Alright, so…I’m not the expert roller derbier that I was hoping to be, right? Ok, alright. I get it. Next best thing?…. Why, try out as a roller derby official, of course. Of course! Cause that’s what you do, and here’s how that went…
Well, let me start by telling you some key pieces of advice for any failed roller derbier turned wannabe official: Watch a couple of games first. Understand what the players are doing. Study strategies and scoring. Know about the jammer and blocker and pivot. And if you’re planning to help with recording the penalties, have some inkling of a notion about what penalties are and when they might be called. Ok.
Because watching a few games at the age of 8 just doesn’t provide the kind of detailed information that’s required when players are rapidly skating around the track, pushing and pulling and screaming. And forcing the refs, scorekeepers, and non-skating officials (NSO) to shout about penalties in a language that’s not English and to point toward clumps of players, each indistinguishable from the next.
But as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. So, here’s the scoop. If you know about my adventure at all, you might know that one of the things I do before moving to a new location is to find out about different organizations and events in the town. I reach out to identify who might need volunteer help, and often have some pretty fun experiences and meet some really great people in the process. This time I noticed that the local roller derby team – Port Scandalous Strait Shooters – was having their first bout of the season against a team from Victoria, BC – Eves of Destruction (“Hittin’ Chicks Since 2006!”). I emailed to see if they might need any support during the event and received a very warm and positive response from a few of the Port Scandalous skaters. Then, in the time between the email and the bout, I discovered Welcome Wednesday and had the chance to meet and skate around with these lovely women…
So, walking into the Sequim Boys & Girls Club basketball court turned roller derby track on the night of the bout, I was surrounded by familiar faces and excited to help support their sport. I was quickly introduced to the head ref and one of the NSOs. It was determined that I would play the role of the “wrangler,” which, after several rounds of explanations, I determined would mean that I would follow closely behind one of the NSOs and a couple of the refs, listen for the whistle, and try to record on a whiteboard the roller derby language describing some type of penalty(ies) that had just occurred.
In the middle of this maelstrom of instructions (most of which were completely unintelligible to me), we ventured into the back room where all of the official officials were meeting. Most (all?) had come in from Victoria and had at least some significant experience with roller derbying and officiating in the past. The head ref (“Fröken A”) called the meeting to order with confidence, coordination, professionalism, and humor. I was impressed. We went around the room, introducing ourselves and noting what roles we would play in the upcoming bout. A whole load of clever derby names were then thrown about until we got to …me….”Tamara.” Derby name? Clearly not. No time to think and represent myself with the myriad of nicknames which have befallen me over the years (Snoop Tami Tam the likely winner). Yeah, for now I was Tamara, so no one was misinformed of my naiveté.
I met another NSO with whom I would work most directly. She claimed a derby name of her own (which I forgot in its entirety – at least some part of it was “Lawless,” and she was super sweet!). She wore a pink “official” shirt. She had the derby code written on her hand. And…I, had… none of these things. I needed to get working.
She gathered with a few other officials to provide me with an impromptu cram session. They assured me it would all make sense once the bout begun. Listen, listen…just focus on two things: a) wait for the whistle and b) write down what I hear. So, here was the deal. After the whistle, I would clearly hear the ref shout a color (to denote the team), a number (the player responsible for the penalty), and the type of penalty (and here’s where things get tricky)… To learn the ref signals that correspond to each type of penalty and code for each penalty, I was directed to the handy-dandy, long and detailed rules book.
I frantically attempted to somehow study these words by merely moving my eyes over the dozens of pages. Too much, too quick. I needed CliffsNotes. The pages told me that when the ref places his/her forearm in front of their body, palm toward the inside, hand closed in a fist and forearm moving down, with the fist close to the chest… well, this means “High Block” and should be marked with an “A.” The fingers of both hands clasped with forearms held out perpendicular to the body signals “Multiplayer Block”…this time, more sensically, denoted with an “M.” And 16+ other random gestures and calls. Uh, yeah. Give me a half hour. I’ll get it. But it would help if knew the gestures. It would help if I knew the codes. It would help if I knew what the penalties meant and where the heck I should look on the track to see who might have doing what.
But there I was, with a mere 10 minutes to go…so I did the best that I could.
Far from understanding, but convinced that I could try. I threw on my own pink official shirt (15 sizes too large) and ventured out with the crew to the inside section of the track. And after milling around, watching the crowd seat themselves along the 3 rows of stadium seats temporarily set up along the side wall, getting the instructions kindly repeated to me for the umpteenth time by the sweet Lawless something or other, and trying to once again to totally unsystematically memorize the nonsensical code-rules, the bout began and all hell broke loose.
Within seconds, blurs of skaters burned the track that circled around the inner space in which we stood. Hunched packs of women skated skillfully, grabbing each others’ waists, pushing and shoving and building walls of strength. Others fought to break through and break free. Some made it and skated wildly away, causing distraction for my eyeballs, naturally following the lead. But my job was to focus on the pack, the ref, the NSO in front of my face. I was trying to focus on just two things: the whistles and the calls.
I had no fucking idea what was going on.
So I kept my eye on the NSO I was told to track. I followed him around and around, and around the track. I walked around and around, around and around. I listened for whistles and upon actually managing to hear one, I would desperately search for the ref who might make a call. I very rarely heard one. How could I be staring right at these refs and hear nothing? The other NSOs were taking down the calls and filling the larger whiteboard with accuracy. My little handheld whiteboard was full of half formed lines and childlike squiggles. But I was determined to help. I kept walking around and around, sure that I would hear something…anything, that would make sense that I could write down on my board.
And so I walked around and around and around that track, doing absolutely nothing but following that guy like a well meaning pup aimed to please. Trying my best to do the only thing I could to be helpful: stay out of the god damn way and open up my god damn eyes. I did the former pretty damn well. I even managed to get some actual penalty calls scribbled down on my whiteboard. Success! But my role there as wrangler really wasn’t proving to be useful, and it stood in the way of me actually being able to watch and enjoy the game. So we all agreed, after halftime, that I would be moved to the penalty box (the symbolism here not lost on anyone)…where I teamed up with Jamie (a beautiful woman…also new to the NSO world, but not new to skating and has been practicing with the team for about 4 months now, hoping to soon make the cut to join the team). So, for the second half of the game, I scrunched myself between the Eves’ team bench and Jamie, learned about the process for seating, timing, and releasing players serving penalty time (the penalty box has 3 seats for each team, one of which is designated for the jammer…so the most players than can be in the box at once from any one team is two blockers and one jammer. Yep.). It was here, with the freedom of no specific responsibilities and rules, that I did what I should have done weeks before in preparation: I attempted to understand just what was happening on the track and let my eyes could wander accordingly.
Oh yeah, and I still had no clue. But here’s what was clear. These women were impressive. They were strong and fierce and swift on their skates. They were fun and feisty and danced on the track. Though the Eves were victors this time, the women were clearly kind hearted and joyful and happy to be there.
And happy to be there, so was I. Keep moving, Strait Shooters and Eves of D! You represent strength and stamina and focus for us all. Keep up the good work! And when our paths do cross next, I will prepare a bit more and will aim to do more than keep out of the way.
And in the wise words of the Port Scandalous crew… You only live once. You might as well be a badass, no?