That’s how they roll
ROLLER DERBY: Sport takes off with mix of intensity, camaraderie
It’s a muggy Wednesday evening, and as the Monadnock Roller Derby’s practice winds down, the skating rink at New England College is a sea of brightly colored leggings, striped and mismatched socks, and a lone pair of fishnets. Girls and women decked in roller skates, helmets, knee pads and elbow pads glide gracefully around the track with the effortlessness of a stroll, calling compliments to each other as they pass. This low-key end to another night of practice may seem the polar opposite of what a contact sport looks like, especially one as rambunctious and high-energy as roller derby. But the atmosphere of camaraderie the team members have built among themselves is as inherent in the experience as any of the physical intensity.
Jess Gerrior, 36, of Antrim, who joined the women’s team, the Mad Knockers, a year ago, explains: “There’s a vibe, and, I would say, a spirit, that I haven’t found in other sports. There’s just a vicious, awesome, thrilling spirit about roller derby that I love.”
Perhaps for that reason, roller derby is staging a resurgence of sorts, although, according to Gerrior, “it’s a legitimate sport,” bearing little resemblance to the entertainment-focused image of televised roller derby from the 1970s. “I would cautiously [call it] mainstream,” she says. “It’s not like your local bridge club or ladies’ gardening club.”
A roller derby game, called a “bout,” consists of a series of two-minute “jams,” in which a designated “jammer” scores by lapping players on the opposing team. The other four players on each team, the “blockers,” help their own jammer score and try to prevent the other team’s jammer from scoring, and since both teams skate the same direction around the track, players must play offense and defense at the same time.
The girls and women of the Monadnock Roller Derby proudly display their names and numbers on their team t-shirts, which they wear to bouts with their choice of bottoms. Some team members, Gerrior says, wear straight gym or denim shorts, but “sometimes we’ll get fancy and get ruffly skirts.” Each player picks her own derby name and number. Jess Gerrior goes by #F1, “The Jessicutioner,” because, she says, “It blends well with who I feel like I am on the track. I’m straight roller derby business [then]. It’s the one time I’m not thinking about the million different things in my life.”
Helmets and pads are required, and before every bout there’s a safety check. According to Gerrior, the league takes safety very seriously: “We don’t mess around with that stuff,” she asserts. The amount of contact, she explains, also depends on the team. The Monadnock team, she says, has not reached the competitive stage of larger teams in Boston, Seattle, and Austin. She says local players will not experience “bone-crushing kinds of injuries,” but “you will see hitting, and you’ll see falling, and a lot of contact.” The game’s rules designate a legal hitting zone, which includes the torso, shoulders, and hips, but not the face or back. “Any kind of hit that’s really unsafe is probably illegal,” Gerrior says.
Sadie Cahoon, 38, of Antrim, the Monadnock Roller Derby’s treasurer and coach for the juniors’ team, the Mad Miss Fits, echoes Gerrior’s attention to safety. Junior teams, which consist of players under the age of 18, play on three levels, based on their experience. At the first level, she says, there is no contact; players simply learn to skate. At the second, they learn positional blocking, in which they skate in front of the jammer without any hitting. Around the age of 13, she says, players “get competitive” and want to use contact, and on the third level they learn to do so safely. Adult teams follow the same progression, she says, and it takes new adult players about 12 weeks to be ready to start hitting.
The perks of being
a roller derbyer
The progress from new skater to full-on player in a contact sport may seem a bit fast, but it’s a key part of the confidence boost that roller derby provides for so many of its team members. According to Cahoon, a new player will observe moves and skills she never thinks she could accomplish, and, within weeks, she’ll be doing them herself. Cahoon has experienced that very feeling since she got involved with the league at its inception five years ago: “If I can do roller derby,” she says, “I can do anything.”
Ally Fife, 15, of Antrim, who plays on the juniors’ team, has also applied lessons from the track to her everyday life, including working cohesively with a team and a sense of independence. “I’m the jammer in my problems,” she says.
Ally’s mother, Karen Fife, whose derby number is “40-ish,” says she also appreciates the team camaraderie. “As physical as it can get,” she says, “as soon as the game’s over, you’re hugging, and you’re like, ‘That was awesome!’” Karen, whose oldest daughter, 17, also plays roller derby, makes a customary pre-game meal, a rice dish with garbanzo beans and chicken stock for a protein and carb load. She says the team has other pre-game rituals, like specific songs “to get us pumped.” Her daughter chimes in with the name of a song: Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” “It’s the only time I actually listen to rap,” she admits. Gerrior says the team has a tradition of an after-party following every bout, where members of drinking age will have a beer. They also have an end-of-season party; last year, Gerrior says, there was an award specifically for each player.
Roller derby provides players with more than just a feeling of belonging, including stress management and fitness. Cahoon says she uses the sport for exercise: she started in part to get back in shape after having her third child, and now that she’s had her fourth, she’s back. Karen Fife also says she “love[s] the fitness aspect.” But whether it’s for health, confidence, or friendships, the Monadnock Roller Derby is hoping more people will join them.
Cahoon is “super excited,” she says, about the new 5-plus junior league opening in the fall, which is not just for girls. She knows parents are likely to have safety concerns, so, she says, the league will host parents’ nights. “My five-year-old is going to be in there. She’s not going to have contact,” she asserts.
Gerrior also draws attention to the fact that the Monadnock Roller Derby has no men’s team yet. “We hope more men will step forward and be part of this,” she says. She suggests that anyone, male or female, adult or child, looking to become a roller derby player attend a few practices, scrimmages, or bouts. “Go to as many of those as possible to learn what it’s like, what you see working and what you see not working,” she advises. “Teams are really open to sharing.”
The teams also want to see more people in the stands, Gerrior says, “even if they think it’s not their thing.” She hopes to assure people that roller derby isn’t a cult, and that it doesn’t match the stereotype the media used to portray. “[People] might be surprised when they go out and see how fun it is.”