By Thomas Gerbasi
Queens’ #124, Nail Diamond, knew it instantly. “The first game I saw of Gotham was Brooklyn vs. Queens, and the second Queens came out, I wanted to skate for them.”
She’s not alone. Plenty of newcomers to roller derby sat in the bleachers around New York City and Brooklyn, saw the black-clad Queens of Pain and said, ‘oh yeah, that’s my team.’ The same thing went for those who watched the Bronx Gridlock race around their foes during their glory years in the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league.
How glorious were those years? From 2005 to 2010, no other team won a home team title other than Queens or the Bronx. Six titles, divided evenly among squads that were the best of the best in a league widely considered to be the gold standard for flat track roller derby. Six years later, things may have changed for both teams and the sport, but memories of those days are never too far away.
“We’re lucky to still have Speed (McQueen), because she tells us stories of the good ol’ days, and the history’s really important,” said Bronx captain Cherry Napalm. “We look at the championship banners and see all the yellow that was up there, and we get really excited and we want to make that happen again.”
“You can feel the experience in the words of the veterans, which is pretty amazing,” added Nail. “So it doesn’t feel like the glory days have ever left.”
But while respecting the history of the sport is essential, there is also the business of the present and the future. For both teams, the present is a Saturday bout at John Jay College Gym in New York City. The future? Hopefully a return to the championship circle.
“We need to remind everyone that we still run the place,” said Nail, whose squad won the 2013 title and was in the championship game the past two years as well. “There’s no question of us being bosses.”
And if Queens is to get over the hump and raise another championship banner, there can be no resting on their past laurels. “There’s definitely a power to the history and a power to how the sport has evolved, but as a skater on the track, all you think about is that jam, and when that jam’s over, it’s done and it’s the next jam,” Nail said. “Everything is that two minutes that you have and how you’re going to use them.”
The Gridlock, despite a rough few years in which injuries, skater turnover and plain ol’ bad luck left them with a winless 2015 campaign and 1-2 records in 2014 and 2013, have packed plenty of action into those two-minute jams, making them fan favorites along the way. Maybe even more telling is that while the cabbies’ early championship years saw them as a brutally efficient machine on the track, in recent times, they’ve been a gritty, never say die unit that has put hearts in throats as they battle against seemingly insurmountable odds. Will it be more of the same in 2016 or back to the Bronx machine of old?
“I guess we’re more of the heart in your mouth type of team,” Cherry laughs, “but this season we’re definitely more focused on playing our game and playing together. So we’re not an unfeeling machine, but we’re trying to be a kickass machine.”
To get there, Bronx will send five skaters to the track that weren’t on the team last year, while Queens presents six new members of their squad, even though Queens’ Erin Watershow and the Bronx’ Bunny McBones will be familiar to Gotham fans. It may seem like a lot for each team to handle for the season opener, but according to Nail and Cherry, everything is coming together at precisely the right time.
“It feels like old hat,” said Nail, pointing out that a recent team viewing of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday was quite the off the track bonding experience. “Most of the skaters have all skated for years before Queens, so it’s not a lot of teaching things. Everything fits really well. It’s very magical in a way.”
“We feel really strong,” adds Cherry. “We were lucky that all the skaters we drafted were either in the league before or were on Diamond District last year, so they’re all pretty accustomed to how Gotham does things. They just have to learn the Bronx strategies for the season. So I feel like we’re working together really well. It’s a great team dynamic this year, and I’m really excited for this weekend.”
The Bronx and Queens do have a tough act to follow after the GGRD home season opener last month, which ended in a 161-158 win for Brooklyn over Manhattan, but you get the impression that these former dominant champions are up to the challenge.
“We definitely feed off the energy of the crowd, so if the crowd’s pumped up and cheering for us, it definitely helps us,” said Cherry, who hopes her squad wins the crowd and the game.
As for Queens, Nail believes that when all is said and done, winning is not about being perfect. “We’re a very rock and roll team,” she said. “So for me, it’s the same way as playing in a band. If you miss a note, figure it out, get back to where you’re supposed to be, and put on the show. Never say die.”