Skate escapes

Columbia women's roller derby team stages a comeback
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
The CoMo Derby Dames chant a team cheer after their practice session at the Empire Roller Rink on April 16 in Columbia.

They wear bruises on their upper thighs and splinters in their behinds (and they aren’t afraid to ask a teammate to grab the tweezers to remove a sliver of rink).  Their uniforms are a hodge-podge of fishnet stockings and striped knee socks, short skirts and tight tank tops. They are covered in smelly kneepads, smelly elbow pads, smelly wrist guards, helmets and mouthpieces.  They give each other tips on which makeup sticks best when you sweat. They do lunges, pushups and sprints — all on roller skates. They each have their own outrageous names and rink personas, but they all hit with their shoulders and block with their butts for the same team.

These are the CoMo Derby Dames.


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Reviving the sport

It started a couple of years ago, with a couple of nasty breakups. Instead of going back into the dating world, Roxy Horror and Bitchie Valens — those are their rink names — sat around with Ben & Jerry and reality TV, and stumbled across the 2006 A&E production “Rollergirls,” which followed the women of the roller derby team in Austin, Texas. They hooked up with a third friend, who you can call Foxy Four-Stroke, and decided to start a roller derby league in Columbia. They were looking for exercise, entertainment and friendship — a combination that solo sports such as kickboxing and yoga didn’t give them.  

On Jan. 4, 2007, Roxy and Bitchie and Foxy gathered 20 friends and friends-of-friends at Columbia’s Empire Roller Rink for the first practice of what was then called the Destruction Junction Derby Dames, later shortened to CoMo Derby Dames. As word got out, more and more women started showing up. And not just here, but everywhere around the country, sparking a revival in a sport that refuses to be laughed at.

Say “roller derby” and lots of people imagine butch women with tattoos and piercings who get in bar fights and work crappy, low-wage jobs. Or they remember a tricked-out Raquel Welch in the 1972 cult film “Kansas City Bombers.” Slashing fingernails, flying fannies, hair-pulling, skate-tripping and skin. Lots of skin. Think mud-wrestling without the mud.

It wasn’t always so. In 1922, a roller derby just meant a long race on skates. By the Great Depression, roller derby became a form of entertainment led by failed film publicist Leo Seltzer. Weird marathons were the craze, and Seltzer formed the Transcontinental Roller Derby, an event featuring 50 people roller-skating on a track for more than 3,000 miles. Seltzer began to notice that collisions and wild pile-ups got the audience riled up. Thus the art of whipping, blocking, slamming, jamming and falling was born.

With the addition of physical contact, roller derby became both sport and spectacle.  It evolved into bouts between two teams of five, with points scored whenever a member of one team lapped a member of the other. Early television made roller derby a national phenomenon through the 1950s and ’60s. But by the ’70s, it had lost its novelty, and the audience was primarily the lower class; when advertisers realized those watching couldn’t afford what they were selling, sponsorship dried up and derby was cut from primetime. What little survived took on the salacious taint of World Wrestling Entertainment.

Then in 2000, a group of women in Austin started Bad Girl Good Woman Productions, a roller derby league that took the sport back to its roots and rebooted its popularity. The league started with four teams in 2002. By 2005 there were more than 50 teams. By mid-2006, there were 135.  

Today, there are an estimated 250 roller derby teams around the country. The game and the women in it are defining themselves on new terms.

Finding their place in the rink

A.J. Harrison didn’t play sports growing up, but she was definitely one of the tough girls on the playground at her Columbia elementary school. When some kids bullied her younger brother, she stuck her foot out and tripped the ringleader.  She told her teacher she didn’t mean to, but the bullies never messed with her brother again.  

Her middle and high school years, as she remembers, were pretty typical. She was shy — a bookworm. Her seventh grade arch-nemesis told A.J. she looked like the television character “Blossom.”  A.J. still thinks the comment is evil. It was also in seventh grade that A.J. discovered her passion for history. People fascinate her. “Dead people are even more interesting,” A.J. says with a laugh, although she really means it. Majoring in art history and archeology seemed like a good idea.  

After graduating from MU in 2000, she tried to find a job that put her degree to use but ended up working at a health food store. She describes the first couple of years after college as “learning how to be a person.” A few too many nights were spent partying with “The Columbia Rock Stars,” a group of friends who played in basement bands and were into the hipster scene. A.J. slipped into what she calls a “white-trash” life. So it shouldn’t be surprising, she says, that this led to an arrest for fighting outside a bar. But in 2004, she got pregnant and decided it was time to quit the scene.

If you think this is where A.J.’s story turns into a Lifetime movie, think again. After her daughter Vivian was born, A.J. got a job at Timeline Recruiting as a physicians’ staffing consultant. She had recently moved back to Columbia after a brief stint in Savannah, Ga., and was looking for something to take her mind off her failing marriage. A friend talked her into roller derby. By day, A.J. Harrison plays the dutiful worker and soccer mom. But on the rink, she is Momma Knee Ya. She rolls out in a blue miniskirt with the number 69 drawn on her arm. She is one of the strongest players on the team, a member of the coaching committee and something of a mother figure to the other women.

Chrissy Darby wasn’t much into sports either, but was talked into derby by a friend from high school. Now Chrissy — known as Roller Darby by her kids, Nate, 5, and Riley, 3, and called Slamrock by her teammates — looks to Momma for guidance both on and off the rink, which is especially convenient since they work in adjacent cubicles at Timeline Recruiting. She recently asked Momma if she thought it was OK to take the kids to see the movie “Caroline.”

 “Momma was like, ‘Do not take them to see that!’ so we rented 'Horton Hears a Who!' instead,” Slamrock told the other mothers one day at practice.  

Slamrock has become one of the Derby Dames’ powerhouses. She often leads practices, skating in green-and-black knee socks, green sequined underwear and a green derby T-shirt from two seasons ago.

Maya Wallace goes by the name Adderoller. She takes roller derby seriously; in two-and-a-half years she has only missed four practices, and her teammates tease that she never takes off her skates. When she isn’t skating, she is training to be an EMT or working the MU concession stands. And no matter what she’s doing, she’s eating. If a belch is heard on the rink, you can blame Adderoller.

“Do any of you guys want some nachos?” she blares at a practice.

“We are skating in 10 minutes! No, nine minutes!” Roxy yells back, warning her.

“Hey, it’s Adderoller,” Bitchie says. “The worst that will happen is she’ll go puke and then be right back out there.”  

One of the few things Adderoller loves more than food is women’s roller derby.  

“If I were a guy,” she confesses, “I would get a sex change.”

Rarely a missed workout

The Dames cling to the vaudeville nature of roller derby, letting you think they are just putting on a show. They will be the first to tell you how much fun it is to have an alter ego that allows them to be someone else for a couple of hours each week. But this is no halfhearted commitment. The sport and this team have become much more for them than entertainment.

The roller derby “season” runs pretty much all year, with practices three nights a week and 12 bouts — eight all-star bouts against other teams and four intraleague scrimmages. Team members seldom miss practice, because missing practice means not only missing a workout, but missing out on two hours with some of their best friends. At a bout in early April, Bucks ’Em Butterfly — Candace Reed when she is working at Reed Heating and Air — tore her medial collateral ligament, which helps to stabilize the knee joint. The doctor said she didn’t need surgery, thanks to her strong derby legs, but should take it easy for awhile. She came to the following practice just to hang out, but left early; she couldn’t stand not being out on the rink with the others.

A few weeks ago, Momma Knee Ya came down with a nasty flu, and was too drained to make the endurance practice. But how else was she supposed to relieve the stress of managing a 3½-year-old daughter, a full-time job and a messy divorce? So at the next practice, Momma stayed after for open skate, weaving her way through college students, high schoolers and, unfortunately, Momma says, families.

“I hate it when the kids are here,” she grumbled after side-stepping a 9-year-old who fell in the inside lane. “I mean, come on. It’s 9:30 p.m. Isn’t it your bed time yet?” But she concedes that open skate is great practice for keeping her sailor mouth in check and maneuvering around mayhem.  

Before roller derby, only a few of the Dames had been on skates since childhood birthday parties. Some had never skated at all. When the team was starting out, it shared a coach for a few months with the St. Louis derby team. After that, the Dames began to coach themselves, learning drills from online videos and by watching other teams.  

The women went from not knowing how to skate to investing hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars in the sport. Skates range from $170 for a rookie set to $585 for pro gear. Pads can cost $50 to $150 a set, but no matter what they cost, it doesn’t take long for them to smell. And not just a moist-towel smell. They smell like cat piss and rotten milk, old sweat and stale Febreze. No one washes them because it wouldn’t help if they did. The pads stink up the rink and the trunks of their cars and everything the Dames touch, but that doesn’t stop them from tugging them on, then hugging each other after a bout. It’s just another cost of the game.

The Derby Dames operate as a non-profit organization. Team members each pay $50 a month in dues: $40 toward rink rent and $10 to the league. Money for bouts comes from fundraising by selling ads in the bout programs. They abide by the rules of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, even though they aren’t yet officially part of the WFTDA. The Dames met the association’s basic requirements for skill and leadership last year, but felt they weren’t quite ready to seek official sanction.  This year, though, they have a stronger support staff and member participation in the various committees that keep the team going: marketing, recruitment, events, sponsorship, revenue and coaching. That’s another investment the women make in the team: Everyone must serve on at least one committee and attend meetings every two weeks.

Plus, each team member is required to carry health insurance. There have been broken fingers, broken ankles and broken ribs.

Simply skating

Roller skating isn’t for the faint of heart or timid of body, especially when you don’t know how. When you first start out, you fall. A lot. As you dive face-first toward the rink, you pray you don’t break your wrist. You worry about your neck because you get whiplash when your feet move forward but the rest of your body stays behind. You blush, trying to remember if you were this bad the last time you skated as a kid. You pick up one foot and push off with the other, thinking this will propel you forward, but all you do is trip the skater behind you. A blister forms on your right foot. You look to the other skaters for guidance. You notice they don’t lift their skates that often. Instead they move by shifting their hips (like only women can). They lean with their body weight. They have the sense to change directions to even out the number of blisters on each foot. They skate low. They skate on one leg. They sprint so when a bout begins, they can get a head start. They make skating look so easy, so flawless.

You know better.  

Game on

The team’s first big bout of the season takes place in Eureka Springs, Ark. The Derby Dames need to be prepared. In last year’s Showdown against the Backwood Betties, the Derby Dames only won by two points. This year, the Dames want to crush the Betties.

The bout is held over the Mardi Gras weekend, and both teams are invited to be in the town parade — an event that mirrors the novelty that Eureka Springs has become. Look one way, and you see a fat, flamboyant man dressed head-to-toe in curly-cue ribbon, carrying a parasol draped in rainbow-colored boas. Turn 180 degrees and look up, where Christ of the Ozarks is waiting to save you. Christ is seven stories tall and two tons of pure concrete. Built in 1966 as the focal point of a religious theme park that never materialized, the statue is now just a popular tourist attraction. Eureka Springs has managed to remain a destination for religious seekers, NewAge artists and gays seeking safe haven or a funky getaway.  

Parade over, the Dames head to the roller rink. It’s not very large, and there are no seats for spectators, who line up around the edge of the rink or sit cross-legged on the floor, just far enough away from the action to not have fingers or toes run over, but close enough that if a skater is knocked down, a few of them will get hit. The Dames are too focused on their upcoming match with the Betties to worry about the crowd. They start their warm-up with the usual stretches. But there’s none of the usual chatter — about husbands, children, jobs, school — that accompany practices.  Tonight it’s all business.  

“I’m not nervous,” Momma says, “but I get a little anxious before I see how it’s going to be.”

Ten women take the rink. Each team has a jammer, the only player who can score points. Four skaters from each team act as blockers, trying to stop the opposing team’s jammer and clear a path for their own. The pivot, or lead skater, manages the pack of blockers and sets the pace. Helmet panties (spandex covers that fit over the helmets) differentiate the positions — jammers in stars, pivots in stripes, regular blockers in blank helmets.  

Each race is called a jam, and each jam can last up to two minutes. When the jam begins, the blockers take off in a pack. When the last blocker has crossed the starting line, the jammers charge in, trying to catch the pack and work their way through all eight skaters to score. Teams get one point for each opposing player the jammer passes legally and in bounds.  

Roller derby isn’t a bar brawl. There are rules: no grabbing, no pulling, no tripping. No clotheslining your opponents, no elbowing them in the stomach. If you do any of these things, you are sent to the penalty box. That’s not to say these things don’t happen, because they do.

Fight to win

Momma is right to be a little anxious before the bout. The Derby Dames get off to a rocky start. Skaters are thrown into the penalty box for cutting the track (going out of bounds and then re-entering the track in front of an opponent), and the Betties are holding their own. Much like basketball, roller derby is back-and-forth sport when it comes to scoring, and it can be hard to get a strong lead. The Betties score seven points; the Derby Dames score three. In the next jam, the Betties don’t score at all; the Derby Dames score nine. And so it goes for the first half.

But something shifts during the half-time pep talk. The ladies aren’t standing in a circle talking about how much this sport empowers them, though it does. And they aren’t talking about how cute their miniskirts are, even though they are very stylish.  They aren’t worried about their makeup smudging or whether their tank tops ride too high when they turn the corner. Instead, the coach is telling them they need to be more aggressive. They need to fight if they want to win.

When the teams comes back onto the rink, and Adderoller skates a grand slam for five points (when the jammer laps the opposing team’s pack and jammer), the energy in the roller rink escalates. The Derby Dames start scoring more in each jam than the Betties can make up. Within five minutes, it’s clear the Dames are going to win the Showdown, and this year, by more than just two points. The final score: 83-68.

In 2007, the Dames went undefeated. Last year, they lost three games, but played more advanced teams. So far this year, they have won one and lost one.

Turning stereotypes on their heads

When it comes down to it, the roller girls want to be recognized as athletes. The fact that they wear short skirts and sexy tops doesn’t mean they don’t work their buns off.  But the sport isn’t the only thing that draws them to practice three days a week. They come so they can spend time in a rare fellowship of women, women who celebrate each other and inspire each other and don’t judge each other.

“Roller derby to me is a group of women from every single walk of life that you could possibly imagine coming together and just being strong and getting together as a team and also making a large group of friends that you can count on for the rest of your lives,” says Adderoller, “I have a group of 30 friends here with me that I have never had before at any point in my life.”

Those 30 or so friends include lawyers, doctors, teachers, students, wives and mothers.

One of them is Dethblock, known to her husband as Jennifer Schnell. Both Bill and Jennifer Schnell remember watching the campy old-style roller derby on TV when they were kids. Years later, the same documentary that inspired Roxy and Bitchie to start a team inspired Jennifer/Dethblock to join them.  

“She was very excited and gave it a go,” Bill Schnell says. “We never really looked back.”

Nor has he ever found reason to question its influence on their daughter, 8-month-old Sophie. Roller derby is far less violent than football or hockey. And derby culture offers fine role models.

“Any negativity that people might think of or assume about the violence or the outfits is heavily outweighed by how empowering the sport is for women,” Schnell says.  “(Women) are the sports heroes for roller derby, and the men are just relegated to being supporters. I look forward to bringing up Sophie around that.”  

Indeed, roller derby flips the secondary status of women on its head. Here, women are the only eligible participants, and are completely in charge. Roxy Horror says that participating in derby teaches skills you need in the business world. Being one of the go-to women in the league, Roxy, who now checks her derby e-mail account compulsively, says her time management has also improved.

“(The team) will ask you to do things that you would never want to do,” Roxy says.  “Secretarial work! Paperwork!”

(Oh, in case you’re wondering, Roxy Horror prefers that her off-rink name be kept private. She wants to keep her work life and her derby life separate. Bitchie Valens, who started all this with her, is otherwise known as Adriene Weller. She teaches at the Macher Swim School and is an assistant coach on the Mid-Missouri Aquatic Club. The third musketeer, Foxy Four-Stroke, has since moved to Chicago where she goes by the more mundane name of Jessie Lewis.)

Roxy, Momma, Slamrock, Adderoller, Dethblock, Bucks ’Em, Foxy, Bitchie — wherever they come from out there, and whatever they call themselves when they get here, they all agree: Being around all these women who are working just as hard as you motivates you to try even harder.

Forgetting about cares and cellulite

Roller derby isn’t supposed to be easy. It isn’t designed to feel good. Except when you’ve had a really crappy day at the office, and all you want to do is scream at your boss, but instead you get to scream at the blocker who let the jammer through the pack. Or when your babysitter bailed on your Friday date night with your husband (who is now referred to as a derby widow because you are never home), and you can come to practice and skate so fast you forget you have cellulite.  It feels good to know that instead of yelling at your husband for not doing dishes, you can ram your shoulder into your best friend for trying to skate past you. You might pull into your driveway with a big bruise or a broken finger, but you won’t have the temper and frustration you started the night with. Instead, you walk through the front door with a happy heart, sculpted calves and a tight ass.  

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