Kola Loka: A Skater’s Story

Now that Gotham Girls Roller Derby have claimed their third Hydra as champions of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the 2012 WFTDA season is, for all intents and purposes, done and dusted.

The offseason gives most players time to take a well-deserved break at the end of a hard year of roller derby. However, for some it also can signal the end of a chapter in their derby careers.

There have been a few high-profile skaters signalling their retirement from the WFTDA this year. To name but a few: Heather Juska, White Flight, Soulfearic Acid, Joy Collision, Hockey Honey, Psycho Babble…and that’s just from the west region.

Another player ending her time in the WFTDA is Kola Loka.

Before Kola Loka discovered roller derby and joined Windy City in 2006, she was no stranger to the bouting world. “I was boxing at the time, preparing for the Golden Gloves and I preferred the team aspect of it, but loved the physicality and the training,” she said of her derby pre-history.

Like most derby players, she got sucked into the game and found it was right up her alley. According to Kola, what kept her drive for derby alive was “never ending learning curve and the satisfaction of being part of a team that had a goal to win together.”

That goal was met year after year, with Windy City going 62-23-1 in WFTDA play from 2007 and staying undefeated in the North Central since the beginning of the WFTDA four-region format in 2008, winning the North Central regional playoff tournament every year since.

Along the way, Kola had some amazing highlights that she’ll never forget.

“My favorite experiences are beating Madison at Eastern regionals in 2007 when we were the super-underdog and they were ranked first. It was a thrilling upset that is rare in sports.

“In 2008, at Nationals, in a semifinal game against Texas, I mistakenly called it off when we were tied and we had to go into overtime. My team put me back in to clean up the mess I’d made and I helped win the game in the last minute.

“Afterwards, the crowd lifted me up and chanted my name. I saw my dad crying in the crowd. Nothing can top that.”

As one of the top jammers on the Windy City Rollers, Kola Loka knows how to fight her way around the track. (Photo Credit: Joe Rollerfan)

Kola Loka and her team would eventually fall to Gotham and watch them hoist their first Hydra trophy in 2008. But the finals appearance set the tone for Windy City, and after a dominant 11-1 regular season in 2009 they were poised to make another championship run.

By then, Kola was on the sidelines just having given birth to a future roller derby star a few months earlier. But she was ready to cheer on her teammates as any fan of the Rollers would.

However, in their first game at 2009 Nationals, they ran into the Denver Roller Dolls and their new pack-slowing tactics. Much like the booing crowd, Kola Loka was not a happy camper at what she was witnessing.

“It was a shock to see the tactic of just standing there. I screamed myself hoarse.”

WCR was bamboozled by the tactic, losing 157-125 in a game that had been labelled as a major upset. As Kola returned to skating form and her team began to decode what happened, the writing was on the wall.

And it wasn’t good.

“My team and most teams pretty much hated it and then immediately adopted that style, which was horrifying to me. No one has really since come up with a way to stop it, since the rules don’t prevent it.”

So as it was clear to everyone in the WFTDA that they only way to beat ‘em was to join them, and also partake in the slow game. But Kola Loka didn’t want that to happen, if she could help it.

“We have been banging our heads against the wall trying to make other teams skate, while some of them have been figuring out all the ways they can win by not engaging and forcing no packs and out of play.”

This began to wear at Kola Loka. Month by month, game by game, teams all over the country began to abandon the hard-skating tactics that drew players like Kola into the sport to begin with. Instead, they preferred to take the most direct route to victory, even if it was being done in a way that was unpopular to fans—or even fellow skaters.

“Players will do anything to win. Some seem to have no compunction about their actions and their consequences. … People are selfish. They would rather win a medal than help our growing sport become fun to play and fun to watch.

“I would always rather have a good time and win than have a crappy time and win. And I would also rather have a good time and lose than have a crappy time and win.”

“Even though there are amazing athletes out there, I find that they stop using those athletic abilities during the game too often for me to enjoy playing it with them.” – Kola Loka interview on WFTDA.tv

Although she was still proud to be a member of the Windy City Rollers, increasingly Kola began to find out that win or lose, she was starting to have a crappy time playing this slower, more punishing style of game that the WFTDA was rapidly adopting. “As a dedicated jammer, I felt like I was back in boxing, except now I have to keep my hands down while I get hammered in the face, or else I will get a penalty.

“Just no fun.”

But as a skater in the WFTDA, a governing body for the skaters, by the skaters, Kola had an opportunity to change things. She was very active in trying to enact gameplay updates to get things back to a state where she could enjoy herself again.

However, Kola soon began to realize that as a single skater, she “doesn’t have much of a voice. There are people who represented my whole league, but if I was in a minority—which I usually was—then my voice has no place.” Though she acknowledged that representing the majority is the point of a democracy, she recently wondered if even that’s true when it comes to the WFTDA.

“The strange thing about this issue is that most people I talk to lately, unlike over the last few years, really hate these slow/no derby tactics. I no longer feel like the minority, but from what I hear on the ‘streets,’ there are a few leagues in the country whose voices overshadow the rest as WFTDA’s decisions are made.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Kola Loka was beyond frustrated with slow derby throughout the 2012 season. The rules update that should have landed in May of this year never came, and like most everyone else in the derby community she was not pleased that she had to continue skating under rules that, according to Kola, made for games so boring they were “like watching paint dry, or maybe like watching a fly die by getting stuck in drying paint.”

“I find that when people play in a way that is boring or stops play, it’s like winning a battle, but losing the war. To me, the war is making roller derby a sport that can be enjoyed all across the world.” – Kola Loka interview on WFTDA.tv

Windy City didn’t seem to like getting stuck with current gameplay environment, either, going a disappointing 5-5-1 in the 2012 regular season. There were bright spots for Kola throughout the year—she got to play in the Windy City-Minnesota which was likely the game of the year, and with the help of Sargentina she pulled off a Pegassist to get around a scrum start at the Star of Texas Bowl. (“That was epic and awesome.”)

But after running the table in the North Central regional playoff and heading back to the WFTDA Championships, Kola Loka reached a breaking point.

“I hated the way we played and couldn’t stand to do it anymore. … This whole season especially, since we lost to Charm by them forming a line and refusing to block, I have been pissed! I wanted to quit that night, but I couldn’t let my team down. I felt stuck; quitting was not a good option, and playing this way was excruciating.”

With a rock on  her left and a hard place on her right, she decided the only thing she could do was press forward and stick with her team for one last shot at a Hydra. Unfortunately, despite her leading Windy City in scoring with 48 points, Windy City fell 212-125, ending their chances and simultaneously ending Kola Loka’s time in the WFTDA.

Kola admitted that—very much unlike their meeting three years ago—her final WFTDA tilt against Denver was “a fun game.” But when the final whistle sounded, she got to let her true feelings be known.

“I was just hoping for a good game. When it was over, I was so happy. Nationals was my end goal, and I was relieved. I have been waiting for this for a long time.

“I felt free.”

Finally released from the shackles that have been the restrictive and unpopular style of game she was forced to play, seemingly against her will, she was free to speak her mind about what she really thought about things.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) the first person to ask her opinion was holding a WFTDA.tv microphone while standing in front of a camera that broadcasting the live video stream to thousands of roller derby players and fans around the world.

To see Kola talk about the state of “slow derby” play, click here to go to the Windy City/Denver archive on WFTDA.tv and skip ahead to 1:28:30.

“They asked me why I was quitting and I said that I was done playing a game that was confusing for fans and frustrating and dangerous for me. I wanted to see the amazing athletes in WFTDA do what their positions said: blockers block, and jammers jam. I think teams who win by disengaging from the pack are winning the battle, but losing the war to make derby a fan friendly game.

“I also said that I am not retiring from derby, just the WFTDA, and that people will most likely see me playing ‘somewhere else.’”

People have told Kola that after they heard her comments, they were “encouraged” by her “strong stance.” But still, there was an open question of what exactly she meant when she said she wanted to play “somewhere else” now that she was finished with the WFTDA.

“I like what USARS is doing a lot. They asked everyone in derby to get together—even though WFTDA declined more than once—and create a ruleset with a goal in mind of making a fun to watch, easy to understand and ‘safe’ to play roller derby. If skaters feel the same way, let’s go play USARS. All you need is a USARS membership and a place to play. There’s no reason teams in WFTDA can’t play; they already are. And from what I’ve heard from them, they are loving it.

“I can’t wait to try out the USARS rules and see what the next chapter of my derby life will be.”

As Kola Loka starts to look at what her options are going forward, she can’t help but look back at her time with the WFTDA. And while she appreciates what the WFTDA is, she’s come to realize that it’s not the roller derby organization for her.

“I have no regrets and am so happy to be done playing that nonsense. I don’t want to be a part of an organization that is for the skaters, by the skaters. I want to be a part of a sports organization that makes decisions having a goal in mind to grow the sport as a viable option for fans interested in viewing the amazing skating talent out there.”

Kola believes this despite the updated rules coming down the pipeline, as she isn’t confident it will do much to address the major issues she feels are holding the game back.

“There were some options that were voted down … that would have been an improvement. The simple idea that you should create a skating direction, and skaters should have to skate that way, were not approved. Eliminating minors is going to help the crowd and the refs, but the standing around, waiting for the jammers to return to the “pack” and then watching while the jammer struggles alone to push the front out to 20…

“I guess if it wins people medals, that’s fine for them.”

So although she is glad she’s leaving the WFTDA behind, she’s going to dearly miss the Windy City Rollers.

“My teammates want me to stay, and I wish I could. They are an amazing bunch of athletes and women who are in a tough position. WCR is a classy organization. They are my family and I will miss everything about them, just not the WFTDA style of play they are forced to play.

“Roller derby has been the most fun sport I have ever played, and I have played many. I am not done playing roller derby.”

And if Kola Loka has it her way, her she isn’t done writing her roller derby story.