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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."
After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
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Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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The Moody Center, a $338 million, 530,000-square-foot multipurpose arena at the University of Texas at Austin, celebrated its topping out on Tuesday.
With the final beam placed, the arena's steel-frame structural phase—which involved more than 5.3 million pounds of steel—is complete.
"This past year has been full of unprecedented events, not to mention weather challenges, and yet the women and men working on this project continue to deliver," Moody Center General Manager and Senior Vice President Jeff Nickler said in a press release.
To celebrate the topping out Oak View Group, the development and investment firm behind the Moody Center will affix a tree to the final beam in keeping with the time-honored tradition.
The practice dates back to ancient Scandinavian religious rites, which involved placing a tree atop new buildings to appease tree-dwelling spirits displaced during the construction process, according to the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers in Washington D.C.
After the steel-frame structure phase, the development will move on to enclosing and finishing the interior of the Moody Center.
The arena is set to open next April and already has some major acts scheduled for its inaugural year, including The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, John Mayer and The Killers. It will replace the 43-year-old Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center and serve as the home of UT's men's and women's basketball games, among other sports and community events.
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