Long before the craze rolled into 2020, roller skating has held deep ties to Austin.
When the pandemic left a nation stuck at home and even "Tiger King" got old, thousands hopped on wheels to spice up quarantine life and stay active—and the sport has grown in popularity into 2021.
TikTok creators have garnered millions of views as the embodiment of retro cool on wheels, while trick skaters on Instagram have gained traction as street-savvy adrenaline junkies. Demand for skate shops grew exponentially: from March to August, roller derby legend Estro Jen's Southern California skate brand Moxi Skates grew by nearly 1000% from March to September she told the Huffington Post.
The sport is nowhere near new to Austin, however.
Deep ties to the city
In 2003, Austin made waves as the site for the first-ever professional flat track roller derby league in the world. Born from a mix of authentic Austin weirdness and the city's rep as the live music capital, the Texas Rollergirls pioneered a standardized flat-track formula and became known worldwide as the founders of the modern roller-derby movement. With outlandish names (Shutem Up Buttercup or Thugs Bunny), unapologetic aggressiveness and the fierce aura of girl power, the Rollergirls warranted enough attention to inspire a documentary and help create hundreds of professional leagues around the world.
Founding Rollergirl member Amy Sherman, who created the measurements for the official flat track still used today, said that the city's love for entertainment and live music made it a perfect place for roller derby to flourish.
"I think that Austin just being Austin lends itself really well to accepting this sport," Sherman said. "In the very beginning, it was kind of more about the music culture as we were learning how to skate and do tricks. We would have bands play at halftime, and so they kind of helped us with the draw, but we don't need bands anymore because now we're the attraction."
(Texas Rollergirls Travel Team/Twitter)
Since the beginning, Sherman and the six other founding members sought to make roller derby as accessible as possible. A flat track, as opposed to the former banked track, could be played anywhere with a large flat surface. The non-profit league also spent as much time traveling to help create leagues in other cities as they did playing the actual sport, an effort that has paid off with over 600 leagues in the world in 2021. To Sherman, it's the "for the skater, by the skater" mindset and grassroots aspect of the league that has kept this type of roller derby successful for nearly 20 years.
The pandemic has turned back the clock in more ways than one. Just as many are channeling the '70s in their funky bell-bottom roller skating videos, many traditional roller derby athletes are moving back to the streets to stay on wheels at a safe distance.
Sherman said that many veterans are now going back to their roots as outdoor skating becomes increasingly popular.
"It's kind of come full circle," Sherman said. "In the early days, there were a few of us that were involved in the skateboarding community as we were getting the Rollergirls rolling, and we would go and skate at skate parks. And then when roller derby got going, a lot of those park skaters came and focused on the roller derby aspect a little bit more. Now, a lot of derby skaters that can't skate because there's no contact sports right now have taken to the parks again."
The derby girls are joined by a growing movement of outdoor skaters who pull tricks alongside skateboarders at local skate parks.
A new era of skating
For former trapeze artist Amanda Alexander, street skating has been a therapeutic way for her to transition from the adrenaline rush of circus acrobatics. After a friend strapped on some skates on here, there was no going back, and Alexander has committed ever since.
"Skating really blew my mind as being equal to the adrenaline rush of circus but being way more simple because you can just strap on your skates and go," Alexander said.
Since she started two years ago, skating has also become "free therapy" and an escape from the daily stresses of life.
"You just kind of forget about all the stupid stuff that's really not all that important in life and when you walk out of here you just feel at peace," Alexander said. "I feel like it's definitely a free form of therapy at this point."
Street skaters Amanda Alexander (left) and Andrea Phillips take a break at House Park in Austin. (Claire Partain)
For fellow skater Andrea Phillips, outdoor skating is as much about the people as it is the sport. While Phillips had long been one of the only female skaters and few roller skaters on the ramps at her favorite skate park, new visitors come and go much more frequently now.
"With skating culture, we're all just so weird and all goofballs," Phillips said. "Nobody really cares here, so you can just get away with so much and it's always just fun and nobody is ever super competitive. When it boils down to it, we're just adults playing with toys so there's no judgment."
Both Phillips and Alexander are members of a team themselves. The group, known as Grindstone, consists of 10 "dirty southern roller skatin'" trick skaters. According to Alexander, the Grindstones were created by a fellow Austinite who looked to sponsor some local skaters with her toe-stopper company.
From a mystery skating ramp in the middle of the desert in Marfa, Texas to New Orleans, the skaters have since formed a tight bond as friends with a deep common interest. Despite strong personalities, Phillips said all of the players manage to get along.
"We all have different styles, but we're all super aggressive with whatever we do," Phillips said. "We all just get together, skate, wreak havoc, and travel, although that has slowed down because of COVID. I've never seen 10 alpha females work together in one unit, it's mind-blowing."
While neither Phillips or Alexander have an interest in roller derby, many derby athletes have crossed over to the Grindstones during the pandemic. Similarly, Sherman said that she is inspired by roller derby players who could bring more players onto the Rollergirls after COVID cases go down.
"I find it really inspiring that some of those roller derby skaters have now taken to the skate parks and more street skating, and I think it's helped inspire some of the more average skaters," Sherman said. "I definitely think that will bring more people into the league and people will want to expand their horizons and not be afraid anymore to get out there, because it can be intimidating."
For Phillips, the future of outdoor roller skating lies in making the sport available to all. Phillips said that she hopes the Grindstones eventually tour different cities, teach classes and inspire young athletes along the way.
"We're trying to teach people and teach legitimate classes so we can get everybody going," Phillips said. "There's people in po-dunk towns who have never seen roller skating. If someone had rolled into my town when I was 10 and shown me roller skating, I'd have been in a lot less trouble."
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on three charges—second- and third-degree murder as well as manslaughter—in the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man whose final moments were recorded by onlookers, sparking a global protest movement over police violence and racial injustice. He faces up to 40 years in prison.
Jurors deliberated for 10 hours over two days after an intense, three-week trial before reaching a verdict Tuesday afternoon, four days shy of the first anniversary of the Austin police killing of Mike Ramos, an unarmed, 42-year-old Black and Hispanic man whose name became a rallying cry—along with Floyd's—for Austin protestors, who marched en masse last summer, prompting some police reforms.
Austin Police Department Officer Christopher Taylor was charged with first-degree murder—an unprecedented charge in Travis County—in the case of Ramos' death on March 10. But Warren Burkley, community outreach director for the Austin Justice Coalition, was measured in his response to the Chauvin verdict. "It's highly visible accountability, so it will give people hope in the system," he told Austonia. "But it's just one innocent life taken. And even in this city, this happens regularly, and it doesn't make national news."
Local elected officials, community leaders and residents also responded to the news as APD officers spent their second day on tactical alert, prepared to respond to any protests or demonstrations, and City Council heard recommendations from a task force on how to reimagine public safety.
Chauvin guilty on three charges!!!!
— Chas Moore (@iGiveYouMoore) April 20, 2021
Full justice would mean that George Floyd was still with us. But today's guilty verdict represents a historic step toward justice and for his family. So important now for the Senate to approve the House George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.https://t.co/9zUOgZYg4L
— Lloyd Doggett (@RepLloydDoggett) April 20, 2021
For the first time we saw accountability in the courts for the murder of an innocent Black person.
Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on camera.
This prosecution is historic. People are feeling temporary relief. This is more than Justice, this is #AccountabilityforGeorgeFloyd. https://t.co/HlBqW7sScx
— Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (@EddieforTexas) April 20, 2021
Many of us have been afraid for days that Derek Chauvin would be found not guilty, despite what the video so clearly showed in broad daylight. The guilty verdict today provides important accountability, but it does not provide real justice. (1/5) ⬇️
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) April 20, 2021
George Floyd's murder led to national protests and calls for the enactment of policing and social justice reforms, including here in Austin. We have made a commitment here to holding police officers accountable and to implementing social justice and policing reforms.
— Mayor Adler | 😷wear a mask. (@MayorAdler) April 20, 2021
Derek Chauvin's conviction is only one step towards providing healing/justice for George Floyd's family + for our nation as a whole. It's up to us to honor Mr. Floyd + the many others lost to police violence by transforming public safety and making our communities safe for all. https://t.co/RVgQmcAf6I pic.twitter.com/hCHLibYjoy
— Council Member Alison Alter (@ALTERforATX) April 20, 2021
No person should be above the law. If you transgress the law you should be held accountability.
Derek Chauvin- GUILTY
— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) April 20, 2021
George Floyd's murder heightened the long-overdue national conversation on systemic racism. Derek Chauvin has been found guilty, but this is just one step on a long road towards racial equity. We must enact significant systemic changes in order to achieve justice.
— Every Texan (@EveryTxn) April 20, 2021
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Californians love Texas, and Austin—with its liberal politics, relatively affordable housing and job opportunities—is particularly adored. In fact, the Lone Star State was the main recipient of departing Californians in 2019, according to the latest available U.S. Census Bureau data.
But other states, including Florida, are seeing increased interest. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has made a name for himself on Twitter recruiting techies and hyping up his city, which has a lot in common with Austin—with the added benefit of a beach and sans the "Don't California my Texas" attitude.
California expats and industry experts say Austin remains the bigger draw for Californians, especially those in the tech sector, but warn that this advantage could shift to Miami if the city doesn't address the policy challenges that prompted the migration in the first place: housing affordability.
"If Austin doesn't accommodate this influx, I think all the talent will come to Miami," said Peter Yared, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Miami from San Francisco in September. "I think Miami's going to be the one that sucks it all up."
Both Texas and Florida promise business-friendly state tax policies, and their governors tout the relocations of companies such as Tesla and Oracle from California. But Darien Shanske, a law professor at the University of California Davis whose specialties include taxation, said this is a red herring because corporate taxes are based on where sales occur rather than headquarter locations.
This is not to say other state policies are irrelevant. "The area in which California regulatory policy has been, in my opinion, not a complete failure but problematic … is housing policy," Shanske said. Austin and Miami can offer "not cheap, just cheaper" housing than what is available in Silicon Valley. Plus, both cities are developing a critical mass of talent, which further draws Californians in. "If you're a software engineer, you want to live near other software engineers," he added.
But not every Californian is motivated to move. "San Francisco is a fantastic place to live if you can afford it," said Brandy Aven, a professor of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. As a result, it's more common for what she called the labor—engineers, programmers and even company founders—to relocate to cities such as Austin and Miami than the monied venture capitalists. Burgeoning tech cities may find that they need to develop homegrown investor networks to support local ventures in the absence of Californian transplants, but she believes this is doable.
Paul O'Brien, CEO of the Austin-based MediaTech Ventures and a startup veteran, moved to Austin from California in 2009, during the Great Recession. "I'm a firm believer that the world has been seeking an alternative to Silicon Valley for a long time," he said, pointing to Austin as the natural heir for myriad reasons.
Austin has regional appeal as the epicenter of three of the country's largest cities—Houston, Dallas and San Antonio—and their respective industry niches. Tech entrepreneurs could cater to the local consumer goods industry or Houston's oil and gas sector. Plus the city has cultural appeal, thanks to the Red River District and South by Southwest, which made it attractive to job seekers. "The whole reason everyone moved to Silicon Valley is opportunity," O'Brien said. "The whole reason people are now looking beyond Silicon Valley to somewhere else is opportunity."
It's less clear what Miami's key industries are, O'Brien said, but the city offers other selling points, including the mayor's buy-in and "a tremendous depth of wealth" to support a technology and startup ecosystem.
Although Yared didn't consider moving to Austin, he is aware of its appeal to engineers, especially now that their hero, Elon Musk, has moved there, shunning California. "Austin has a lock on tech," he said, but Miami draws a different crowd, including financiers from New York. This parallel migration, coupled with the city's more outwardly pro-growth building policies, gives him hope that Miami could supplant Austin in the coming years. "In the end, communities get to choose what they want," he said.
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In the days after Austin FC's inaugural match against LAFC on Saturday, Head Coach Josh Wolff says he's watched the game "a number of times, to say the least."
In the match, Wolff and over 500,000 other viewers looked on as Austin FC took to the pitch for the first time, held their own in the first half against LAFC and eventually fell 2-0 to a team that's sometimes regarded as the best in the league.
Austin FC had the largest television audience of any soccer match in the U.S. over the weekend, surpassing even the USWNT. In a showcase of the club's dedicated fan base, dozens of Los Verdes fans were spotted in green and black around the stadium—even with the match limited to 20% capacity.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
While the team lost their first-ever match, they didn't make it as easy as some expected.
Wolff said that the team did relatively well offensively, holding possession for 48% of the match and keeping a solid passing game. Once they got to the box, however, Wolff said they could use some work on creating scoring opportunities.
"We saw a lot of good connections, good spacing (and) good speed of passing," Wolff said. "I think we can obviously have more presence centrally to have more numbers in between lines. I just want us to create more chances. There's a lot on both sides of the ball that we still need to work on."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Later on, however, the team gave up some goals and seemed to struggle with endurance. Wolff said the backline did "okay" and that the club, including young center back Jhohan Romana, are still getting conditioned to play a full match.
"It's a lot of information for a young player," Wolff said. "I think as he fatigues then the decision making, as with most players, becomes a little bit more cloudy and then thus the execution becomes cloudy."
An honor to represent this city and y'all. We're just getting started. 💚🖤 pic.twitter.com/tmOqCfbXvs
— Austin FC (@AustinFC) April 18, 2021
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal.
Going into the match, Stuver and fellow goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell were neck-and-neck, with both labeled potential starters. However, it was Stuver, who many thought signed as a backup, that wore the goalkeeper's jersey on the field for the first time.
"I think both Andrew and Brad did relatively well in preseason, but we decided with Brad just based on how we felt preseason went," Wolff said. "I thought he performed pretty well to be honest. I think he and Andrew are similar in some aspects... it's being mindful of where their strengths and weaknesses are."
Five starters made their MLS debut in the match, including midfielder Daniel Pereira and forward Rodney Redes. While Wolff said Pereira held his own in the match, he saw a weak spot in the team's right side, making it difficult for Redes to make offensive plays.
"For Pereira, I think it was a solid day for a young kid coming in his first MLS game against that opponent," Wolff said. "Obviously there's there's a different physicality to MLS and I think those are things that all these guys are going to acclimatize to.
Now, the club looks to put the ball in the back of the net for the first time as they head to Colorado. Austin FC will face the Colorado Rapids at 8 p.m.on Saturday. The match will stream on the Austin FC app and be broadcast on the CW Austin. Austonia will keep an eye out for potential weekend watch parties.
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