4 The Journal
May 3, 2011
Roller derby queens
May 3, 2011 5
By Katherine Luck
This hard-hitting sport is gaining popularity with women in the Puget Sound region
hey have names like Krazy Lady, Thumper Skull and Xena T Roller Princess. They sport fishnets and tattoos, yet they work as veterinarians, pilots, scientists and stay-at-home moms — and most of them are in their 30s and 40s. Why are these local women playing roller derby? In a nondescript warehouse in Ballard on a perfectly average Thursday evening in spring, two dozen women flew around a precipitously banked skating rink, shoving each other and yelling. As the whistle blew, a woman was sent sprawling across the track by another skater. Standing in quad skates on the sidelines, “Maraschino Jeri,” a roller derby skater with a year and a half of experience, observed, “You just dust yourself off and keep going.” Standing with her and nursing a recently sprained ankle, her teammate Terror Misu said, “I’m going to be hobbling by the time I’m 40. ... The ones that just do it for the image, they don’t last.” Once a facet of an obscure sub-culture, the image of the “derby girl” — heavy eyeliner, ripped tights, and a take-no-prisoners attitude — is captivating a growing segment of women in the Pacific Northwest. “There are people who want to play derby, and there are people who want to be ‘derby girls,’” said Maraschino Jeri. Derby girls just want to dress up and act tough, she explained. Derby players are athletes who endure bumps, bruises and broken bones. During her brief time as a skater, these have included a concussion, whiplash, multiple muscles pulled in her back and a sprained ankle. Terror Misu, who got into roller derby when working as a paralegal in Los Angeles — “I had some angst to burn off,” she said — explained that her current injury isn’t so bad. It was worse when she tore something in her ankle two years ago. What she really struggles with isn’t pain or injury, but fitting her derby skating into her studies as a grad student in social work at the University of Washington, where she maintains a 3.94 GPA.
Why roller derby?
“We’ve got doctors, we’ve got EMTs, we’ve got teachers. And we’ve also got baristas and students. I think I’m the average age. We’ve
got lots of moms, lots of people in their 30s and 40s. I was surprised about that,” said 41-year-old roller derby player Sara SutlerCohen, Ph. D. She’s the dean of the social science division at Bellevue College, and yes, everyone at work knows about her roller derby hobby. “I’ve got a huge fan base here,” she said. Growing up in Oakland, Calif., in the 1970s, she skated for fun and “I watched roller derby on TV,” she said. “In the ’70s and ’80s it was on par with wrestling.” She gave up roller skating as an adult. “Life got in the way. I went to college, had a kid. I didn’t do much skating,” she said. “I decided as soon as I hit 40 and my kid was 16, I was going to go for it.” And she did. Sarah Fletcher of Ballard, age 43, made a similar resolution. “I figured if I was going to do this, I had to do it now.” After attending a Rat City Rollergirls bout, Fletcher considered trying roller derby. “I am 5-foot-15-inches. You can do the math,” she said. However, “It had been 20 years, if not more, since I last skated.” She put it off for few years, then she and some friends decided to dip their as-yet unbruised toes into roller derby by skating at “PFM.” PFM, which stands for Potential Fresh Meat, is the entrée of many of today’s Puget Sound area skaters into the world of roller derby. Held each week, the informal roller derby practice group has attracted many new skaters to local roller derby leagues, including the Seattle-area’s newest, Tilted Thunder Rail Birds. In Tilted Thunder, the youngest skater is 20. The oldest is in her mid-40s. For a while, there was a skater who went by “The Hot Flash” who was 52. Sutler-Cohen and Fletcher felt they fit right in. “I’m not a spring chicken,” Fletcher said. “I don’t envision myself doing this for 20
Photo courtesy of Danny Ngan
Teamwork allows skaters to get ahead in roller derby. School” roller derby training program in early 2011. They learned the rules of banked track as well as skating technique and safety. At the end of the six-week training program, they had the chance to try out for the four Tilted Thunder home teams.
Red badges of courage
Photo courtesy of Daniel Stockman
Roller derby is unleashing the competitor within for many local women. years. But if I can get in a couple seasons or even just this season — great!” “I don’t want to hear ‘I’m too old for it.’ Age is not an excuse,” said Tilted Thunder co-founder Chelsea Shepherd, aka Mae Lay. “I go by Mae Lay because ‘melee’ was how it felt when I started. A total melee, total chaos,” said Shepherd, who has been skating for six years and playing roller derby for three. After a stint with PFM, she and Tilted Thunder co-founder Courtney Stone decided to start their own league. But this one would be different from the other roller derby leagues in the Puget Sound region, including Seattle’s Rat City Rollergirls and Everett’s Jet City Rollergirls. Tilted Thunder would be the only league in Washington to compete on a banked track. “We started it before either one of us had skated on a banked track. So it was kind of a gamble,” said Shepherd. “It just seemed so much more fun, so much more interesting [than flat track].” And to many local women, it was. “As soon as I heard a banked track was being built, I got really excited,” said Sut-
ler-Cohen. “That’s the kind of roller derby I identify with. We joke around that it’s ‘real’ roller derby.” “It’s the way roller derby was played in the ’30s up through the ’80s, roughly. It’s kind of like a velodrome for bicycles. It’s between a 30 and 45 degree angle, depending on where you are on the track,” Fletcher explained. Soon after starting the Tilted Thunder, Shepherd and Stone went to a banked track training in San Diego. Fortunately, banked track roller derby was all they hoped it would be. The rules of banked track are a bit different than flat track. In both forms of roller derby, two teams of skaters circle a track counterclockwise, during which one skater, the “jammer,” tries to score a point by passing the other skaters. Defenders, or “blockers,” try to prevent them from doing so by blocking them with their bodies, which can cause dramatic falls. Jams last only for one minute in banked track, as opposed to two minutes in flat track, which means the action is accelerated. Fletcher, along with several other newcomers, attended Tilted Thunder’s “Flight
One of the skills taught in Flight School — perhaps the most crucial — is how to avoid getting hurt. Injuries can be very bad in roller derby. Seattle’s Rat City Rollergirls has a stomach-turning “Hall of Pain” online photo gallery of injuries sustained in practice and bouts. Black eyes and multi-colored bruises are common. Though shoving and rough play are part of the sport, that’s not how the injuries tend to happen, according to Sutler-Cohen. “You get a lot of tough chicks in there,” she said. However, “Derby’s not about getting in a fistfight.” Instead, derby players tend to sustain injuries primarily from falling. Sutler-Cohen, who also attended Flight School in early 2011, hurt her ankle and developed a swollen joint at the outset of her training. She then suffered what she called “an infected triple or quadruple blister” that nearly became an abscess, only to break her leg just before the first official league bout on April 23. By the time the 80-member league debuted at Everett’s Comcast Arena, there had been three serious broken bones and one minor break among the skaters. Not surprisingly, the league has crutches and a wheelchair at their Ballard practice facility and medical personnel on site during matches. Skaters are required to wear protective gear, including helmets, knee
and elbow pads, and mouthguards. The track, which members of the league built themselves from plans ordered online, is made of masonite, which is bouncy and designed to not hurt when skaters fall on it. Though watching the women crash to the ground, one might doubt this. “I don’t know that there are any more injuries than in any other contact sport,” said Shepherd, who found herself laid up with a broken ankle in April — the first major injury she’s sustained from roller derby. Terror Misu agrees. She believes that the apparent abundance of injuries in this contact sport might be due to players bragging about, and displaying photos of, their worst bruises. “Injuries happen in every sport,” she said, adding that the time commitment exacted by roller derby is worse than the injuries. In order to get involved with the sport, you need a very organized life. “It’s a big commitment in terms of time and energy,” Fletcher agreed. “You have to have time in your life to dedicate to training yourself to be a good athlete.” Tilted Thunder is a nonprofit organization, which means the players are not paid and, in addition to attending practices and bouts, everyone involved is required to volunteer their time to keep the league up and running. “We set up as a nonprofit because we just believe in that business structure. There are no owners who are making a profit,” said Shepherd, who worked as a TV news photographer for 13 years before starting Tilted Thunder. “I quit my full time job at the TV station I was working for and started running the league full time for free,” she said. “Quite a leap of faith.” Continued on next page >
6 The Journal
May 3, 2011
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A real women’s sport
With a huge time commitment, lack of pay and the potential for crippling injuries, the question still remains: Why do so many local women play roller derby? For many of them, the sense of camaraderie and unabashed competition is what keeps them coming back for more. “The community of women in roller derby is just amazing. I found a pocket of women that’s strong and diverse,” said Shepherd. Sutler-Cohen has found it liberating to learn that being yelled at or getting roughed up while skating in a pack is not the end of the world. “You have to hug and you have to shove and be shoved, and it’s OK,” she said. “To connect your entire body with your mind is a challenge for a lot of women. ... A lot of it is so much about how well you know your body and how it operates. I think as women we’re not taught to do that.” “We’re hitting each other really hard, but it’s not personal — it’s how we play the game,” Fletcher agreed. This is something that the youngest skaters in the league, the “Peeps,” are learning. As of mid-April, Tilted Thunder had 20 junior members. The youngest is 10 years old. The oldest is 17. “It’s so interesting to see these young girls getting out there on the track and going faster than us old farts. They’re so fearless,” said Shepherd. “I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to do that. … I was a shy, quiet kid.” “When they start skating, it really changes the dynamics because they’re picking it up early,” said Fletcher. “These kids are going to be able to do this a lot longer than I am, and keep the heart in the sport.” According to the women in their lives, these young girls are learning more than just the rules of roller derby. “Teenagers have that issue with their selfesteem. Well, this is something they can do and there are all these awesome girls on the team,” said Heather Damon, aka “Barbie Beatdown” (of the name, she said, “I actually stole it from my kid.”) Her daughter, Gayle-Lynn, age 15, got her start on the Peeps team after skating with Damon and trying out derby hits with her in the garage. Though the range of ages mean some young tweens are pitted against high school girls, the Peeps are learning that each of them can compete, no matter their age or size. “There’s one girl who’s so tiny you think if she falls she’s going to break, but she just goes and goes,” said Kori Freeman, a Tilted
Photo courtesy of Danny Ngan
Photo courtesy of daniel stockman
Thunder skater from Bothell, whose 11year-old niece recently joined Peeps. The adults, who also represent a range of ages and body types, learn a similar lesson when they start playing roller derby. “The women who come to us, the majority of them have a life changing event,” said Shepherd. “They’re so supportive of each other and they seem to have so much fun.” “I never felt like I fit in [here] in Seattle until I got into roller derby,” said SutlerCohen. “All the women in this league — these are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever been in contact with in Seattle. They’re super approachable.” To Shepherd, roller derby offers a safe environment in which to do something aggressive, as well as a sense of community that causes both the adults on Tilted Thunder and the kids in Peeps to come out of their shells. “We don’t want people to be held back because it’s a scary thing,” said Shepherd, who is planning to hold another session of Flight School in late May to introduce a new crop of novices to the world of roller derby. Back at the scrimmage in Ballard, the skaters jockeyed for position as the late afternoon sun streamed through the windows of the old warehouse. One of the skaters abruptly pinned a player from the other team against the padded rail. A whistle blew shrilly. The trapped skater yelled to the referee, “She held me!” Then she turned to her offending opponent and said with a grin, “That was awesome!”
Tilted Thunder will play their second bout of the season on June 4 at Comcast Arena in Everett. For more information, visit www.tiltedthunder.com.