Gotham Girls Roller Derby

Focus is the Key – Team USA’s Fisti Cuffs on the World Cup

by: Thomas Gerbasi
November 30, 2011

Focus is the Key – Team USA’s Fisti Cuffs on the World Cup
by Thomas Gerbasi

As a member of Team USA preparing for the first ever Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto this weekend, Gotham Girls Roller Derby league All-Star Fisti Cuffs has heard her squad talked about as flat track's equivalent of the 1992 US Olympic basketball team.  The team led by some folks you might have heard of in passing – Jordan, Bird, Magic.

Yeah, a Dream Team. But as competitive and driven as she is on the track, Fisti will humbly pass when the topic of being part of 'the greatest collection of derby talent ever assembled' is brought up.

Team USA's jerseys.  How many skaters can you name?

Team USA's 2011 jerseys.  How many skaters can you name?

“Those guys (the ’92 Dream Team) were historically amazing; I think we just got lucky because we got involved at the beginning,” she said.

It’s more than that, though. Twenty-eight top American skaters are representing the country in the 13-team tournament, with nearly half of the USA skaters (13) coming from the teams that have won the last four WFTDA titles (Gotham, Rocky Mountain, and Oly).

The rest of the squad is no less impressive; Claire D. Way (Boston), Heather Juska (Denver), Varla Vendetta (Windy City), and Teflon Donna (Philly) should all be instantly recognizable to derby fans. This level of skill and experience puts Team USA above the rest of the hungry pack, but for Fisti, counting this tourney as a 'done deal' is not in her DNA.  It took a painful lesson to eliminate that train of thought.

“For me, there is still that sting in my head from when Kansas City beat us [Gotham] by 15 points at Nationals in 2007,” said Fisti, whose Gotham team tore through four teams in the WFTDA’s first East Regional before being toppled by KC in the first round of the National tourney. “I can’t say what could have happened or would have happened, but we were not prepared for that game. We came into that game cocky, and who knows whether or not that cost us the game or the tournament. Never have I seen [Team USA and GGRD All-Stars manager] Buster [Cheatin] do that in any game since, and I know that I’ve never done that.  Anyone who played on that team in that game -- none of us have ever gone into a game thinking that way again. We go into every game knowing that it is the most important game that we are about to play. And I think Buster is bringing that attitude to the World Cup team.”

Fisti (at right) blocks for future Team USA teammate Suzy Hotrod way back in 2007 during the WFTDA Nationals loss to Kansas City.  Photo: Scott Englehardt

Flashback to 2007: Fisti (at right) blocks for future Team USA teammate Suzy Hotrod during Gotham's loss to Kansas City at the 2007 WFTDA Nationals.  Photo: Scott Englehardt

Despite the talent level present on Team USA, there is the stark reality that this is a unit that has had precious little time on the track together outside of a three hour practice in Denver in November, plus whatever practice time they can muster while in Toronto. That could level the playing field a bit.

"I think that almost every other country has had a lot more time to practice and to become a team as a country, whereas two weeks ago most of the United States skaters had been enemies with each other, so that will be a challenge," admits Fisti. "We’ve talked about that and we know what we’re coming up against, so we have to make sure that we are ready for anything."

What Fisti doesn't expect to happen is a scenario where Team USA hits the panic button and puts all five GGRD skaters (Fisti, Bonnie Thunders, Suzy Hotrod, Donna Matrix, and Sexy Slaydie) on the track at the same time to take advantage of their experience playing together.

Gotham pack or Team USA pack?  Photo: Sean Murphy

Is this a Gotham All-Stars pack or a Team USA pack?  Bonnie Thunders jams on the banked track with help from fellow Team USA skaters Fisti Cuffs, Donna Matrix, and Sexy Slaydie.  Photo: Sean Murphy

“The goal is to integrate all the teams represented on Team USA as much as possible," she said. "We talk about pushing roller derby around the world, but by having all of us skating together on the same team, we’re also pushing derby in the USA. There’s a lot we can learn from each other, and a lot that we can teach other. Plan A will be as much integration as possible."

This integration comes just three short weeks after the 2011 WFTDA championship tournament, when many members of the USA squad were doing their best to knock their new teammates into the VIP seats during a series of hard-fought bouts.

"It’s actually kind of weird because there is an aspect of demonization that happens when you’re about to play these people for a national championship," said Fisti, whose Gotham team took the 2011 WFTDA crown with a win over the Oly Rollers. "There are some Team USA skaters who we go way back with. I know them and I’ve played them, but are also new players on new teams, and you just don’t know them as well.  The people you don’t know are the people who are easiest to demonize, but now I’m starting to get to know them, and it’s really exciting."

Foes last weekend, teammates this weekend; Fisti with Rocky Mountain's Amanda Jamitinya.  Photo: Sean Murphy

Fisti with Rocky Mountain's Amanda Jamitinya.  Foes last weekend, teammates this weekend on Team USA.  Photo: Sean Murphy

So has everyone played nice so far?

"So far, yes," she laughs. "It was an eye-opening moment to realize that I can actually play with people who I don’t know because we understand the game at a similar level. In that very short time, I can feel myself meshing with some people and not as much with some other people. So it’s happening, and I think it will happen more on Wednesday, and even more on Thursday night. It’s really cool to learn how to play with someone who is usually my enemy."

None of this can be read as good news for the rest of the World Cup field, but as a bigger question, how will newer fans react if the tournament produces a bunch of one-sided blowouts?

"I think that is a very valid concern," said Fisti. "Roller derby is still such a young sport in its modern incarnation that people may be turned off by that, but I don’t think that it will be such a large number [of blowouts] to really hurt things as a whole. And in the big picture it will be a good thing. There will be a few blowout games, but I also think that there will be some really close games, which I’m looking forward to seeing. I’m excited to see Sweden and France. [Former Gotham skater] Swede Hurt has been pushing roller derby in Europe, and there are so many other things happening in this tournament that are so good that they trump anything else."

As a reference point, Fisti goes back to the 2006 Dust Devil tournament, the first large-scale invitational flat track championship tournament.  Fisti competed as a member of Tucson Roller Derby, which finished second behind a heavily favored Texas team.

“Obviously, there are a lot of comparisons to the Dust Devil, where people say, ‘oh, it’s too early, the US is gonna stomp everyone, blah, blah, blah,’” she said. “But I think that there are other things to bring to the tournament and to take away from the tournament. And what the first Dust Devil did for roller derby was to bring all these teams together in a place where they could learn from each other. It really bumped up the level of the sport, and in that tournament there were a lot of teams that were up and coming.  That's something that is definitely going to happen in this tournament, and that’s what I am most excited about -- that it will just bump up everyone's level of play.”

Photo: Sean Murphy

Photo: Sean Murphy

That’s tomorrow’s concern. Today’s is bringing that first World Cup title to the United States and making it a double championship year for Ms. Fisti Cuffs.

“I’m still on a high from winning championships,” she laughs. “It was so amazing and so good and took so much effort... and now there’s the World Cup. 'Wait, there’s something else?'”

There is. Not a bad way to finish off 2011, eh?

“As long as we win, it will definitely be circled as a very good year.”

Team USA begins World Cup play on Thursday, December 1st at 6:50pm against New Zealand, followed by a 9pm USA vs USA scrimmage. Team USA then plays Scotland at 12:40pm on Friday, December 2nd, and advanced tournament rounds begin Friday evening.

Tune your browser to all weekend for live coverage of the international action.