A close look at the sports of roller derby and beach volleyball
In this issue, AFM is celebrating the fun side of sports—those fitness aficionados who are a bit out of the mainstream and athletics that are perhaps unknown or misunderstood. We’re playing with some concepts here in our dual cover story on roller derby and beach volleyball, examining the kitschy image of roller derby to expose the athleticism, business acumen, and sense of sisterhood that makes rollergirls just freakin’ awesome. And we’ve stood the idea of the beach babe in a bikini frolicking in the sand on its head with a portrait of Austinite and pro player Tim Wooliver and his Texas Volleyball Tour. We’ll leave it to you, reader, to see which of these uniquely American fitness activities strikes your fancy, but we guarantee you’ll have some previously established notions about these sports—and their athletes—rocked.
When you think about the sport of roller derby, you might conjure up images of short skirts, fishnet tights, and female catfights on roller skates. But ask anyone who has recently attended a bout—or, better yet, ask a rollergirl herself—and you’ll quickly learn that the sport has come a long way since its grassroots renaissance. Although the campy style and drama on the track are still signatures of the sport’s identity, today’s roller derby has evolved into so much more: It’s about athleticism; it’s about agility and strategy; and, most importantly—it’s about sisterhood.
The roots of roller derby stretch as far back as the 1930s, but today’s incarnation of the sport began in 2000, right here in Austin. A character by the name of Dan Policarpo—known around town as “Devil Dan”—began posting flyers in local bars and pitching a big idea to anyone who would listen. He had a vision for an outrageous roller derby spectacle that, in addition to featuring girls on roller skates, would include unicycle-riding bears and circus clowns. Policarpo managed to successfully recruit a group of women eager to partake in a roller derby revival but, after a series of shady activities that included the loss of proceeds from a flopped fundraiser, Policarpo abruptly left town. Undeterred by the setback, these women quickly reorganized and made Policarpo’s idea their own, eventually creating Bad Girl, Good Woman (BGGW) productions in 2001.
“Within the first week [after Devil Dan’s departure], we had decided to do this anyway,” said April “La Muerta” Ritzenthaler, one of the four original “She-E-Os” of BGGW. “I like to say that he put wood to the fire, but we made it light.”
Although the league’s ultimate goal was to purchase a banked track such as those used in the early days of derby, finances were slim, and they found that taped boundary lines on a flat track (based on the dimensions of a banked track) were a worthy substitute for the interim.
Over the course of the next year, the women poured their blood, sweat, and tears into their vision, finding trainers, holding multiple fundraisers, and investing a significant amount of their own time and dollars into the league. The She-E-Os had settled on a business model of sports entertainment: Rollergirls were grouped into four teams that went head to head against each other, two at a time, in a raucous brawl on wheels. Game play was set according to the rules of old school roller derby with a few contemporary additions, such as the “penalty wheel.” Pillow fights, tug-of-war, and a trip down “spank alley” were among the many punishments that could be doled out by the “Penalty Mistress” for breaking the rules.
Adding to the sports entertainment value were the costumes (from Catholic schoolgirl uniforms to rockabilly fashion), tattoos and piercings, and clever stage names, such as “Iron Maiden” and “Bettie Rage.” The idea of skating under an alter ego, said Ritzenthaler, was brought up “during our original first month or so of meetings. [We said], 'We can have stage names so we are bigger than life and can act out in ways that our “normal” personalities won't allow us to.'” Skating under stage names, she added, had the side effect of empowering the women to be more confident in their daily lives: “When you practice being that bigger-than-life personality, you become bigger yourself; you can become all you want to be.”
Curious spectators flocked to the first bout in June 2002, drawn in by the spectacle of it all. Over the next several months, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that these women were on to something big; however, financial struggles, safety concerns, and disagreements about group leadership began to overshadow the league’s initial promise. By April 2003, divisions among the women had fractured the group dynamic. After a confrontation at a council bonfire, a contentious and bitter skater walkout ensued. From the ashes rose two separate and independently run leagues: Texas Rollergirls (TXRG), comprising the skaters who had walked out, and Texas Roller Derby—Lonestar Rollergirls (TXRD), formerly BGGW Productions.
Although the league’s split was a pivotal moment in roller derby history (readers can view the documentary “Hell on Wheels” for a full account), the women did not dwell on the drama for long—there was too much work to be done.
“We didn’t have any other choice,” said Christina “Voodoo Doll” Pocaressi of TXRG. “There wasn’t any time to hang on. The challenge was to define our sport and who we did—and didn’t—want to be.”
Ritzenthaler, who had taken a hiatus from derby before the split (only to return to TXRD in 2004), agreed: “When the girls left, there was certainly high emotion. Our focus was, ‘Let’s run this like a regular business; let’s get stuff done and stop focusing any energy in the past and on negativity.’ Once the dust settled, it was, ‘Let’s move forward with this thing.’”
Not having any other existing derby leagues to learn from both challenged and freed the groups to forge their own identities. “It was kind of like chaos in the beginning; now it’s more like controlled chaos,” joked Pocaressi.
TXRD began to rebuild their program, eventually raising enough funds to purchase a banked track, fulfilling the original vision they had held for the league. “The girls found a track…it got shipped over here in six million pieces with no instructions,” Ritzenthaler laughed. “They figured out how to put it up; then, by July, it was at the Travis County Expo Center [for our first bout].”
Meanwhile, as TXRG’s vision began to take shape, the skaters began to rally around the idea that a banked track of their own might not be necessary after all. Aimee “Sinnerfold” Blase explained: “As they were putting on bouts on the flat track in order to make money, they sort of had this realization that, ‘Hey, we’re playing a really fun game on a flat track; what if we didn’t spend that money?’” Without the added expense and overhead of a banked track, roller derby was a much more accessible sport, able to be played anywhere there was a smooth, flat surface—a fact that would become incredibly significant down the road.
Austinites now had two different and equally exciting types of roller derby to experience but, more importantly, women around the country—and the world—now had a model off which to build their own leagues.
As media coverage of the Texas roller derby renaissance began to grow, so did the global explosion of the sport. The flair and drama were certainly part of the attraction; however, derby also seemed to fill a much-desired niche—women were thirsty for another rough-and-tumble sport to call their own. “There are not that many opportunities for full-contact sports for women,” said Pocaressi. “Roller derby is the perfect combo of speed and hard-hitting action. It’s the perfect extreme sport.”
Wannabe rollergirls began contacting the women in Austin for advice on how to get started. Although buying and maintaining a banked track was often cost prohibitive for fledgling leagues, the affordability and accessibility of flat track derby ushered in handful after handful of new teams across the globe. TXRG soon became positioned as the flat track derby model to follow and began to counsel start-up leagues on business structure and rules of play. Their influence ultimately led them to be one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the international governing body of the sport. As of June 2013, there were 176 full-member WFTDA leagues and 119 WFTDA apprentice leagues (as well as over 1,000 non-WFTDA-affiliated leagues registered with derbyroster.com).
Although WFTDA has taken the lead in assisting new leagues in getting started, TXRG continues to have a major influence on the growth of the sport. “Texas Rollergirls has always been a key convener in building the collective that became the Women's Flat Track Derby Association,” said TXRG member and WFTDA Executive Director Juliana “Bloody Mary” Gonzales. “From the WFTDA perspective, Texas Rollergirls is a founding member and absolutely still an influential and active member.”
Chantal “Killer Crouton” Rice of TXRG concurred: “We still have a lot of start-up leagues contact us, people wanting to start rec leagues; we have a ton of boot camps every year whether it’s put on by the league or [individual] skaters. I think it’s important to promote [derby] in a variety of ways.”
Although the high costs of acquiring a venue have impeded banked track leagues from easily facilitating interleague play, the opposite is true for flat track roller derby. The first WFTDA championship was held in 2006; in 2011, the first Roller Derby World Cup (a non-WFTDA-sponsored event) was contested. Nadia “Smarty Pants” Kean, formerly of TXRD and current TXRG skater, played in the World Cup as a member of Team USA. “The other countries have a very competitive roster,” she said, while admitting that the field was still “very much Team USA dominated. The roster is ridiculous (in a good way) for who’s on this team.”
As further evidence of the proliferation of derby, there has been much chatter and debate over a recent bid (unaffiliated with WFTDA) to have roller sports, which would have opened the door for the inclusion of roller derby, short-listed for the 2020 Olympic Games. The bid was denied by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) this past May; when asked whether WFTDA would consider pushing for eventual inclusion in the Olympic Games, Gonzales explained that the organization was committed to continue nurturing the sport’s growth—but in a sustainable way. “Inclusion in the Olympic Games is a very big financial and political investment, even after the politics of recognition by the IOC are handled,” she elaborated. “[WFTDA’s] specific focus right now is on building programs and services to foster the sport for the long term, worldwide.”
Most rollergirls agree that in the early days of derby, the skaters’ athletic abilities were across the board. These days, however, it doesn’t take a fitness expert to recognize that this is no longer the case. Many rollergirls have come to the sport as seasoned athletes, whereas others have had no choice but to become an athlete so they can compete at the same level as everyone else.
“[TXRG] practices as a league for two hours, twice a week,” said Blase. “Most teams have one to two 2-hour practices in addition to that. Some skaters are just attending skating practice up to 15 hours a week, and then they’re going to the gym and doing cross training. It’s a serious commitment.”
Cross-training in roller derby is vital for overall conditioning and preventing injury. On non-skating days, the women supplement their training with running, strength training, yoga, and other athletic pursuits. “We've talked about how important it is to not JUST skate as a workout since the [banked] track changes our bodies so much,” said Hayly “Dusty Doublewide” LeMond of TXRD. “We do more preventative measures in our workouts than we used to; we take healing time and even things as simple as stretching more seriously.”
Kerri “Rocky Casbah” St. Aubin, TXRD’s leading scorer, grew up playing soccer, softball, and basketball; she even took skating lessons with her sister as a child. St. Aubin continues to play soccer and softball as part of her cross-training and asserted that her diverse athletic background has served her tremendously as a rollergirl: “Having the mixture of different sports, working different muscles, and coordination helped [make a difference].”
Although staying competitive in roller derby necessitates a high degree of athletic prowess, women of any body type can be successful at it—a fact that is unique to the sport and embraced by the women who play it. “[A lot of women say], ‘I could never play roller derby; I’m too short; I’m too heavy,’” said Pocaressi. “Flat track roller derby really embraces all shapes and sizes, and you can play well no matter what you look like or what size you are.”
“That's the great thing about roller derby, that it takes all kinds,” agreed LeMond. “There is no one type of athlete; there is no one type of roller girl.”
As the athletic demands of the sport have evolved over the years, the uniforms (particularly those among flat track leagues) have followed suit, toning down some of the sex appeal in favor of practicality. “It just naturally happened,” said Blase. “[For example], we had these polyester plaid skirts we were playing in, and those skirts just had to go because they were sort of impeding our game.”
Although one might wonder whether increased athleticism precludes roller derby’s original draw of sex appeal (and whether that should even matter), Kean asserted that there is still room for both. She admitted her frustration, however, with the focus on what players are wearing. “I’d have to say that athleticism is incredibly sexy…I don’t think you could have one without the other. I don’t know of any other sports in which uniforms are so closely examined. Maybe beach volleyball players—people focus on what they have on.”
The roller derby renaissance has brought about many positive contributions to women’s sports, but perhaps none so significant as the bond of sisterhood. From business owners to probation officers to stay-at-home moms, few sports bring together such a diverse group of women. Fewer still empower their players to take complete ownership of their leagues, from developing business plans to managing finances to breaking down the track after a bout. “You’ve got this group of women that is seriously the most diverse thing,” said St. Aubin. “There’s a good handful of girls that have become very good friends of mine that [ordinarily] wouldn’t have been in my circle of friends. At the end of the day, we do own this company; we want to be successful so we can continue to do this.”
Ritzenthaler noted that she has seen nothing short of amazing transformations among the women who play: “What I see happen is…you have hopes and dreams, and sometimes you don’t have that personal power [to attain them], but being in this group gives you the personal power and enables you to have those dreams.”
“The truth is, we're not stronger than any other group of women,” said LeMond. “Derby doesn't set an example of strength and beauty in women; it holds up a mirror. When women come to a game and they are inspired by it, it's because they see a part of them on the track. We might be hip-checking someone to the floor, they might be raising three kids; we might be pillow fighting for 2,000 fans, they might be completing a project for a Fortune 500 company. Derby brings out the strength women already have in them; it gives women a new medium in which to express that strength.”
The future of roller derby—particularly in Austin—looks bright indeed. Try-outs for both TXRG and TXRD are highly attended (and highly competitive) each year. Additional flat track teams have recently popped up in the Austin area, such as Bat City Rebellion and the Rockin’ City Rollergirls. Membership in TXRG’s recreational league continues to grow, attracting women who simply want to play derby for fun as well as women who hope to eventually try out for one of the competitive teams.
Young girls are also flocking to roller derby each year, filling TXRG’s junior league, the Austin Derby Brats, to capacity. Not to be outdone, the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders has its own derby program, founded by a TXRD member.
Even the men have finally decided to get in on the action: The all-male league Austin Anarchy was formed in January 2013 and is currently recruiting members.
Whether it’s the entertainment, the athleticism, or the bond of sisterhood, the draw of roller derby has proven to be a powerful and unstoppable force among women. Perhaps this is because, ultimately, the sport gives them a space to be themselves—alter ego and all. “[Roller derby] allows women with responsibilities to have fun again,” summarized Ritzenthaler. “It allows us to be ourselves in a different way.”
Hot sun, warm breeze, and soft, powdered sand make for one relaxing day at the beach—unless you’re training with the ninth-ranked player on the National Volleyball League Professional Tour, Tim Wooliver. Founder of the Texas Volleyball Tour, trainer, and head coach, Wooliver emits an air of enthusiasm when speaking about volleyball-related endeavors. A perpetual habit of Wooliver’s daily life is sharing his love of the game with other volleyball enthusiasts and sideline onlookers who, after spending any amount of time with the gregarious athlete, are likely to soon be persuaded to try a new sport. “Every time you go out and play beach volleyball, you learn something new, work on your craft, and keep getting better,” Wooliver said.
At the age of 19, Wooliver, who was accustomed to throwing fastballs and curveballs from atop the mound, was in search of a change: “During that time in my life, I didn’t work very hard and took things for granted.” As a pitcher, Wooliver was comfortable being in control of the game and keen on being largely responsible for its outcome. He saw a similarity in two-man beach volleyball and, drawn by the allure of the sand court, quickly developed a passion for the sport. (Wooliver, however, never had any interest in indoor volleyball. He found six players on the court “too crowded” and the games much too “corporate” for his playing style; he preferred a two-man team in a more “chill” setting.)
Wooliver turned pro in 2000 and has been racking up an impressive accumulation of accomplishments ever since. The most significant: winning the Barefoot Wine National Volleyball Championship in back-to-back years (2009 and 2010). “The tournament was a single elimination format. Lose one match, and you’re out,” Wooliver explained. After playing four grueling matches in a row against the top volleyball players in the country, Wooliver and his volleyball partner Colin Kaslow reaped the rewards of championship. “We were tired, and cramping from battling all day,” Wooliver remembered. “We won not only money and trophies but the reward of getting to play against [Olympic Beach Volleyball gold medalists] Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rodgers. They beat us, but the matches were pretty close.” To make the national championship wins even more noteworthy, Wooliver dedicated the games to one of his biggest supporters and a ubiquitous friendly face in most tournament crowds—his mother, who recently passed away. “I was proud to honor her with those wins,” he said.
Nearing the end of his professional playing career (though still competing in national tournaments such as the MotherLode in Aspen, Colorado), Wooliver’s continued passion for the sport resulted in his founding the Texas Volleyball Tour in 2010. His mission: Unite the Texas beach volleyball community and drive the sport to a new level in the Lone Star State. The Tour welcomes players of all skill levels, from recreational co-eds to semi-pros, pros, and a juniors division. Tournaments are played throughout the state—mostly in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio—with the end goal of competing in the championship. Points are accumulated according to tournament placing and are used for seeding the championship. Tour champions and point leaders gross swanky prizes, such as Beach Cruisers, Oakley gear, and some cold, hard cash, as well as intangible rewards (such as meeting new people and having an awesome volleyball experience). Wooliver is no stranger to the often spa-like amenities pro players typically experience at tournaments (decked-out players’ tents and beer gardens, to name a few), and he is adamant that these details be incorporated in the Texas Volleyball Tour. “We want to treat everyone like a pro, regardless of skill level,” Wooliver said. “Every player [in the Tour] should be treated like an elite athlete.”
The Tour, while allowing Wooliver to remain involved in the sport, does break him away from court time to focus on event planning and production. Wooliver is actively involved in the Tour, though he gives considerable credit for its success to Cassidy Murray, who heads up sponsorship and marketing responsibilities, and Jack & Adams Bicycles, which sponsors the event. “With their contacts and knowledge of event production, [the Tour] is really a skeleton of what they do,” Wooliver explained. He added, gratefully, that, “Without them, none of this would have ever happened.” In addition to gaining such helpful event-planning knowledge, Wooliver served up an ace with his recent engagement to Murray. “Look how that worked out,” he laughed.
In a sport typically dominated by female players and a state primarily infatuated with high school football, Wooliver still forecasts a sunny outlook for the growth of his sport. Currently, 31 colleges and universities throughout the nation offer beach volleyball as a collegiate sport, with a growing handful offering athletic scholarships. The Texas Volleyball Tour’s junior division has also seen tremendous growth, increasing from 15 players in 2012 to over 40 at present. When Wooliver was asked the best method of converting these young men from traditional high school sports, he replied, “Let their passion grow organically—[they’ll] see how fun it is, and [then]…word of mouth.” This season, Wooliver started training about 15 boys, and he has no doubt that numbers will increase. As a coach, Wooliver aims to “inspire and teach kids how to play, get better, and enjoy the game,” and so he has done with 23-year-old local standout Courtney Trevino, who trained with Wooliver for many years and made this year’s National U26 Beach Volleyball Team. Trevino, currently in California, has aspirations to make the 2016 USA Olympic Team and continues to train with Wooliver when she’s in town. “Not only has she developed into an outstanding volleyball player,” Wooliver asserted, “but she is a great role model for young girls.”
Fitness enthusiasts who are looking to give their running shoes a break and explore new exercise options can try out volleyball-specific training offered by the Texas Volleyball Tour. There are three different phases of training for juniors and adults: Basic Skills & Light Conditioning; Skills, Strategies, & Conditioning; and Elite Training. All players get quality “Tim time” during their session. A maximum of eight players from each class are broken into groups of four; an assistant coach works with players on physical training while Wooliver improves game skills. For those who may shy away from the idea of a jump serve or a friendly game of pepper but still want an intense workout, Wooliver offers a class called Straight Up Fitness, which focuses on stability, plyometrics, weight training, speed, and overall fitness. “All exercises are performed in the sand,” Wooliver explained. “You burn so many calories [from the extra effort required]; it’s a phenomenal workout.”
At one point, the Texas Volleyball Tour had planned to host three-time Olympic gold medalist Misty May Treanor in a clinic this month in Austin; Treanor cancelled, however, saying it was “too hot” at that time of the year for her to attend.
Detailed information about the tournament, which has play in Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas at a variety of dates, can be found online; information at texasvolleyballtour.com includes registration, training sign-up, and more upcoming events. Although Southern California may be cooler (at least temperature-wise) in July and considered the nation’s beach volleyball mecca, the Texas Volleyball Tour satisfies Texans with a local hub and some spectacular play all their own.
This is one of the exercises we do at the beginning of practice to warm up. Start at the serving line and jump back and forth over the court line until you get to the net. Then, jump backwards to the serving line. Repeat on the other leg. These should be slow, controlled jumps; the purpose of the exercise is to loosen the legs up before getting into drills. You keep going for 40 seconds on each leg.
This is the same as single-leg jumps except you use both legs.
Do two sets of 20 of these plyometric exercises, which will help your vertical leap, explosion, and quickness. We alternate this in on plyo days, as you only want to hit plyometics hard once or twice a week; when you do them depends on your next tournament because you don't want to have tired legs going into competition.
This is an exercise we do to warm up and time our block; it helps with your vertical, too. Start at the end line, run to the net, block jump, backpedal, and repeat for two sets of ten repeats.