By Nicole Shein | Photo by Brandon Vick
They range in age from early 20s to late 40s. They are single, married, lesbian, straight; some of them have teenage children, while some are still nursing newborns. Many have tattoos and funky-colored hair, but others look like they’ve stepped right out of the boardroom. They are your kids’ teacher, the pharmacist who fills your prescription, your hair stylist, the soccer mom cheering in the stands next to you. Some have played sports all their lives, but a lot of them are unlikely athletes.
They are the women of Roc City Roller Derby.
The one constant among these diverse women is their love of this sport, which has evolved throughout most of last century. Gone are the days when teams of skaters competed in marathon races for cash prizes; gone is the staged, often violent spectacle that transfixed 1970s TV audiences. In its contemporary incarnation, women’s flat-track roller derby remains a full-contact sport, but also incorporates strategic plays that rely on simultaneous offense and defense. And yes—there are also fishnets and funny, punning skater names.
Played on a large, oval track, a roller derby bout consists of two 30-minute periods, further broken down into two-minute “jams,” during which five skaters compete for each team. Only one player from each team, the “jammer,” is allowed to score points by passing the other team’s skaters. The others, called “blockers,” attempt to prevent the opposing jammer from getting past, while at the same time helping their own jammer through the pack. Shoulder- and hip-checks are allowed, but moves like tripping, punching, elbowing and pushing other skaters are punishable penalties. Make no mistake—these women are real athletes, not actors.
“Roller derby is a serious athletic endeavor that hasn’t lost its fun side,” says Brianne Wojtesta, who not only skates under the nom de derby Harriet Beecher Ass, but also serves as the league’s president. “The modern revival, and Roc City in particular, does a great job of balancing these aspects. We can be strong and sexy and silly and serious all at the same time. We don’t have to be pigeonholed.”
Wojtesta, 32, has been involved with RCRD almost since its inception in 2008, and has watched it grow from a grassroots gathering of women into an organization that has over 100 members, both male and female. Currently there are three home teams—the 5-H8-5s, the Rottenchesters and the Midtown Maulers—and two travel teams, the Roc Stars and the B-Sides.
Although the players, in their fishnets or patterned tights, sparkly short-shorts and outrageous makeup, tend to take center stage, the league is also comprised of coaches, referees, non-skating officials, announcers, photographers and many other dedicated volunteers. One of these is 37-year-old Colleen Brennan-Barry, aka Col Lision, for whom the love of derby was love at first sight.
“The minute I walked into the Dome Arena, I saw amazing, funky, athletic women with incredible, unique personalities doing something they loved AND raising money to build the local community,” says Brennan-Barry. “It was like a switch flipped and I knew I HAD to be a part of that team. Even though I do not skate, and never plan to, there was absolutely a place for me.”
Brennan-Barry, who works as a web communications manager, quickly found that place in the middle of the track, as a non-skating official. She’s also done bout production and volunteer coordination duties, and is currently a board member.
“There’s a true joy in being part of the league,” she says. “This is a group of strong, funny, smart people from all walks of life, who embrace and encourage diversity, self-expression, and individuality in all its forms. I’ve lost some “free” time, but gained a second “family” who loves me for who and what I am, but always supports me as I keep reaching forward to evolve, to be more.”
No one involved with Roc City Roller Derby gets paid; in fact, skaters pay to play, and it can get pricey, between dues, insurance fees and the cost of their gear. Derby girls agree, however, that no matter what the cost, playing this sport is worth every penny. What do they get in return? Empowerment, camaraderie, confidence, sisterhood, and in some cases, even radical transformation. Stories abound of women who, after joining their local roller derby league, find the strength and self-esteem to rewrite their own stories, whether by leaving an unhappy marriage, going back to school, starting their own business or otherwise pursuing a dream that had previously been placed on hold.
“This sport changes people in some really profound ways,” explains Wojtesta. “Women find themselves when they learn how to be strong, how to be assertive without being aggressive, how to be competent on the track and off.”
Roller derby, unlike many sports, is accessible to women of all ages, and skaters’ bodies are as diverse as their backgrounds. There are no restrictions on height or weight; in fact, there are strategic advantages to being full-figured—just as there are to being small and skinny, or tall and average-sized, or any other physique.
“It’s not about what type of body you have, it’s about how you use it,” Wojtesta laughs. “There are all different bodies in the big leagues. As long as you are the best you that you can be? You’ll be good at derby.”
Another attractive aspect of the sport, for many women, is the chance to give back to the community. Every Roc City Roller Derby bout is also a fundraising event, with a different charity spotlighted each time the women skate. Previous recipients have included Breast Impressons, Soujourner House, Mary Cariola Children’s Center, and the Animal Services League. In addition, RCRD has an ongoing partnership with Sample Soap, which collects sample-sized toiletries and other personal care items and distributes them to needy citizens.
This generosity is also highly visible within the derby community itself. When a skater is injured, her teammates and other league members pitch in to provide meals, rides to medical appointments, and of course, emotional support. Although players are required to wear safety gear that includes elbow and knee pads, wrist guards, helmets and mouthguards—the refs check equipment at the beginning of every bout—this is still a full-contact sport that’s played on wheels, so injuries are fairly common. There’s a saying in roller derby: “It’s not if you get hurt, but when.”
“Coming back from injuries is the biggest challenge for me, and for a lot of the women,” admits Lorelei Eschbach, aka Lethal Lorelei. The 24-year-old lab technician began her skating career with Buffalo’s Queen City Roller Girls before getting involved with RCRD. “The first bout I played here, I sprained my PCL [posterior cruciate ligament, one of the four major ligaments of the knee], and I was out for eight months.”
And then there’s the “nine-month injury,” as some skaters jokingly refer to pregnancy. Many roller derby players are mothers, who appreciate the chance not only to do something so physically and emotionally empowering, but also to show their children that involvement with team sports doesn’t have to end after college, that it’s never too late to be an athlete, and that finding your passion can take many forms.
Erika DeSalvo is a speech-language pathologist and mother of two young boys who skates under the name Roxy D. Sniper. Although she acknowledges that juggling sport, work and family can be difficult, she’s also seen firsthand how her involvement with derby positively impacts her kids.
“Derby is hard—like, exponentially hard. You have to keep practicing a skill over and over to get good at it, and there is always something new to learn, no matter how good of a skater you are,” says DeSalvo, 36. “It teaches them that when something is hard, you keep working at it until you’ve succeeded, and then you set more goals for yourself. I actually used this example when my son was struggling with homework one night, and it made sense to him.”
Although she’s not sure her sons, ages 5 and 7, fully understand the sport, DeSalvo says that they’ve gotten to know the other players’ kids, and love to watch her skate in bouts.
“They get a kick out of me going to the penalty box,” she adds. “That’s like Mom’s time out!”
This past fall, Roc City Roller Derby became a member league in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the sport’s international governing body. This confers a number of benefits, including a voice in shaping the sport’s rules and regulations, access to insurance, and eligibility for rankings, sanctioned interleague play and tournament participation. Beginning in February, both the Roc Stars and the B-Sides will be traveling around the East Region to pit their skating prowess against other leagues. The home season kicks off in the summer.
RCRD’s growth is keeping pace with that of the sport in general, which has been rapidly expanding both here in the U.S. and internationally. “I hope derby keeps growing the way it is,” says Eschbach, who recently attended the inaugural Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto. “There’s even talk that it might become an Olympic sport, which would be super exciting.”
To learn more about Roc City Roller Derby, including information on bout dates, season tickets, or how you can become involved with the league, please visit www.rocderby.com.