Guts & Glory: Meet the Women of Gotham Roller Derby

June 03, 2019 at 2:00 pm

MetroFocus Films follows the journey of two of the stars of Gotham Girls Roller Derby as they compete for the coveted 2018 Championship Golden Skates.  Meet “Maddog,” of Manhattan Mayhem, as she struggles to recover from a possible career-ending injury; and “Fast and Luce,” the captain of the Bronx Gridlock, as she tries to lead her once last place team to their first championship win in 8 seasons.

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[00:00:04] It is definitely a special thing to all get ready together. Everybody has their own ritual. You're putting on some kind of an alter ego which is why you sometimes have women who put on full faces of makeup. It is very interesting combination of intense aggressive violence.

[00:00:25] And also still being female and what that means and oftentimes women aren't really allowed to be both of those things.

[00:00:34] I definitely was someone that always wore makeup.

[00:00:36] I felt comforted in the fact that Fast and Luce was going out there to deal with this game right now and not Lucy. Somehow of that delineation really made it, like, easier and more accessible for me.

[00:00:52] So last season we had won exactly one game during the home season. We were like the lovable losers.

[00:01:02] We weren't necessarily dominating. I think we had almost like a third of the team be replaced. So leave and then be redrafted every year for a few seasons in a row. And so it was so difficult to get continuity it was so difficult to have the team really gel together. And so we constantly felt like we were just working against all of these hardships like we were unlucky. That there was some kind of curse that was happening.

[00:01:31] I could just sense that everyone kind of felt like we were the losers in someone else's documentary. You know and I kind of at one point it was like that's not us. That's not what's happening here. Like, we're not doing that. This is. This is our story. Like let's go live it. Let's go take it. That underdog feeling had just been lurking over us. So yeah we were like, “MM-MM.” You'll see.

[00:01:56] You ready for this? Right. Let’s do this. One-Two-Three Gridlock!

[00:02:11] My name is Fast and Luce. I'm captain of the Bronx gridlock and co-captain of the Gotham Girls All Stars.

[00:02:21] Roller derby is a team sport played on roller skates in the confines of an oval track in which all the action happens in one direction. Each team is made up of four blockers and one jammer. We don't have a ball. So the way that we score points is we have our jammer pass the hips of the opposing blockers and for every blocker she passes. After the first pass she gets one point. So there are two sides to rock n roll roller derby.

[00:02:50] One is more on a local level. We have four teams that play for the New York public. Our travel teams are Division One, Two, Three and Four. Teams that travel around the world and play tournaments and other teams in order to hopefully achieve the WFTDA championship title.

[00:03:12] I live here in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I have been in New York for about nine years. We take care of the cats and there's quite a few of them that come by on any given day. I'm not really the person that enjoys gratuitous violence. What I enjoy more about it is the group

[00:03:39] working together, and I was pretty much instantly in love.

[00:03:44] My name is Maddie Willis. I skate under the name Mad Dog for Gotham Girls roller derby and my team is Manhattan Mayhem.

[00:03:52] I was at a point where I needed to do something physical. A couple laps around the track I thought whatever this is I want to do everything in it

[00:04:02] It was love at first sight. Jamming a lot of the time feels like commuting in New York City where you're just trying to push through people and get past and fight and own your space and not get knocked down.

[00:04:14] So I have a lot of experience doing that but having my boyfriend Alex come to see me play. Alex has learned the rules really well.

[00:04:23] I'm usually just like sitting there biting my lip and just watching the game intently and hoping that her team wins and that she gets to have some good game time. If I could watch football or a roller derby I would watch roller derby.

[00:04:37] My mom comes and she's always filming always super supportive about it.

[00:04:43] I mainly enjoy watching the action and the kind of the electricity the excitement of the players.

[00:04:51] And fans are drawn to that. And fans have their favorite players. My favorite fans are the younger fans.

[00:04:58] Little girls come up to me with their programs asking me to sign it showing them you can do this too. You can totally do this.

[00:05:07] Gotham Girls roller derby has four home teams: Brooklyn Bombshells, Manhattan Mayhem, the Queens of Pain, and then there is the Bronx Gridlock. It's usually very loud and it's very chaotic and you can barely hear each other and you can barely see the lines in the track and you have to be aware and listen and talk and communicate. With all this chaos happening. Luce has a poker face when she plays. You know she's going to hurt you but you don't know where it's gonna come from.

[00:05:45] I get through a wall fine but if Luce is facing the pack I know that my job isn't over. Like she'll knock you out and drag you back. She loves Bronx and loves that team and is leading them to, hopefully, a victory.

[00:06:05] The championships this year is Bronx Gridlock versus Queens of Pain. Queens, who have always been popular, they have a style, they have an attitude, especially because of Suzy Hot Rod. I kind of consider her one of the godmothers of Gotham. She was there at the beginning. She knows her stuff. She can coach you and block you at the same time which I still can't figure out.

[00:06:28] But Bronx has the underdog story between the two. It's a nail biter without a doubt.

[00:06:34] Since I was on the team I'd never been to the championship game. Like imagine I'm leading this team to try to win it and I'd never been at that game before.

[00:06:48] You can't really prepare for the feeling of going into that day and how you're going to really handle going through it. I try to relax into the comfort of the fact that I have prepared.

[00:07:05] It was a big moment. You know every step of the way it was kind of like, “Can we take it. Can we do it?” There was a huge question there.

[00:07:36] Roller derby has evolved in leaps and bounds. It was very much on the same par as wrestling, very much as an exhibition of women. Like fearless women on roller skates and they're pushing each other and they're fighting and they're taking off their helmets and throwing them.

[00:07:52] Since it was more like wrestling, some things remained as kind of an homage to the origins of if. One of the things that is still very prevalent today is people taking on a pseudonym.

[00:08:05] Everybody gets a derby name. Mad dog came from way back in high school when I was into skateboarding. There weren't a lot of female skateboarders for me to look up to. So this guy Tony Alva whose nickname is Mad Dog, I thought that was cool.

[00:08:19] And then I tried to do a trick and I wiped out and destroyed like scraped up my side and all my guy friends were like “Nice one Mad Dog,” like mocking me, like no, I'm gonna own it I'm Mad Dog now. So that's how that's how it's gonna be.

[00:08:41] Do About an hour worth of off-skates training for every two hours that we're on skates. This is imperative that we don't get hurt because it is full contact.

[00:08:55] I run twice a week now. I go to the gym at least once a week. And that's kind of awesome because I never thought I would be that kind of person who would see my body as like an athlete's body or see myself in that role. It's definitely physically taxing. I think that there are plenty of people that experience serious injuries in Derby.

[00:09:15] It takes a lot of force and a lot of harsh impact. But you're also on wheels so you don't always have complete control over how your body kind of responds or falls.

[00:09:27] I was going around the track practicing Apex jumps which is where you jump from one part of a turn to another. And if you can land that jump as a jammer that's like,

[00:09:36] You pass five players you get five points. It's kind of like a grand slam, the crowd goes crazy.

[00:09:42] And as I was doing the jump I hit a divot in our track and my left foot stopped, and my body kept going, and I just heard this horrible sound, this horrible crack. I think the first thing out of my mouth was like “the game is in two weeks, the game is in two weeks. I need to play the games in two weeks.” It was definitely a huge learning experience and even coming back I still don't have, I still have partial numbness in my foot. ‘Cause it was broken and dislocated I had to get surgery to get a titanium plate and nine screws put in. It was just, I've never felt so hopeless or what am I going to do from here.

[00:10:26] A lot of that summer was spent just figuring out a plan for when I get out for when I'm like training. What I want to do, what I want out of it.

[00:10:39] We come to practice some days on our worst days in our life and we still come to practice. So you end up seeing your league made or your teammate in a really rough moment when they're picking themselves up and pushing through it, or falling so many times and getting up again. It's a really strong bond when you kind of succeed and sometimes fail together. In this community we do everything on our own every skater that participates in the league has a job to do that also helps support running of the league.

[00:11:12] There's astrophysicists in my league, there's teachers, there's I.T. technical people, there's moms, so all those skills end up being utilized in this cool communal way. As much as I would love to get paid to skate, the fact that I go to a Bout and I see people working it and helping and skating and everyone's in it because they love it, just like me, that makes me feel like money isn't everything.

[00:11:39] I've worked out a lot of different jobs to be able to skate. I'm a server at a restaurant. I am a babysitter and I also write.

[00:11:50] Act One, Act Two and Act Three, and I'm able to go through and just write scenes and check them off. The writing job doesn't always make the money, but serving Java is great because I'm flexible. I'm able to get weekends off for games and for practice.

[00:12:07] I think that passion is definitely part of the subculture especially in New York where you have to work very hard and hustle all the time.

[00:12:27] My biggest thing when I came back to New York was dealing with the street harassment and the cat calling. Cat calling is all about power and I was angry that these men were trying to have this power over me and then I joined roller derby and I found all these other girls were having the same issues I was. They were getting catcalled and harassed constantly and that kind of made me feel like I wasn't alone.

[00:12:49] There have been incidents you never know and it's still, we're still, you know, a vulnerable demographic.

[00:12:54] However we're stronger in numbers and we're stronger together and we're always there for each other.

[00:13:13] There was a moment in the first half where we were down. A lot of our strategy focuses, I think, on stopping the bleeding. And not letting someone just run away with the scoreboard. Jammers, if they're passing a whole pack, they're scoring five points.

[00:13:32] If the jammers in the box and, you know, the head jammer who's on the track, gets three laps in, three scoring passes in, that’s 15 points. I mean it happens quickly.

[00:13:48] I love being a little bit behind at the half. It's just something about going into the locker room at halftime that other team feels a little bit too confident. And the team that's a little under just gets that much more hungry.

[00:14:10] We're all working towards something and most likely that something is winning, especially in the most competitive league and in the sport. I saw Manhattan Mayhem play in 2014 -- they won the championship. I immediately fell in love with their swagger. The high fives and the support and just the personality. So you find out this personality of your team and where it came from and it's kind of like you're part of that history and you're part of adding on to that.

[00:14:54] So the big thing after my injury was the arch in my foot collapsed or something like that. And. So when I'm skating I get a lot of cramps under my foot. So by taping it and applying tension in certain spots, it just feels good.

[00:15:16] So when I started roller derby my goal was to jam, be a jammer for Manhattan Mayhem. I haven't met that goal yet.

[00:15:23] I know if I don't meet that goal I'll be kicking myself for the rest of my life. This season has definitely been rebuilding. Next season come back even stronger. It was kind of like, you know, Godzilla versus Godzuki, like you had the big monolith team versus the small swarm. It was really exciting, so I honestly, even up until the end I didn’t know, it could go either way.

[00:15:51] I think I just tried to keep saying like “keep calm, and just go do your thing for two minutes.”

[00:16:00] None of it seems futile because it's Derby. And if you get a jammer that has a good run. That could be like 25 points. You win a game by this jam by jam style of focus. Coming back to the bench and resetting, just keeping that going and just inching forward was kind of what we focused on.

[00:16:22] I think I said something like “you better tackle me so hard when we win this thing.” Like, if you have to think of nothing else think of that feeling. Like you’re gonna be the team that breaks this curse. And I just remember, like looking around and being in awe of having the crowd on our side like that.

[00:16:46] It's now or never. If you want to do this let's go do this.

[00:16:52] This wasn't a fluke. This wasn't just some random five minutes of bad luck for the other team. This was, we gained our lead, and we kept it.

[00:17:13] I was filming and I immediately zoomed in on that dogpile. I was so happy for them. And I think it's just the fact that they, they did it. And you kind of feel that triumph with them.

[00:17:24] Oh my gosh. I was just overwhelmed with, like, happiness. I can't even explain it any other way. Standing back and applauding them and watching them all like hold the skate together. It was just great, so fulfilling. What an amazing ending to that story.

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MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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