Prior to lacing up a pair of quad skates five years ago in order to participate in the highly-competitive world of women’s flat track roller derby, St. Louis resident Annie Swanson humbly classified herself as anything but a star athlete.
A few years of soccer as a youngster and rotations in volleyball during her teens pretty much defined her pre-skating portfolio.
This past weekend, the Arch Rival Roller Derby jammer achieved a pinnacle of performance.
Swanson, a three-year member of the league’s primary travelling team, was awarded Most Valuable Player at the Madison round of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) Division 1 international playoffs held this past weekend.
Supplemented by Swanson’s performance, Arch Rival, currently ranked #8 internationally by the WFTDA, finished third during the weekend and advanced to the governing body’s international championships that will be held in November.
During the Madison event’s closing ceremonies, the skater was bestowed the honor that was voted on by the WFTDA.
“I couldn’t believe it!” said Swanson of the accomplishment. “I am humbled, grateful and happy I got it representing Arch Rival and my team’s reaction made it an even happier experience. There were athletes more veteran than me, definitely better known than me, and equally deserving as me in Madison, some of them on my own team.”
The individual achievement, a first-time award claimed by the ten-year-old roller derby franchise, was immediately celebrated by Swanson’s sistren.
“When they announced Annie’s name for MVP, the whole team erupted in joy,” said Arch Rival co-captain Bricktator. “I can only imagine the cheers at the viewing parties back in St. Louis. It’s a wonderful thing to have someone from our league selected for this honor. It demonstrates Arch Rival’s progress as a league and highlights a skater who makes us all better.”
Consider it a personal benchmark in Swanson’s relatively short, but bountiful, career. While living cross-state in Kansas City in early 2011, she became familiarized with the sport as her sister-in-law, former Arch Rival skater Hydrogen Bombshell, competed in St. Louis. Inspired, she followed the Kansas City derby scene and, subsequently, taught herself the flat-track basics at local rinks during the summer.
Swanson’s relocation to the Gateway City later that fall in order to attend college provided opportunity as she desired to emulate her “bad-ass sister-in-law” on the flat-track.
“I had no idea how big roller derby was or how much of an effect it would have on me,” she said. “In hindsight, much like my goals in moving across state, I think I was looking for a way to discover myself.”
Discovery meant honing derby skill sets during her initial year of active competition. Swanson first skated with a smaller league, Illinois-based Confluence Crush, in early 2012 and after two months of play, tried out for Arch Rival in May and was drafted by one of its local teams, the M-80s.
As 2012 concluded, Swanson’s steady improvements as a potentially lethal jammer was noticed and the league’s developmental travelling b-team, the Saint Lunachix, added her to its charter in early 2013. Top-flight performances, both on the local and the interleague level, netted Swanson “2013 Rookie of the Year” honors.
Not surprisingly, Swanson was elevated to the primary Arch Rival traveling team in 2014. Since then, she has been perpetually improving her game play and is now considered a lynchpin of the offense, especially within its competitive 2016 campaign.
“The biggest change this year has been my mental game,” she said. “I consciously chose to practice both optimism and confidence because those qualities are vital.”
That evolution is recognized by veterans within the fold.
“Annie really started to hit her stride last season and, this season, has been a consistent go-to skater in the jamming rotation,” assessed Arch Rival’s Bricktator. “She has grown in many facets of her game, especially her toughness. Annie’s dedication to fitness and her constant drive have put her on another level.”
Heading into an individual WFTDA playoff round, which consists of a ten-team, bracketed tournament held over three days, approximately 130 flat-track athletes are all eligible to win the award from the onset.
As the Madison series progressed, skaters reaching and exceeding expectations began to stand out from the crowded talent pool. Potential MVP finalists included Swanson alongside a pair of high-scoring jammers, Minnesota’s Jacked Pipes and Madison’s Mouse, as well as VanEssa “V-Diva” Sites, a blocking standout from weekend gold medalists Gotham, a five-time WFTDA International champion
A defining moment that arguably helped Swanson’s cause took place during Arch Rival’s bronze medal contest against Tampa this past Sunday. Heading into the donnybrooks’ final rotation, and with St. Louis holding onto a slim lead in the teens, Swanson was pegged to jam against a contingent of Floridians that hoped to snag a come-from-behind victory.
“I wasn’t nervous in that moment,” she said of the tussle’s final jam. “During that game, I had to push the fear of losing to the back of my mind. I visualized the wonderful feeling of calling off that last jam. All I had to do was trust myself to get control of the jam and get it done.”
Propelled by a blocking schema that secured victory, Swanson gained lead jammer status and maintained Arch Rival’s 149-131 third place triumph over Tampa that resulted in ARCH’s second straight WFTDA Champs appearance.
Swanson’s offensive cache certainly played into her favor in the ensuing Madison MVP vote. In ARCH’s three-game set, she netted lead in two-thirds of her jams played (25-of-39) and scored a cumulative 195 points, including a personal post-season high of 90 in the team’s semifinal battle against Minnesota.
Her play was also clean as well. During a trio of physically-grueling games, Swanson only committed two penalties at Madison, which included a pair of games with zero infractions.
Those statistics made her a prime candidate for the Madison Division 1 MVP, but there were off-track aspects that were under consideration by the WFTDA before bestowing a potential winner.
“The things that I look for when faced with selecting an MVP from a field of immensely talented and successful skaters go just beyond just game day stats,” said Grace Killy, a member of the WFTDA’s MVP selection committee. “Those things include involvement in their league, the example they set for teammates and their own personal commitment to athletic performance.”
Swanson serves on Arch Rival’s Board of Directors and is a primary member of the league’s coaching committee.
“In order for our league to operate as well as it does, it requires countless hours from all of the skaters,” said Arch Rival’s Bricktator. “Annie goes above and beyond. She is very good at keeping things organized and filling in any gaps. Not only can I depend on her as a skater, but also as a leader and a friend.”
Swanson defines herself as patient, approachable and genuine within her league’s roles. In short, it embodied the true qualities possessed by a potential MVP.
“I want people to trust that when we work on a certain skill at practice, there is an application, or when I make a decision on coaching committee, that I have the league’s best interest at heart,” she said.”Even within the All Stars, no longer feeling like a rookie, I try to be calm and support my teammates on the bench and talk through our successes and areas of improvement.”
The process to designate a MVP was swift by the WFTDA selection committee and Swanson claimed the edge overwhelmingly.
“In just a few questions of teammates and others who knew her, it became obvious that her on-track performance was an extension of her every day approach and dedication to the sport,” said the WFTDA’s Killy.
Swanson, alongside her Arch Rival team mates, now competes at the WFTDA International finale in Portland, Oregon and faces Denver, 7-8 and second place finishers at the WFTDA Division 1 playoff round held in Columbia, South Carolina, in a quarterfinal play-in game on Friday, November 4.
“ARCH is a team with a lot of guts and determination and it took a lot of preparation behind the scenes to make it happen again this year,” said Swanson. “While we are excited to play at champs again, we are also on a mission to play on Saturday (in the semifinals) this year.”
But back to the present. After the tournament in Madison, and whilst traveling back to St. Louis, Swanson put her MVP plaque in a spot for safe keeping.
“It is in a baggie with my medal where it is safe because sometimes I drop chocolate and salsa on things.” she said. “Like, often. Like, every day.”
For more information on Arch Rival Roller Derby, go to its official website.