The OHkapi Way
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The OHkapi Way

Ohio Roller Derby has a newish group in town called the OHkapi Krew. What is an OHkapi, and is it related to the African animal called an okapi? The answer: kind of. 

OHRD is comprised of skaters, but also of officials–both skating and non-skating ones–who not only know the rules, but ensure safe gameplay while tracking scoring, penalties, and many other statistics. They frequently have to know how to deal with issues quickly while maintaining game flow, all while maintaining a professional, “no fun” demeanor in front of a cheering crowd. How they manage all that they do is a mystery, or just takes a lot of practice! 

In not-so-recent history, referees were called zebras for obvious reasons, and non-skating officials (NSOs) wore pink shirts and were called flamingos. Recently, uniform requirements for NSOs changed, and they now wear black shirts at games. It suits them, as they run much of the behind-the-scenes work and are ninja-like. However, OHRD officials wanted to have a united identity. Someone learned of the okapi, a rainforest-dwelling relative of the giraffe which looks like a small horse that was being painted into a zebra, and whomever was doing the painting got interrupted before they could finish. After much discussion and planning, the OHkapi Krew was born!

The OHkapis are hoping to show that officiating can be a lot of fun and embrace an identity that better exemplifies them as a cohesive unit, operating with OHRD. The OHKs are going to be OK under Head of Officiating, HardKore; Head Referee, Stray Taco; and Head NSO, Juvi. We asked our Officiating Committee, HardKore, Taco and Juvi for their thoughts on officiating for Ohio Roller Derby and the WFTDA.

What does OHkapi mean to you?

Taco: I love that OHRD Officials are adopting the okapi as our mascot. It exemplifies what roller derby officiating is all about. If you look at an okapi, it looks like a blend between a striped zebra and a solid black horse. Referees wear striped shirts and NSOs wear solid black shirts. For derby to work, the refs and NSOs have to blend as a cohesive team. We all work together to make it happen!

Juvi: The union of all officials in one animal! We have stripes and dark fur all in one.

What brought you into officiating?

HardKore: Officiating had always been in the back of my mind as something I wanted to learn to do eventually, but for a long time, I felt like being both a skater and an official simultaneously was discouraged. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be taken seriously or supported in trying to do both, even though a few folks had mentioned that they thought that my knowledge of the rules and calm demeanor as a player would make me a good official. I had reffed at scrimmage a few times and offered to help officiate for a closed intraleague game in 2018. That game ended up being cancelled (thanks, downed power line!), but I’d already bought a whistle and ref jersey, and my interest didn’t wane. I started reffing at scrimmage more regularly, and once I’d officiated my first game, I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue seriously. 

Taco: I’d checked out derby years before, but then when I was home for R&R from a military deployment, my wife came across a local derby league in Athens, Ohio. We decided to check out the game and loved it! The empowered, athletic people of all shapes and sizes were amazing. After I got home, we visited a practice and the Head Referee talked me into learning to skate and helped my reffing. I’ve been hooked for seven years now.

Juvi: My sister. She’s a skating official for Barcelona Roller Derby, but also introduced me to the world of roller derby in 2010. I finally decided to go to the closing summer bout in 2018. I had a friend who is an official in the league too, so I started volunteering that same summer and re-fell in love with the sport!

What do you like best?

HardKore: I love the constant challenge! One of my favorite things about derby in general is that there are always opportunities to learn, grow, and be challenged in new ways, and officiating provides all of those every single time I do it. I also appreciate that it’s not just beneficial for me, but for my teammates–when I play, I can help them understand the nuances of the rules and make adjustments to their play style to avoid needless penalties.

Taco: The community you’re instantly part of. Roller derby is unique among sports because officials are part of the community. We practice with OHRD and are members of the league. I tried reffing hockey for a season and it was a whole different experience! There, the refs were separated, and while my interactions were polite, I did feel like a cog in a machine instead of part of a team helping to make a game work. In derby the officials, volunteers, and teams all work together to make the game safe, fair, and fun.

Juvi: The community around “minority” sports has always fascinated me. I grew up practicing rhythmic gymnastics, and the lengths to which people and teams will go to travel and participate in a sport which is minimally sponsored is incredible to me. 

What couldn’t you live without as an official?

HardKore: Comfortable, high-quality ear plugs. I use ones that are designed for concerts and lower decibel levels without muffling sound, so I can still hear clearly without ending up with tinnitus or a headache from all the whistling. 

Taco: The derby community. We have our disagreements, but being part of a group of amazing people who are all in this great sport that’s open to all types is amazing.

Juvi: Ear plugs…black clothes.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned about yourself as an official?

HardKore: Officiating requires just as much physical preparation, attention to nutrition and hydration, and post-game self care as being a skater, and for me, far more mental preparation. After 7+ years, so many aspects of playing and game day are a habit for me, but you’d better believe that I’m reviewing penalty calls and watching tape before every game I officiate. 

Taco: I’m better at athletic stuff than I realized. In junior high and high school I wasn’t really athletic. I played some baseball and JV soccer, but was never really any good. When I started learning to skate, I thought I wasn’t any good, either, but the officials and skaters around me gave me a ton of encouragement. Now after more than 200 games I’m certified, I’m OHRD’s Head Referee, and I will be the Tournament Head Referee for an upcoming WFTDA recognized tournament! If you’d told me seven years ago I could be agile on skates and accomplish all of that, I’d have said there’s no way.

Juvi: That I am stronger and more composed than I thought I was in stressful situations.

How is it to balance being a skater/official?

HardKore: It’s honestly tough for me sometimes, not because time management or focus are a struggle, but because I love both roles so much that I find myself wishing I could be in them simultaneously. Home game days when I get to officiate and then play are the best! Beyond that, I’ve found that each role is incredibly helpful for the other, and I believe that dual skater-officials can help reduce the invisible barrier between the two groups and help create more unity within leagues. 

Why don’t you have to be on skates to be part of the team/league?

HardKore: Derby is a great environment to utilize and hone your skills, whatever those may be, as well as learn new ones! When I was new to derby, my skating skills were practically nonexistent, so I made a point of finding other ways to be involved and helpful for the others, and have become a more well-rounded person as a result. Skating, either as a player or as an official, is only one aspect of derby and there are numerous other ways to contribute. Whether you’re a stats geek, or love the DIY ethos of small organizations, or have a knack for motivational speaking, or are passionate about safety and sportspersonship, there can be a place for you in derby!

Taco: Honestly, if you want to officiate and don’t skate, there are more opportunities. A fully staffed officiating crew has seven or eight skating officials and 11-14 non-skating Officials! NSOs are a critical part of the game. We also rely on volunteers to help with a lot of other areas, like track setup, medical support, production, and so on. Really, there’s probably a spot for anyone who wants to join in.

Juvi: Because this is one of the most inclusive organizations I have been a part of, and everyone can play their own part in this amazing sport and learn a whole new set of skills. 

Photos: Chris Baker

Final Straw