This article originally appeared in Sept. 2014
Anna Kolberg is a 38-year-old graphic designer. She's also known as Donna Matrix, a star blocker for the Gotham Girls All-Stars. She, of course, has some stories.
One night, in 2009, Kolberg was blocking during a jam at a Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) tournament, when she got blasted and fell in the manner one does when wearing roller skates. Now, the usual move for roller derby pros is to fall forward—so they can use their padded joints to brace themselves against the unforgiving hard-top circuit track—however, Kolberg fell backwards. It did not go well.
"Four of my fingers curled under my wrist guard, but my pinky did not," Kolberg says. "Immediately, from the immense pain alone, I was sure my finger was broken."
The blow left her dazed and the rush of endorphins didn't help much. Her coach, oblivious to her mangled pinky, barked at Kolberg to get back in and play. With tears of pain streaming down her face, Kolberg got back into the jam.
"I continued to block the other team's jammer. We won that game and went to play in the finals," she says. After the game, Kolberg iced her hand, taped up her broken finger, and played the next day. She clearly loves this shit.
Kolberg's team, the Gotham Girls All-Stars, is a collection of the best players in New York's Gotham Girls Roller Derby League. (There are four teams: the Brooklyn Bombshells, Manhattan Mayhem, Queens of Pain, and Bronx Gridlock.) The All-Stars compete every year in the WFTDA with the top roller derby teams in the world for the vaunted Hydra Trophy, which is both a dope and completely appropriate name for a roller derby trophy. And every year, the Gotham Girls claim the Hydra. As of the end of June of this season, the Gotham Girls were 14-0 in WFTDA play and had won 50 consecutive games. The Girls do not fucking lose.
More than a decade ago, when the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league was established in 2003, such dominance wasn't even a pipe dream; everyone had to learn how to play the game before they could think about winning one.
"When it started, the skaters were mostly girls with little to no experience in roller skating. I remember how we had to learn to skate and hit, " Kolberg said. She joined in 2004, through the league's "Fresh Meat" program designed to guide said fresh meat onto teams. However, the program's perfectly branded name didn't quite match its logistical organization.
The league members started out practicing at a roller rink in New York called The Skate Key. One day, the rink closed down, leaving the 40 or so skaters with a match coming up and no place to practice. For a full year, the Gotham Girls were skating in college gyms, random basketball courts, roller hockey rinks, and even the West Side Highway. The latter presumably came about in the name of preserving the American underdog narrative.
Eventually, they found a permanent home at a warehouse space in Astoria, Queens. The arrangement was short on glamour and long on commute, but they were finally able to set up a schedule for practices—the underdogs were starting to get it together. "Once we had the opportunity to focus our energy into practicing instead of looking for a place every week, there was a noted improvement in the skill level of our league," Kolberg said.
So how did the Gotham Girls get to fucking everyone up? In baseball, you can point to a dominant starting rotation. In basketball, you can point to a superstar leading the way. In hockey, the Hall of Fame goalie. In roller derby, there are star jammers and expert blockers, but with the game's fast pace and the limited space players have to operate, the key is in the technical details.
"They've perfected the backwards blocking anchor walls, where more than one skater will be facing backwards when they're blocking for their jammer," says Quinn MacDonald, who plays in the Eves Of Destruction Roller Derby league in Victoria, B.C. and watches the Gotham Girls avidly. She refers to this strategy as The Gotham Wall. Now, teams like her own in Victoria are trying to emulate it.
"They practice what they call Hive Mind, it's an approach where every player on the team knows what they're supposed to be doing at any given moment and everyone thinks the same," MacDonald said. "The Gotham Girls practice very clean play and don't get distracted by penalties. They study the game and are creating strategies that teams around the world are adopting to catch up. They've basically set the standard. They're all incredibly fit, smart, and very disciplined."
When I asked Kolberg to tell me why the Gotham Girls are so dominant, she attributed it to coaching, practice, and team chemistry. Cliche answers, but answers no different from the ones every great team puts on the record. The Gotham Girls don't trade in theatrical bullshit because that doesn't carry the same weight as a trophy case full of Hydras.
Still, every dynasty comes with close calls and controversy. In last year's WFTDA Finals, the Gotham Girls trailed the Texas Rollergirls before coming from behind to win 199-173. In 2012, the Oly Rollers Cosa Nostra Donnas—an All-Star derby team from Washington—brought in star players from other teams to bolster their chances towards the end of the season. In 2012, three of the most talented players from the Arizona Roller Derby league joined the Oly Rollers just before the transfer deadline of the Western Region playoffs. The Gotham Girls prevailed, but the move drew the attention of the derby community, including Kolberg and her teammates. The new wave of underdogs is desperately gunning for the Girls and resorting to any and all means to land a kill-shot on the dynasty, but Kolberg reliably retains her practiced professionalism in the face of it all.
"I think the skaters who joined Oly each had their own reasons and justifications for doing so. For me, it was a testament to our teamwork that this super-team they formed could not take us down," Kolberg said. "People always root for the underdog, and sometimes it seems like the whole derby world wants us to lose. I have gotten used to this."
The reward for Kolberg's years of dominance in roller derby matches the target on her back; she suffers from chronic neck and back pain. She goes to the chiropractor once a week and the acupuncturist once a month. She once tore both PCLs at the same time, and returned to play in six weeks. Recently, she broke her leg during a game. But she is not unusual. They all clearly love this shit.
Beyond physical sacrifices, the love can be seen in the DIY ethos of the league. Players pay monthly dues and cover their own equipment, uniform, and travel expenses. The league operates as a nonprofit organization, scraping together revenue from ticket and merchandise sales at games as well as the odd fundraiser. While the league does offer a small travel stipend for skaters, they're mostly on their own.
Each year, training starts in March and the league runs through November. The players, who often have families and full-time jobs, convene for training around four times a week. They also become ambassadors of the sport. Every Gotham Girls league member is required to contribute six hours of committee work each month. There are committees for marketing, PR, sponsorship, events, creative, merchandise, and so on. The love the players have for the sport could be seen as a vehicle for exploitation, but the culture of the sport says otherwise. The culture these women have built around the sport is one explicit on the idea of ownership.
"Culturally, derby is rooted in the idea of by the skater, for the skater," says Kolberg. "We have built the sport from the ground up. We write the rules and we have developed a unique sport which embraces and empowers women."
A few days after I spoke to Kolberg, I attended a Gotham Girls Roller Derby local game at John Jay College in Manhattan. On this night, the defending local champion Queens of Pain—Kolberg's team—are facing off against the Manhattan Mayhem. Thirty minutes before the first whistle, the small gym is packed with boisterous roller derby fans.
Manhattan dominates a lopsided 176-121 game from the get-go, led by Bruzin Brody, who is not the most physical player on the track, but manages to slip through the blockers and use her speed to rack up points as a jammer for the Mayhem. A middle-aged man sitting next to me realizes I'm new to the sport, and explains the basic rules to me, and even points out the blocking strategies the two teams employ.
At halftime, I meet Kate—a JP Morgan employee attending her first roller derby event. One of her co-workers wore a derby t-shirt and it piqued her interest because she has experience in roller skating. She's interested in becoming Fresh Meat, the next unlikely story in a sport built on them.