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Mediating a melee on skates for UI's Bergus

BY ADAM WESLEY | APRIL 09, 2013 5:00 AM

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As his name may suggest, Nick Bergus is ineligible for competition with the Old Capitol City Roller Girls.

And he’s fine with that.

“I have zero interest in playing,” he said.

Instead, Bergus seems to be in his element as a volunteer referee. Skating around the interior of the roller-derby circuit, focused on the jammer assigned to him, blowing his whistle and relaying point tallies to the scorers’ table. He has become a vital part of the action that a raucous crowd of more than 700 people cheered during the Old Capitol City Roller Girls’ bout against the Fargo Moorhead Derby Girls in Coralville on March 9.

“It’s amazing how much better his skating has gotten,” Old Capitol City blocker Amanda Mosley said. “I’ve never seen anyone fall to the ground and get up as fast as him … like his legs were made of rubber.”

Bergus, an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Iowa, assimilated to the sport quickly both physically and philosophically, finding a sense of authenticity that he says other sports lack.

“Derby answers a lot of problems I see with professional sports,” he said. “It’s not about money, and the athletes are all real people in the community doing it for themselves.”

Bergus began volunteering in 2011 and instantly found a way to impart his own identity into the sport by spurning the standard-issue black helmet and donning a blue one, the color of his favorite planet that inspired his derby name — Uranus Escheating.

Unique “derby names” date back to the early days of roller derby. Old Capitol City’s Lisa Edwards, known on the track as “Left 4 Deadwards,” said the names reflect part of the sport’s more theatrical past and have stuck despite the modern move toward a more athletically driven event.

Derby referees play a big part in the more structured, modern version of the sport, which began its revival in the early 2000s. Modern derby includes standardized refereeing certification and periodic reviews of the officiating — a change from derby’s more flamboyant history.

“I think it’s a common misconception with [modern] derby,” Mosley said. “People are like, ‘You can’t like clothesline people anymore?’ No, we’re actually governed by a set of rules.”

Despite the rules — determined by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association  — a derby bout isn’t for the weak.

“They’re pushing people around with wheels on their feet, so it gets heated,” Bergus said. “It’s physical, it’s full contact, and people get hurt.”

The association’s rules and levels of refereeing certification have brought more consistency and accountability to the officiating. This focus on strict rules in the sport has made good officials a hot commodity for derby teams, who practice with the referees.

“I don’t even know what it would be like to learn this sport without referees,” Mosley said. “I think we’ve had one referee-less practice since I’ve been on the team,” she said. “It was awful.”

The Old Capitol City has the benefit of several refs, including Bergus, who attend practice regularly. Edwards said this helps them better prepare for bouts than teams that don’t practice alongside officials.

However, there’s no discernable “home ref” advantage at a bout. The benefit is purely a better understanding of what an infraction is and what isn’t. Bergus has gone from a “super fan,” cheering on the skaters to joining the officiating crew with such a reputation of fairness that Edwards admitted their lack of bias gets annoying at times.

The team now knows Bergus as very approachable in practice but with a dynamic way of calling infractions. “He gives this look like, ‘I called it; go sit down, that’s what it is, just do it,’ ” Mosley said. “I wouldn’t dream of back-talking him.”

Calling the many violations can be challenging. There are only 10 skaters on the circuit at a time, yet it requires seven referees to ensure the melee of blocking, passing, and colliding is called correctly. Each official is constantly looking for specific players or aspects of the game, and though they are watching intently, they aren’t seeing it like the fans.

“It’s a totally different experience,” Bergus said. “I’m very myopic working at games … watching a bunch of small actions and can lose the sight of the big overall picture, the drama of sports.”

Last year, he spearheaded a trial youth roller-derby league in Iowa City with some help from Mosley, who sees him as an outspoken advocate for the sport.

Bergus’ devotion to derby stems from his high-school passion for the underground music scene combined with an increasing passion for sports.

“[Roller derby] is as close to punk rock as I was going to get with sports,” he said. “It’s what I wish more sports were like.”


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