previous | index | next

By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
March 2005

B-Rollin' On Skates:
The Lessons I Have Learned from Roller Derby (So Far)

I have been on a softball team, a basketball team and a beach volleyball team. I have done yoga, kickboxing and ballet. None have captivated me like Roller Derby. Yep, the stuff you used to watch after cartoons on Saturday morning---the L.A. T-Birds, the N.Y. Chiefs, the Bay City Bombers. It's part hockey, part NASCAR, part internet fetish site---Women in nurse's and cheerleader uniforms on roller skates speeding around an oval track as fast as they can beating the crap out of each other along the way.

A year ago, one of our photographers at KPNX, Tory Garcia, did an incredible nat sound package about the new roller derby league popping up in Phoenix. I use at least twice a semester when talking to college classes to show you don't need a reporter track to tell a story. The students always get so wrapped up in the shots of the girls landing punches on each other and forget to pay attention to editing and composition. They usually ask me to play it again so they can pay more attention to the interviews (and see the punches again). I have seen the story over a dozen times, and every time I notice something new ... definitely the hallmark of a great package.

When I got back from the Olympics last summer, my 16 pounds of mail included a glossy upstart magazine with Senator John McCain on the cover (the one mentioned last month in my resolutions---by the way, the lens cleaning is going well, the cleaning out the news unit has been a horrible failure so far). I thumbed through it looking at the pictures (who says good photography isn't key?) waiting for something to catch my eye. About half way in, there was a picture of two sinister looking women in skimpy nurses' uniforms sitting in a retro chrome kitchen with the headline "Mean Girls". It was followed by an article about the roller derby teams I had seen on tape so many times before.

Leading up to the Olympics, my life was consumed by researching the Games, working contacts and compiling hundreds of hours of interviews and b-roll of our athletes. When I got home from Athens, suddenly I did not have anything to chase. (Granted, I have plenty of things to do, just none of which I enjoy---housework, errands, bulking Athens tapes.) As I read the article, the idea of smacking around tattooed ladies on roller skates did not speak to me, it screamed at me!

Other than in the well worn news story's longest edits of three seconds at a time, I had never seen roller derby. But when the immediately answered e-mail to Deez Nutz at AZ Roller Derby invited me to the next night's practice, I could not say no.

I have not been on old school quad roller skates since the fourth grade when we would tie Dallas Cowboy themed pom-poms adorned with jingle bells on rented brown skates at the Roll-A-Rena in Roswell, New Mexico and stared at the disco ball as I circled the rink punching the air to "Eye of the Tiger".

In college, I had a pair of the early in-line skates that were more like black ski boots with yellow rubber Krispy Kremes on the soles. They were my main mode of transportation for two years until other people started getting them. Now when I say I was into in-line skates, I mean getting from point A to B along flat surfaces using walls, utility poles and other people for stopping. Smooth sidewalks with very few cracks and no gravel was my best medium, anything else resulted in skinned knees and road rashed palms.

So when I laced up a pair of cruddy rental skates at the Skateland in South Scottsdale (not the Scottsdale you see in tourist brochures with martini bars and art galleries, more like the industrial park where dead bodies get dumped) I was back in 1982. But then as the other girls stepped out onto the rink in their sleek black racing skates, ironic argyle knee socks and wife beater tank tops printed with skater names and team numbers, I was in a whole new world---a world that requires good health insurance and a helmet.

It is the first time in many years I felt a wide-eyed awe of something I want to be a part of, yet I know I do not have the skills to compete (yet). It was the same rush I got the first time I set foot on a TV newsroom. Everyone moved effortlessly, mysteriously, absorbed in the task at hand. Meanwhile, I tripped my way around the rink grabbing walls and rails for support and eventually flopped down on a bench completely winded.

Just like learning how to shoot and edit, each time out you build more information into your system and new dilemmas crop up. So you push off with the front wheels of your back foot on a cross-over--- so that's what happens on filter 1 preset when shooting outdoors... my toe stops were on backwards?--- mic and line audio are not the same?... what is the clicking sound my left skate keeps making... what is that crunching sound this MII deck is making?

If you have been shooting for a few years, other than the occasional tape format change, there are not too many questions you have about your gear (other than "where is it?" when coming back from vacation). Once you are comfortable with the equipment, then comes defining your own style and strengths. Technically, I can shoot anything---sports, court, spot news, walking and talking live shots. But style wise, I am the last person you want shooting an NFL game, even the Cardinals. My football film is basic to say the least (wide and generally following the plays) and I know there are a lot of other folks in our shop who will give the viewer an NFL Films look at any game. But when it comes to a feature about the group of middle aged Dads who dance during the halftime show of the Phoenix Suns, I am an A sting player. If you need to ambush an embezzling church pastor, I am all over it. A wildfire is threatening a town up north, stand back and let me do my thing. Spring training is starting and someone needs to shoot a week of baseball games in Tucson... better send Dave if you want to see the ball go over the back fence.

I am still getting used to the skating equipment. Much like TV, roller derby equipment is exorbitantly expensive compared to consumer grade goods. Sure you can get a pair of Sketchers classic skates for $40 and a JVC handi-cam for $300. But a pair of low-end Carrera quad speed skates with stock wheels start at $120, and we all know how much our cameras cost. Go up to the HDTV of roller skates----Riedell Flyz Eyez with Swiss Bones ceramic bearings and Hyper Witch Doctor wheels, suddenly you are in the $950 range and you have not even bought socks. Considering they are shoes with wheels, I am starting with a pair of "prosumer" Vipers I got on eBay for $60 until I pay some dues to wear the expensive stuff---kind of the small market of roller skates. I have learned two types of quick stops... hitting the wall and falling down. I still forget to put on my knee pads before my skates which is like putting on your pants before your underwear, there is no way to reverse this course of events. But like learning to carry your camera, gear bag and tripod long distances and up stairs, there is a certain set of mechanics that set in and become second nature. I am a long way from that. Just like improving your shooting and editing, you watch folks with style and experience, steal from them and set out to beat them. But in roller derby, you actually get to beat on them.

Touring a medium security prison facility with TV gear and hitting drills don't mix. After my first set of hitting drills, I felt like I was hit with a ton of bricks, Anton Bauer bricks---Hytron 120s, not Dionics. Right now I have a bruise on my right hip the size and color of a DVCam tape box---the 64 minute tapes, not the minis (bright purple if you work at a Panasonic station) Last week's bruises have faded to Portabrace blue and the bangs from two weeks ago are SX yellow with an MII muddiness around the edges. And I got these from my friends?

As I "toured" (is that really the right word?) a state prison , every time my camera touched my right hip, otherwise known as the epicenter of pain, shudders of sharp daggers raced down my legs. Fortunately our next practice is endurance drills.

This brings up the downside of doing full contact sports with old bones and out of shape muscles. One of the mantras of roller derby is "It's not will you get hurt, it's when". I can't get hurt. Unlike the folks who work in offices by day and roll the rink by night; my gear is not getting any lighter , the assignments are not any closer and the reporters aren't carrying more stuff (the ones I like might). A few bumps and bruises are fine, I get that covering a mountain rescue anyway. But broken bones or torn ligaments mean months of "light duty"---nothing will kill a photographer faster than not leaving the building to shoot stories. Step out for too long and they realize they can live without you. So as much as I try to do everything I do with every ounce of my being, I have come to the realization I am not going to be the hardest hitting skater in our league because I can't afford to get hit back too often.

Shooting all those boring city council meetings pays off. Part of being in the league is volunteering for one of the task groups (committee just does not sound right when your are discussing folks who purchase part of their uniform at adult book stores---fishnet stockings... I don't know what you were thinking). I am bad at math, so the merchandise group is out. I work in news, not sales, so pimping tickets is not my bag. I am good a coiling stuff (14 years of BNC and XLR cables and thousands of miles of live truck cables), so I help set up and break down the track during bouts, but that is only once a month. I decided to go with one of my interests, I joined the Liquor License "Committee". It sounds much sexier than it is. I shuffle applications through City Hall, check zoning laws and attend city council meetings. After three years in Phoenix, I have the advantage. I know where all of the buildings are for the Liquor Control Board and Licensing Services. The bigger advantage that has daunted others, I know where to park in downtown to get to these buildings, the rest is just waiting in line and filling out paperwork. Not so sexy. But it serves too important functions. I am the slowest skater in the league, I openly admit it. The league's fastest girl, Helen Wheels, can do three laps without effort in the time it takes me to do one when I am earnestly hauling butt. I am getting better week by week, but much like editing packages under tight deadlines, it takes time to build up speed. I can hold my own taking and giving hits---shooting gang bang interviews and jail walk downs in Phoenix with six other TV stations gives you that (yeah, you have read the threads on the Message Board). But I gained instant notoriety when I took on the slow wheels of city government. Two dollar Buds are a big source of revenue for the league and help some local folks live their lives better. Part of our beer sales go to The Centers for Habilitation here in Arizona. They help people with mental disabilities find jobs and live independently. We also support the March of Dimes through our ticket raffles, Race for the Cure at our merchandise table, domestic violence shelters and a bunch of other charities. Bashing heads and drinking beer for a good cause, my kind of sport.

It is good for your brain to do stuff that is not TV. My name is Lynn and I am a workaholic. As my best friend tells me, "Dude, lay off the workahol". In this business it is really easy to become consumed by work. Move to a strange city you have never set foot in, where you don't know a soul except the chief photographer's voice on the phone and do a job that covers 24/7/365. When you don't have anything pulling you away from TV, it only draws you deeper in until you forsake everything for it therefore choking out any chance of having anything outside of it. It is a vicious cycle like any other hard core addiction with one far more dooming aspect--- people often adore you for it. A parent is not proud of their heroine addict, but my family is happy to tell strangers in the grocery store what I do and where I work. When you tell outsiders what you do for a living, they instantly spike on it; wanting to discuss current events, anchor personalities, how much your camera weighs. When you meet someone else in the business, you have hours of conversation material without having to reveal a single piece of your soul. But all of this is what you are, not who you are. As an experiment, when I started roller derby, I did not tell anyone what I do for a living. If they asked, I just said I work downtown (which is true, our station is in the Central Avenue Corridor of Phoenix). You don't realize how many TV station promotional t-shirts you own until you try NOT to wear one. After a few practices I was known more for my obnoxious laugh and ability to give good whips due to freakish upper body strength (for a downtown cubicle monkey)---whips are a move where you reach back and pull the scoring player for your team ahead of you using all of your inertia. It is not what you were thinking. But I blew my own cover. Showing up late for practice means extra sprints. Even though extra sprints would do me some good in getting faster and stronger, after a ten hour day of hauling around TV gear, pulling cable and strong arming reporters for early scripts, it is all I can do to get through practice. I have had to go straight from work to the rink in my work clothes on Wednesdays---jeans and a Channel 12 polo shirt. There are only so many times you can say you bought the shirt at Goodwill until everyone catches on.

First bout under my belt. Okay, that is addictive. That is the same rush as being first on the scene of a massive spot news scene. That is the same tension and release as editing a huge exclusive lead story on the first day of ratings and getting the script 19 minutes before the show and getting it in with three minutes to spare. That was as fun as any feature I have shot in the last year. I skated in my first bout this past Saturday: Surly Gurlies vs. the Smash Squad (pirates versus cheerleaders---for you comic book fans, I think of it as Monkey vs. Robot). I am on the pirate team.

The best part---the audience. For 14 years I have performed day in and day out, sticking stories to tape, popping them into machines or pushing them to "airspace" where they go through the control room, through master control, to the STL, to the cable company and the transmitter and into a few hundred thousand people's homes where they may or may not have on the TV, where they may or may not have it on my channel, where they may be watching my story or they may be in washing dishes and the TV is just a low hum in the background of the kids doing homework at the kitchen table. But Saturday night, as I stepped to the line, clenched down into racing position, put my right toe stop to the floor and looked up toward the beer garden, there were hundreds of screaming, beer swilling fans with all eyes on us. The whistle blew and my skates automatically dug in as the pack made the first corner of the oval, I gave a little shoulder knock to Luna-Chick of the Smashers as I heard a group of young boy voices yell out, "Kick her butt Miss Iao!" Those would be Luna-Chick's seventh grade math students. Soon I felt a poke in the ribs from Sick Girl, captain of the Smashers, I widened my stance to keep her from passing. Here came my jammer, the reach back, I pull Gracie B. Goode forward, but there are cheerleaders between us, she breaks off and catches a hole to pass through, meanwhile I bump hips with Phyllis Killer but she soon takes down Dee Dee Capitator of my team and they start grappling on the side of the track, no one is watching the pack of skaters now, they are fixated upon the mass of kicking and punching estrogen on the floor. The whistle blows again, two and half minutes have flung by, please let this thirty second break be over so we can do it some more.

Going to the knee doctor. I felt it on that last crash of the night, I took out three girls and rolled into the audience. I have had dozens of knee injuries, but this one is different---unmanageable and unpredictable pain. I am headed to the knee doctor next week. But it is okay to get hurt this way. I can still shoot, I just wince when getting up from a low shot. Someday when I am rolling around the Senior Center in my wheel chair, it will be from TV news photography and roller derby. Right now, I just have to be healed up for the May book and our May bout. A little knee injury is not going to stop French Lyck #11 (3,5,7 and 12, all the stations I have worked for were already taken, 11 is my favorite booth at the Owl Bar and Cafe in San Antonio, NM).

Stories that make a difference. When Tory did his story a year ago, he shot most of it outside of his regular work shift and edited it on his weekend. A year later, I can't believe the lasting effect his two minute nat sound pack had on me. I introduced me to the most diverse group of friends this city has to offer and the toughest workout my cardiovascular system will ever know. I was one incidental viewer. If there is a story you are itching to do and just need a reason... go have fun with it, if it is exciting to you, it is exciting to your viewers. You never know who is watching and what they will take away from it---unless you are able to look across the rink and see them cheering and hoisting a beer in the air.

back to news
previous | next

Send us your news.... E-mail us at or drop a message on the Message Board, and tell us what you think.

Go to the Message Board now!

Take care and keep in touch.

home | what's new | product reviews | SPOTLIGHT | b-wear | message board | tips | job listings | market info
evil media | chat | photos | b-roll GIRLS | classified ads | links | resumes | privacy policy | about | contact us ©1996-2006 Kevin Johnson