BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Portland roller derby team in hunt for third championship

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Wheels of Justice, the Rose City Rollers' two-time defending roller derby world champion, practices at its Oaks Amusement Park home base to get ready for the 2018 Women's Flat Track Roller Derby Association championship tournament next month in Philadelphia.Wheels of Justice is taking a bit of extra incentive to the Women's Flat Track Roller Derby Association Championships.

In addition to battling for a third consecutive championship at the tournament in Philadelphia, Portland's team of roller derby stars hopes to show the world what they're made of come the first week of November.

For the first time, the championship match will be shown on ESPN2, shining a spotlight on the sport that first gained traction a decade ago.

"Another big incentive to win that semifinal," team captain Elicia Nisbet-Smith says.

The championships bring together 12 teams from around the world Nov. 3-5.

Wheels of Justice beat teams from Buenos Aires, Argentina, from Montreal and from Los Angeles at a qualification tournament in September at Seattle to earn a bye into the quarterfinal round.

The Wheels of Justice is the 30-player all-star team for the Rose City Rollers roller derby league, which includes eight teams that play in the hangar at Oaks Amusement Park. The league's second all-star team, Axles of Annihilation, recently won the national tournament for "B" teams.

Many of the 2017 Wheels were on the previous title teams. One key addition this season is Bonnie Thunders, a national team jammer who for about a decade played for the rival Gotham Girls from New York City.

"She's one of the best jammers in the world and a leader for the sport," says Loren Mutch, a rising star in her fourth season on Wheels of Justice. "I'm happy to have her. We work really well with each other. We learn from each other."

Mutch and Bonnie Thunders (real name Nicole Williams) are two of six Wheels of Justice players on the USA Roller Derby national team that will compete in February at the Roller Derby World Cup. Others are Hillary Buscovick (derby name Scald Eagle), Jessica Chestnut, Jes Rivas and Jessica Rodriguez Peiffer (derby name Licker N Split). 

The Portland-New York rivalry — the teams have met three consecutive years for the world championship — will happen in the semifinals this year, assuming each wins in the quarterfinals.

The Victorian Roller Derby team from Melbourne, Australia, and Denver Roller Derby are the other top-seeded teams.

"Everyone's improving every season," Nisbet-Smith says. "We need to make sure we're improving at least as much as the other teams are improving and preferably more."

A year ago, Wheels of Justice had to come from behind to beat Gotham Girls 185-186 in the final match. That followed a tense semifinal victory, 155-152, over Victorian thanks to 13 points from Mutch on the final jam.

"Historically, our team's kind of been a second-half team. At playoffs this year, we came out swinging right off the bat, and that was good for us," Mutch says.

"We know how to play under pressure. We've played a lot of close games. People recognize our jammers a lot, but our defense is one of the best in the world and that should be recognized more."

That defense is about blockers working together, according to Rivas.

"You have to be strong," she says. "But the most important quality in a blocker is to realize that we're stronger together than we are apart and to resist the urge to go lone wolf."

A year ago, the Portland team won three close games to capture its second consecutive championship — a triumph made extra special because that tournament was played at Memorial Coliseum.

But Wheels of Justice has no qualms about taking their championship pursuit to Philadelphia. In some ways, not being the hometown favorite could help.

"Our team is used to traveling. There were some pros and cons to being at home," Mutch says. "We're used to staying in a hotel together and being really close, so I like that. I feel confident going into champs this year."

This team is much more than its six national team athletes, according to Rivas.

"Our strength is that we have a really balanced team," she says. "We have really talented and veteran jammers, but we also have a talented and veteran blocking core. It's hard to have both in a season."

The jammer scores points by passing opposing skaters. The four blockers work to clear a path for their jammer and block the path of the opposing jammer.

Rivas was introduced to the sport a decade ago when a co-worker invited her to watch a game. It took Rivas a while to get up to speed on skates. But her background playing lacrosse and college rugby helped.

"I came in knowing how to hit people and how to be hit. And I think that's a really important skill," Rivas says. "Being hit can feel very personal if you let it. And it can be very distracting. So having that experience and knowing it is part and parcel of the sport helped me a lot."

Rivas says roller derby has changed from a sport for rink rats where the fastest skaters prevail. Now, strategy and preparation dictate success. In the months leading up to the playoffs and championships, Wheels of Justice has been practicing four evenings a week for up to three hours.

There are weight training sessions and video sessions to scout opponents, and the team works with Portland-based WSL Leadership for mental preparation.

The current version of roller derby in Portland started in 2004, when Kim Stegeman (skating name Rocket Mean) founded Rose City Rollers with several friends. In 2005, Stegeman was involved in founding the WFTDA. She notes that — unlike staged roller derby held on banked tracks — the flat track derby can be played anywhere that has room for a track that is 88 feet long and 53 feet wide.

Since 2006, that space for Rose City Rollers has been at Oaks Park. Stegeman is searching for a new venue to house the growing business, which includes junior leagues.

The all-star team, meanwhile, is searching for a third consecutive championship.

"It's hard to focus on anything else this last month in the run-up — try to be productive at work and not obsess about it," Rivas says. "One of the beautiful things about roller derby is it's really dynamic.

"It's going to be an 'any given Sunday' kind of thing," Rivas says, where the best team rolls away with the championship.

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