Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Badass babes: Wrestling and roller derby spotlight female athleticism

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 6:57 PM

On Sunday, I was stopped at an intersection and a bumper sticker on a car in front of me boldly announced:

“I know I run like a girl; try to keep up.”

Tampa Bay Tantrums roller derby team competed against Gainesville Swamp City Sirens this past weekend.
  • Tampa Bay Tantrums roller derby team competed against Gainesville Swamp City Sirens this past weekend.

The message is a new-and-improved version of the “You go, girl” moniker used so often throughout the 1990s.

Whereas the old saying encouraged girls to simply get in the game, the new message pushes them to be defiant and make waves.

Or to be more exact — that girls can be just as good, or even better than boys.

Interestingly enough, after seeing the bumper sticker, I got home just in time to see the last 45 laps of the Daytona 500, where Danica Patrick had become the first woman in history to qualify for the pole position to start the NASCAR race. Patrick would go on to finish in eighth, the highest for a female driver, while also racing in the lead for five laps, another first for a woman.

Another first occurred for women in sports on Saturday when UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey defeated Liz Carmouche at UFC 157 in the first women’s bout in UFC history.

So what does all this matter? Women further back in history like Billie Jean King and Babe Didrickson Zaharias accomplished events in their sports proving they could match up with men. If you don’t know either of them, Google or Bing them.

Yes, King (tennis) and Zaharias (golf, tennis, track and field, basketball) blazed a trail for women, but did so without having to drive 200 mph or kick some serious ass, literally, in industries dominated and run by men.

Sure, the naysayers have blabbered endlessly on the television and radio how the attention towards Patrick and Rousey has grown so large because “they’re just women,” as I heard a radio talk show host comment tonight on 98.7 The Fan.

Of course, they’re just women, but the men who make inane comments like this either don’t have daughters or they’re stuck in a bigoted existence.

Patrick and Rousey matter now because they’re looked at as being cool — by little girls AND boys. And because they change the perception of the female race, no pun intended.

Mostly, they’re doing what they’re doing in the age of social media. They’re attractive athletes doing things in tough sports, tough even by men’s standards.

Ultimately, they show the world women can do things, anything, just like men.

On a personal note, this speaks volumes, considering I have a daughter who will turn 3-years-old this summer. Being the overprotective father that I am, the grit and determination shown by Patrick and Rousey give me a sense of relief knowing a strong path has been further solidified for women — that is, a path where the world consciously understands what women can accomplish and women know there are no walls or ceilings preventing them from making dreams happen.

Maybe a bumper sticker should be printed that states:

“Watch out world, women can kick ass, like men…or even better.”

Ironically, on this game-changer of a weekend for women, I went to cover two events this past weekend that featured women in sports — Shine 7 wrestling and the Tampa Bay Roller Derby.

Initially, I planned on creating two separate pieces focusing on each sport’s unique quality and their quirky entertainment value.

Having written about athletes on many different levels, including those in Major League Baseball and the National Football League, I honestly expected rinky-dink operations loaded with amateurish skill sets.

By the time I had seen the women wrestlers and the roller derby women, I knew an article about the accomplishments of women in sport was in store.

Sure, Shine 7, the seventh installment, involved incredibly attractive women wrestlers who have competed on various circuits nationally and internationally, including WWE and ECW.

Angelina Love, a popular wrestler who appeared with WWE, announces her signing with Shine Wrestling as emcee Daffney looks on.
  • Angelina Love, a popular wrestler who appeared with WWE, announces her signing with Shine Wrestling as emcee Daffney looks on.

But this locally run production, started by Howard Word and Sal Halmoui last July, has grown into quite a spectacle and these women are more than just delectable eye candy.

They are tough; they're determined; they're edgy; they're witty; they're athletic; they're talented.

And the event within The Orpheum — an Ybor City institution — definitely isn’t some rinky-dink operation. I expected to see some mats thrown on the floor with about 50 or 60 people hovered around it hootin and hollerin at the escapades of untrained girls acting all goofy.

Instead, I entered the club to see a full-fledged ring with ringside seating and a VIP loft. A large banner with the organization’s logo and name covered one corner of the club while Halmoui manned a production area on the balcony, where Halmoui would send out the feed to thousands of fans around the world.

This was serious. With close to 300 people in attendance, I quickly became a fan.

Over the course of the next two to three hours, one wrestler after the next (25 wrestlers in all) performed mind-numbing, spine-tingling flips, twists, body slams, flying kicks off the top of the ring, tosses through the ropes, face slaps, you-name-it in an OMG-type show.

At one point during one bout, with two wrestlers literally grappling next to fans, a spectator bellowed, “This is fucking awesome!”

Members of Valkryie talk strategy during a match in Shine 7 wrestling event.
  • Members of Valkryie talk strategy during a match in Shine 7 wrestling event.

One bout after the next exceeded the excitement level of the previous one.

The three-on-three match that pitted three members of the Valkyrie group (Allysin Kay, Taylor Made, and April Hunter) against Su Yung, Tracy Taylor, and Mia Yim featured a whole bunch of blind-sided blows and unexpected falls. During the six-women tag team bout, Hunter, a tall, voluptuous redhead who has appeared in Playboy and Maxim, found herself at the feet of some of the fans seated ringside due to some tomfoolery by her opponents.

Hunter did what any veteran wrestler who knows the meaning of entertainment value would do — she graciously grabbed the innocent bystander’s cup of beer and took a healthy sip, to the delight of him and the rest of the howling fans.

April Hunter poses after being announced as one of the members of the Valkyrie group.
  • April Hunter poses after being announced as one of the members of the Valkyrie group.

Each match featured plenty of antics and even more athleticism. At one point, when women’s wrestling pioneer LuFisto catapulted herself through the air on top of Ivelisse, I wondered aloud, “These women have to end up with some crazy injuries.”

“Yeah, they definitely do,” said Daffney, the emcee and host of the online show and a veteran of the circuit.

Hunter would later rattle off the litany of injuries she’s endured over her 11-year career, including but not limited to three bulging discs, a separated shoulder, a broken jaw, four broken noses, a torn quadriceps muscle, and “more concussions than I can count, if I could remember, of course.”

The night culminated with Rain, a petite wrestler, taking on the Amazing Kong, who stands 6-feet tall and could probably compete for a spot on the Bucs offensive line. Rain eventually won when her Valkyrie teammates jumped in the ring and on top of Kong, allowing Rain to get a metal chair from the floor.

In true WWE comedic style, Rain tossed the chair into Kong’s hands right before a befuddled referee (Frank Gastineau) recovered from the melee. Rain was quickly awarded with the victory due to the use of an illegal prop.

After the show, Hunter, who could easily be found appearing in fashion magazines instead of body slamming her opponents to the ground, explained why she stays involved in the sport.

Rain cowers underneath the towering image of the Amazing Kong.
  • Rain cowers underneath the towering image of the Amazing Kong.

“It’s an adrenaline rush,” said Hunter, who has traveled around the world appearing in shows as a fitness model and a model. “Some people may think it’s fake, but we don’t worry about them. We just focus on competing the best way we can and giving people a good show.”

For the 41-year-old budding actress, it’s also something that validates who she is as a woman.

“It’s something that proves how athletic, strong, and agile I can be,” said Hunter, who trained at the legendary Killer Kowalski’s Wrestling School, where a number of stars from the WWE, ECW and the WCW trained.

That statement also could be used as a marketing slogan for the other sport I covered this weekend, roller derby.

The Tampa Bay Roller Derby, formerly known as the Tampa Bay Darlins, is the brainchild of Angela Kroslak, known on the track as “Dee Bauchery.” Kroslak had a vision for the sport’s return and in 2005, she formed a relationship between the newly-founded Darlins and United Skates of America.

Originally just a hodgepodge of women literally falling over each other in an attempt to figure out the sport, the competition has developed into a well-oiled machine with three home teams, a training program for new girls called the Quad Killer Program, a developmental practice squad, the Tampa Bruise Crew (the organization’s B-team), and the Tampa Tantrums, the organization’s top-level team that travels around the country.

“It was a cluster fuck,” said Leia Flat, one of the program’s founding members who just recently retired. “No one knew the rules, the game, the strategy, anything. Little by little, though, we began figuring it all out, learning the rules better, making certain adjustments, building up a fan base, creating better skaters. It’s still a work in progress, but it at least looks like we know what we’re doing (now).”

I sat next to Flat for most of the night, watching the Bruise Crew and Tampa Tantrums take on the visiting squads from Gainesville in the confines of the Skateplex, located on Busch Boulevard in Temple Terrace. Flat, who is a teacher at Buchanan Middle School in Tampa, explained the rules to me regarding jammers and blockers and how points are awarded.

Initially, I was puzzled, but soon I caught on as women with monikers like “Little A,” “Breezy,” “Lil Bit,” and “Taz Mania” zigged, zagged, jostled, and burst through the set of blockers by the Gainesville Swamp City Sirens. I also quickly figured out how impressive the Tampa contingent was as one jammer after another earned points against the Sirens.

And once Tampa blocker Betti Kruger leveled Gainesville jammer Krispy Kreme-Her, catapulting her about 4 feet off the floor into the air and parallel to the ground, I knew this was a sport just like any other sport.

“A perfectly legal hit and a good one,” Leia Flat said while explaining to me what’s allowed and isn’t.

The roller derby night was just as entertaining as my wrestling night. There was a similar intensity with the women, a comparable passion for the sport. There was athleticism, aggressiveness, competitive action, and grittiness, just like at Shine 7, just like at any physical sport played by men.

rollerderby1.jpg

“I got into the sport because I played rugby back in Spain and I needed something just as aggressive,” said Carmen Cornell, a financial intelligence analyst for Citigroup who began training with the Quad Killers class six months ago after seeing a flyer in Starbuck’s. “It gives you an adrenaline rush and makes you want to get out there and compete.”

Both nights went by extremely fast because both events produced non-stop fun. If this were a review column dedicated to a thumbs-up or down rating system, I would give both of them two big thumbs up, insisting on you going to experience for yourself.

But this column is focused on the worth of women in sport for what they accomplish. While some men may still want to dismiss the attention given to women in sport as misguided, I beg to differ.

Yes, Patrick and Rousey get attention for their accomplishments because they are women on the rise in sports typically run and won by men. I believe this attention is necessary, though, for the evolution of who we are as a species and a society.

When I asked my 8-year-old son what he thought of the Roller Derby the next day, he said, “They’re tough.”

Then when I asked him if he thought they should be doing something so rough and if he thought girls could play football, he offered up something truly enlightening, “Yes! Of course, girls are in the army. They can do whatever they want!”

I guess now it’s just a matter of me — and other men — keeping up.

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