and the game played out like a WFTDA regional game except that everyone knew each other on the other team. Each team had true cheerleaders, colored garments everywhere, and fans with faces painted. The fans might have been more passionate for this game than any other game I had been to besides the MRDA National Championship game in and with St Louis. The ladies did not disappoint as they skated and hit non stop for 60 minutes. I was a bit scared that the men’s game after would be a let down compared to this one.

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Our first match up involved being the second game of a double header against the MRDA number three ranked NYSE. I play for the current MRDA national Champions, Your Mom Men’s Derby (YMMD) from Des Moines, Iowa. To the NYSE, we are one of the few blemishes on their almost perfect resume. In our first and only match up at Spring Roll in 2012, we upset them on our way to putting our team on the map as one of the top team on the men’s side. This night surely would be about redemption and payback for the NYSE and we would have expected nothing less from them. From the first whistle, we recognized that this was not the same Shock Exchange that we had met last year. They skated faster, hit smarter and played with fire as well as their normal swagger. They jumped to an early lead through the first handful of jams and knocked us back on our heals. The game continued going back and forth throughout with the outcome always in jeopardy.  In the end, after making us adjust to a new strategy and play a game that we were not prepared to play, YMMD was able to prevail by a whisker. I let as many of the Shock Exchange members that I could find know that it was the most intense roller derby game that I had ever played in and that I was amazed at the successful changes that they had made to the way they played. Other teams in MRDA….consider this a warning from one of your brothers that the NYSE have plans for this season.

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After the battle the left me icing myself and limping in pain, I was able to enjoy a famous Nathan’s hot dog and fries right on Coney Island. At the outdoor restaurant, we were able to talk with a handful of great New York roller derby players including a couple members of the Gotham All Stars. It is always fun to talk to champions in any sport and especially good if they take the time to break down how they found the sport and why they play it with so much passion. The passion and stories from some of those players is what gave me the energy to wake up the next morning to battle the legends themselves….The Gotham All Stars.

 

The practice venue that the best team on the planet practices at is very unassuming on the outside. If you didn’t have an address (or the luxury of seeing derby people you know outside) odds are you would drive right past it. On the inside, it becomes apparent why the Gotham teams are so successful. It is as if this facility was built many years ago to house a derby sized track and training area in the future. The track sits kitty corner but perfect. The storage lockers line the back side behind the few spectator benches so all equipment can be ready on practice day. Two story lofts are in a handful of spots around the track for coaching and filming. Lastly, a couple offices for changing and meeting finish out the facility. On top of the great venue, as I walk in I see many time world speed skating champion Gypsy Lucas coaching a small group of up and comers some of the tips of skating. Roller derby in New   York City is in a good spot.

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The GGRD had agreed to play YMMD in a fully officiated and scored scrimmage. The reality of it was that Gotham had everything to lose and very little to gain by playing us yet they still agreed to play. This is what makes this team of champions so amazing. Everyone already knows and accepts that they are the best in the world but to them, having the opportunity to play a unique squad such as YMMD provided them a great learning opportunity to try something new, regardless of the outcome. Beforehand GGRD had told us that they were going to play deeper then their normal All Stars so that many other skaters would get a chance to play this once in a lifetime match up. This also made things a bit more challenging for Gotham as some of the fresher players had not played in some of the lines they were being asked to play on.  YMMD on the other hand had played a few of the higher ranked WFTDA teams this season. Every time we got to skate at that level it was as if we were getting another lesson in organized roller derby. To us, playing Gotham would be a huge gift that would not only educate us but also allow us to see where we lacked organization.

 

As one might have expected, Gotham jumped out to an early lead. The way they hold walls together and the way they take opposing jammers where they want them is astounding. As a blocker I had to remind myself to play derby instead of admiring from the track. The athleticism of GGRD is probably the most eye opening part about playing them. As much as they have mastered pack play and slow derby, they are one of the fastest pack skating teams we have ever played….men or women. The wall of blockers which featured Sexy Slaydie, OMG, Davey Wade Blockit and Donna Matrix feel like a pin wheel of hips and bodies coming at you over and over as the take you outside and then recycle. They keep you playing personal defense to the point that you can’t take the time to think about holding their jammer or the offense your jammer needs to get out.

At the same time that we were having an education in team play, I was getting the feeling (no GGRD players said this to me) that Gotham was trying to get used to playing against a team that could make mistakes and recover as quick as YMMD could. My assumption is that the creativity that our jammers have bought them extra time, while the quickness of our blockers allowed quicker recycling then GGRD was accustomed to playing. This gave YMMD a window of opportunity to force Gotham to make adjustments just like they had to. With the chemistry and team skills that Gotham employs this was no problem for them and even with the extra new players on the bench, they were able to adapt and recover quickly. 60 minutes of back and forth roller derby with minimal penalties followed. When all the dust had cleared on a bout that deserved to be on television, roller derby won. The players from both teams thanked each other for some of the best action any of us had ever had on the skate track and we started checking calendars to see when we could do this again.

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A few minutes later the men from Vermont were kind enough to add another battle to our weekend and so we played derby one more time. The Vermont men are new to MRDA but they were excited and amped to play against the reigning MRDA champions. They were able to accomplish a handful of the goals they had set for themselves and leave with some great ideas on how to improve for the Mohawk Valley Cup. Many of the GGRD and NYSE players stuck around for this “closed” bout and helped keep the energy up for both teams. The game was of note for me as I was hit so hard by a Vermont player that I was forced to crawl for a few moments while I waited for my focus to come back.

 

By the time I arrived back home late Sunday night I realized that other then what I was able to see from my window on the subway, I didn’t get to see any of the things that New   York is famous for. Yet every part of my trip I felt like I was in awe the whole time.

Photos courtesy of Manish Gosalia

 

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