Hell on Wheels

Courtesy of Bruce Berna

Hell on Wheels

It’s strategy, brute force and laser focus. And it’s all women.

On the first whistle, the pent-up, helmeted pack of eight blockers—four from each team—take off on quad-wheeled skates around the flat, oval track. Three seconds later, a second whistle blows and two jammers—the scorer for each team—dash off their line set 10 feet back. When they reach the pack, the jammers start twisting, scrambling, and leaping their way through the roiling, shoving mass of rolling blockers. For every member of the opposing team a jammer passes, they score a point.

Within two minutes, it’s over. That’s a jam.

“They’re like plays in football,” says Anna Krajcik, aka Grace Killy, with the Brewcity Bruisers from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These bursts of frenzy continue over two 30-minute periods to make up a game—or bout—of roller derby.

“It’s a feeling of intense focus because so much is going on out there,” says Nicole Armendariz, aka VerucAssault, a blocker with the Bruisers. “I have to dial in that focus and intensity right off the whistle. It’s very much like you explode and calm down and explode again.” Those moments of calm between jams last 30 seconds. By then, the skaters have scuttled back behind their starting lines and the whistle blows again.

This fast-growing, full-contact sport with its layers of physicality and mental fortitude seems to embrace what many women unconsciously seek these days. “You just feel strong,” says Alex France, aka Franny Panties, a blocker with the Rage City Rollergirls in Anchorage, Alaska. “We work hard. We put in literal blood sometimes. And when you get that one clean hit and knock that jammer off the track, you feel like nothing can stop you.”

Not Your Grandma’s Derby

Today’s roller derby has come a long way from days of yore on late night TV. “Most people think we wear fishnets and punch people,” says Franny, a visual designer. “There’s still moments of that quirkiness with people in costumes or fishnets, but we’re real athletes, and we work our butts off to develop our skills.”

It’s not unusual for team members to spend eight hours a week on skates in practice and scrimmages, plus cross-train on their own time. Game days are another six hours. “It’s usually 10 to 20 hours a week on derby for me,” Franny says, who also serves on the Bruiser’s board of directors. “It’s like having an additional job.” “A job that you love and don’t get paid for,” adds her teammate Angela Ramirez, aka Sarah Impale’em.

Courtesy of Freeze Frame Photography

Round and Round

Reinvented in 2005 by a group of women into the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the sport has now spread across the globe with 470 independent leagues run by the skaters, all volunteer, often nonprofit, and with rules determined by the skaters and participants, including officials, through the federation. As the name implies, the sport now gets played on flat, not banked, tracks. “Because it’s cheaper and you can play anywhere,” says Impale’em.

The leagues play in anything from old skating rinks, warehouses and college basketball arenas to helipads. “In Okanawa [Japan], we skated in airline hangers,” recalls Impale’em. When the teams arrived for the tournament, though, they found oil patches on the cement from the planes. “So all the girls got on their hands and knees and scrubbed that floor until it was clean. Then they had the game,” she says. Franny adds, “We just want to skate.”

Name Game

Franny Panties chose her name from “two things a girl can count on—her own sassy self and a sensible pair of undergarments.” Grace Killy’s nom de plume honors the elegant actress of the fifties, Grace Kelly.

The pseudonyms are a big part of the sport. Pina Collider, Tricerablocks, Nicolas Rage, CupQuake, Pity DaFoo, Sexual Innurendo, Yoko Oh No! The puns are endless. As are the homages to the famous and revered.

“There used to be a registry,” Killy says. Then the sport boomed in popularity. “It became impossible to keep up after 20,000 skaters joined, so they shut it down.” Now new members just try to avoid duplicating names of other skaters in their region.

Blockers and Jammers

The full contact play on the track leads people to falsely assume roller derby is about raw aggression. However, it is really no more so than other contact sports such as football or rugby. “You’re focused on the game and what your job is,” says Impale’em, a blocker. “I’m never angry, never frustrated. I’m calm, collected.”

For blockers, the jam is a constant search for both jammers, while always trying to be near a teammate to help form an effective obstacle. “When you’re blocking, a lot of what you’re doing is stopping the momentum of someone,” explains VerucAssault. “If you’re naturally stronger or bigger, then it’s easier to stop someone in their tracks using your body,” she says, especially a smaller, lighter jammer. For blockers who don’t have the bulk, “they run up to someone and do a spin or a set of tricks to take that momentum away.”

Jammers, on the other hand, “need much fancier footwork,” says Savannah Atkinson, aka Fancy Nasty with the Garden State Rollergirls in New Jersey. After four years as a blocker, she switched to the jammer position this season and has been mastering the new moves, including the Mohawk. “You’re literally skating sideways—with one skate facing forward and one facing backward—as you get around someone. Then you put your weight all on the forward foot and swing your body and back foot to face frontward again. It’s difficult,” she says.

Meanwhile, the blockers are forming human walls, and slamming shoulders and hips into anything that might stop a jammer, while simultaneously interfering with opposing blockers to help their own jammer advance. Now throw in the position of pivot, which is a blocker who can take over as the jammer at certain times, and roller derby gets seriously complicated.


Freeze Frame Photography

“Everyone, when you mention roller derby, brings up what they used to watch in the 70s,” says Nasty. “It looked brutal, but nothing was really happening. We’ve evolved so far—no more clotheslining or elbows to the face. Now it’s about control and strategically scoring points. The days of the big hits are over.”

But then she laughs and says, “But there’s still plenty of injury. It’s not dramatic hits, but the hits are still strong. They’re effective and they hurt, but they don’t look like a whole big thing like they used to.”

“We’re both covered in bruises right now,” Franny says, describing her and teammate Impale’em’s upper arms covered in splotches of fingerprint bruises from teammates grabbing hold.  “If you have a really good bruise, you post it and have everyone ooh and aah at it,” she laughs. “If it’s a really good shiner, you gotta show it off.”

Nasty says her 30-year-old knees are toast and resemble a 70-year-old’s. Her feet also get ravaged. “Like any sport that requires your feet, you lose a lot of toenails. They don’t grow back. But then your skin just gets hard, so it’s fine,” she says nonchalantly.

When the sport first started, knee injuries and torn ACLs took out skaters. Now it’s ankles that break. “But what impacts your ability to stay in the sport is concussion,” says Killy, who’s been skating with the Bruisers since they started in 2006. Rule changes and equipment have evolved to help thwart them though. The women wear pads on their elbows, knees and wrists, along with a helmet. The strike zone is limited to the torso down to mid-thigh and out to the upper arms. No spine or face strikes are allowed and the use of elbows or hands to strike is not allowed.

Interestingly, the brain damage does not result from direct impact to the head. “A lot of concussion happens because jammers are coming at very high speed into a very slow-moving group,” explains Killy. That change of speed—or a body slam from a side impact—can whip the head back and forth or side to side, causing the brain to hit the inside of the skull. “People say, ‘But weren’t you wearing a helmet?’” says VerucAssault. “Of course we were. But that’s not going to help.”

Come One, Come All

“In other sports, you get in because you’re talented in some area of that sport. You don’t have that in derby,” says Impale’em, who works as an insurance agent. “You can literally not know how to skate, and we will teach you the skills you need to be successful in the sport.”

Most women arrive clueless but passionate. “They all come to the sport for a different reason,” says Impale’em. “But there’s always a commonality—something in their life that wasn’t fulfilled, and derby is where they found that home.”

Until recently, woman wanting to play would spend months and even a year learning the sport in their league’s boot camp and scrimmages. But in the last eight years or so, many of the leagues have formed junior programs for girls—and recently boys—anywhere from ages 8 to 17 to learn and compete with each other.

In their junior program, Anchorage-based Rage City has 30 members after only three years. That’s three more skaters than on their adult league. “We had to slow the recruiting on juniors because we didn’t have enough coaches,” says Franny.

“We’re starting to see juniors level up,” Milwaukee’s Killy says. Skaters must be at least 18 to compete in derby, according to WFTDA rules. “Pikazoom was in the juniors. So she’s a rookie, but with eight years of experience. That’s a crazy new dynamic for the sport now.”

A Diverse Body of Women

The assortment of body shapes and ages on derby teams runs the full gamut. “Our newest is 18, and just last week a women had her fiftieth birthday,” says New Jersey’s Nasty, whose paying job is writing young adult books about mermaids.

Killy, who’s been skating for 13 years since the Bruisers began, is now in her late 40s. “Frequently, it’s the older skaters who are on the all-star teams,” adds her teammate VerucAssault. “Ability doesn’t depend on age; a lot of it is skill and knowledge.”

“There’s a place for every sort of body on the team, and we need all of those at every given jam,” says Franny Pants. Her teammate Impale’em just hit 56.

Literally every height and shape can be found on the teams. What’s a failing in other sports is a boon in roller derby, a tell-tale sign of the diverse skills and strategies utilized in the sport. “We’ll be out lunching and see someone with a big rear, and we turn to each other and say, ‘That girl should be playing roller derby,’” laughs VerucAssault.

What You’re Missing

In Anchorage, the Rage City Rollers average around 300 fans per bout. The Brewcity Bruisers draw in about 1,000. “Our fan demographic is a woman, middle-class, educated, from 25 to 40 years old who lives here locally,” says VerucAssault, who works as a press secretary for a local county.

She says there’s two important things about roller derby that people misjudge. “It’s a real sport and we’re athletes,” she stresses firmly. “We don’t get paid, but we train incredibly hard, and we play a high-level game.”

Then she adds that roller derby has a little more fun than other sports. “We do not take ourselves quite as seriously, but the sport is taken incredibly seriously. And people make a lot of sacrifice in their lives for this sport they love.”

For Franny Panties, the problem for roller derby so far has been “that people view it as a kitschy ‘mom-by-day and roller derby-by-night thing.” But she sees a rising tide of potential popularity for the sport with the growing #metoo and women’s movements. “What says women’s empowerment more than really bad ass women on skates doing what they love and hitting hard!”

Halftime. Like any good sport, many roller derby bouts include a halftime show. The Gotham Girls in NYC have the Jeerleaders. In St. Louis, they have the Fearleaders, with a Goth vibe. For the Brewcity Bruisers, it’s the Beerleaders (pictured). As diverse in shape and age as the team they cheer for, and every bit as devoted, the Beerleaders create and perform a choreographed dance and cheer routine at every halftime to a mash-up of songs set to a theme, from artists like Michael Jackson or Queen.