Strong women on little wheels
At the rink with the Nor Cal Roller Girls
They gather to practice on Thursday nights at Cal Skate, down by the freeway on Carmichael Avenue in Chico, a couple dozen women who range in age from late teens to mid 40s, with skate names like Crunch Ya Numbaz, Diva Smackin’ Tire, Sister Mary Hate, One Hit Wonder and Ringo Death Starr.
Some are married, some single. Some are moms, some aren’t. Some are professional women, some are students, and some are looking for work, but all of them love this sport, love the physicality of it, the release of tension and frustration that builds up at work or at home, all of it played out on the flat track.
This isn’t the banked-track roller derby of a few decades back, when the appeal was a lot like professional wrestling, with hordes of Jerry Springer-style fans turning out to see women knock each other’s teeth out with their elbows and knees. There’s a thriving flat-track roller-derby subculture out there, with its own language, postures and attitudes, but this ain’t your grandma’s version of the sport.
The Chico team is known as the Nor Cal Roller Girls. Veteran skater Jessica Verardi, 34, says roller derby is where “I use my aggression on the track, channeling frustrations and letting them go.”
“Does it help to be a mean girl?” I’d asked her the night we first met, as her teammates drifted in and began donning their gear in preparation for practice, getting ready for their next bout, on Aug. 25 against the Pleasanton-based Tri-Valley Roller Girls.
“Not really,” she said. “The sport is just too demanding. You’re playing offense and defense at the same time. Just being mean wouldn’t cut it. There’s so much strategy involved.”
“Besides that,” said Dawn Carini, aka Booty BasHer, “if you’re just mean and aggressive, you’ll spend all your time in the penalty box.”
Carini has been skating for 18 months. She was beaming as she buckled on her knee pads. “I’m a social worker,” she told me, “and I have to be really nice to people all day, so this is an outlet where I don’t have to be so nice.”
There are other benefits as well.
“It’s good for relationships, too,” she added. “When I was first skating, I had an argument with my boyfriend—now my husband—just before a practice. When I got home, he said, ‘Are we still fighting?’ and I said, ‘No, I feel great now.’”
Are guys intimidated by their participation in this activity?
“Oh, yeah,” Crunch said, rolling her eyes. “They’ll say, ‘That’s interesting,’ followed by ‘I’ve got to go now.’ Or they’ll say, ‘That’s different.’”
Shannon Simmons skates under the name Bad Vibrations. “I went to watch my first bout because my hairdresser was into it,” she says. “It looked difficult, challenging and really cool, but I didn’t think it was something I’d ever do except as a spectator. I thought I’d automatically fail and give up, but I didn’t. I found that I wanted to go a couple times a week and hit some ladies.”
Hit some ladies?
She chuckled. “There may be a bit of sadism or masochism in it,” she said. “I made that joke a few times, that I must be a masochist to want to do this. I’ve always been a peacemaker. I don’t have a lot of aggression. But this takes me outside of my comfort zone every time. There are some skaters who are a little more in your face, though, more assertive.”
Despite that, she’s never been seriously hurt while on skates. “At first you’re like Bambi on ice,” she said. “But when someone’s running into you with their body on skates, it can be a little hairy. I got a little whiplash. We have a lot of ankle issues.”
It’s important to practice, she explains. “There’s an art to it, and you learn how to fall. They call it ‘falling small.’ And you learn to avoid being blindsided. Beyond that, you can purchase dental insurance. We wear mouth guards. Being prepared. Practicing. Strength. Endurance. All that helps you to keep from getting hurt.”
Sophie Simmons is Shannon’s daughter, and she comes almost every week to watch her mother practice. She’s 11, a startlingly precocious little girl. As her mother and the other skaters go through their drills on the rink, she keeps me company on the sidelines, explaining what I’m seeing and filling me in on the history of the sport.
“Back in the ’80s,” she said, perhaps repeating something she’s heard her mother say, “it was like a giant mob on wheels,” but she’s quick to reassure me that the rougher and cruder aspects are a thing of the past.
Sophie’s mom whizzes by as we talk. The women are working up a sweat, and on each circuit one or more of them falls, unhurt, then scrambles to rejoin the pack. They are, as I had been told, a very mixed group. A few of them are, quite frankly, carrying more weight than might be good for them, and a few others are downright skinny. Most of them are tattooed, and I’d noticed, to my surprise, that several of them had been smoking outside the rink before the practice started.
Jessica Verardi offered me an explanation of how the game is played when the women are competing in earnest against women from other towns. A roller derby bout consists of two 30-minute periods made up of a number of “jams,” the two-minute periods of engagement in which the women race against one another.
There are five skaters on each team—a jammer, a pivot, and three blockers, known as “the pack.” To score points, a jammer must break through the opposing team’s pack. She gets no points then, and must speed around the track, catch up with the pack and break through again to score points—one for each skater she passes.
The opposing pack of course will make every effort to stop the jammer. In Verardi’s words, this “can be done by positional blocking—putting your body in front of an opponent—or by shoulder checks, hip checks, or other legal hits, maneuvers and strategies.”
As one of the skaters told me, “It’s quite simple, really, but complicated, and how to play the game is difficult.”
As Crunch Ya Numbaz said about her first reaction to the sport: “Oh, my goodness, this is for me. I get to come out here and hit girls. It relieves stress.”
The skater known as Diva Smackin’ Tire (Sippy Kamogaya) is the mother of a 3-year-old boy. She’s been skating for half her son’s life, and she echoes Crunch’s observation. “A good hit?” Diva says. “It just feels good.”
The jammer is the only skater who can score points. The combined efforts of the blockers are all in the interest of advancing their team’s jammer, or keeping the opposing team’s jammer from passing them. Any player who commits an egregious penalty as determined by the referees is sent to the penalty box—the “sin bin,” as it’s also called—for one minute, and her team must skate handicapped by the loss of one skater.
It is keenly competitive. Even in practice, the effort being expended is extreme. Ladies, it used to be said, don’t sweat, they perspire, but these women are sweating. It’s obvious that the bout with Tri-Valley will be intense.
From the far sidelines, the skating appears almost effortless. But when they pass more closely, the exertion can be seen on their faces and in the concentration that seems both internal and external. I nod at Sophie’s mom as she passes by in a blur, but I doubt she sees me outside the focus of her concentration.
People who know Shannon Simmons know her to be distinctly liberal in her politics, and I mention that roller derby doesn’t fit the liberal profile.
“We don’t often get into conversations about politics,” she told me later, as the women were unbuckling their knee pads and getting out of their skates. “It just isn’t the focus. The stereotypes tend to be redneck images, but there are people skating with master’s degrees. The diversity is very interesting that way, but everyone is driven by the same thing—the love of the sport—and everything else falls by the wayside.”
Part of the attraction is that the sport is run by women for women and is operated on a nonprofit basis. “We pay to do it,” Simmons said. “We pay dues every month to have the privilege to skate. We have to be deriving something from it in terms of empowerment to stay with it.”
And what about that other stereotype surrounding women’s sports, the one that always associates competitive women and physical prowess with lesbians?
“Are there lesbian skaters? Sure, probably,” she said, “but there’s a sense that this is a sport for women who didn’t wind up doing any of the other women’s sports when they were in school. You can be any size, any skill level. You don’t have to be really buff. You see women who are petite, or big. I like the inclusiveness of the sport. I knew how to skate, but some women are still hugging the wall when they start.”
Nearly every woman who engages in roller derby is aware of the way the sport has been viewed, the images people carry of it, the holdovers from earlier incarnations of roller derby that still endure.
“We want to move away from the older image of roller derby,” Simmons said, “the stuff that was like clotheslining, or tripping each other. … We don’t want people to get hurt. You understand that people can get hurt, so there’s no head butting, no fighting, no elbows. Lots of no-nos. There are parts of the body you can’t hit. And if you get in a fight, you get tossed out for a match or two.”
What does her husband think about her participation in roller derby?
“I don’t know if he’s crazy about it in general,” she said, “but he supports me. Some of the boyfriends are called derby widows because some of us really get into it, putting in 30 or 40 hours a week. But some of the guys jump on board to become referees. They’re just about as involved as their wives or girlfriends.”
“This is probably the first female-created and driven sport since I can’t remember,” she continued, “maybe since synchronized swimming. And I like the sportswomanship and dedication and passion I see from the skaters. Not to mention, it happens to be incredibly fun; well, most of the time, with the exception of injuries.”
As a signifier of the sport’s newfound popularity, Robin Bond and Dave Wruck, a couple of filmmakers in Colorado, recently released Derby Baby, a documentary about the burgeoning interest in the sport. I called their office in Littleton and was told they were out of town, but they returned my call within the hour.
“We spent two and a half years on the film,” Bond told me. “I fell into the project by accident. I thought I might like to play. My daughter got into it, joined a derby league. I realized I didn’t have the time or the toughness to play this sport, but I was definitely interested in filming it.”
Filming started in Denver, she said, “but then it got larger. The closing scenes of our film ended with the first World Cup of flat-track roller derby in Toronto, in December of 2011.”
I mentioned the differences between prevailing preconceptions and what I was hearing from the skaters.
“I was surprised, too,” she said. “It’s a very different game from what I’d thought it would be. It comprises all kinds of women who find a common value in it, this ‘league-of-their-own’ kind of theme. The misconception about the old roller derby is one of the challenges the new roller derby has to overcome, but the sheer numbers of skaters and spectators around the world is just astonishing.”
She handed her cell phone to Wruck, her co-director, to give me a man’s perspective.
“I like the sport itself—the rules, the objectives, there’s so much nuance,” he said. “It’s developing, and they’re making up rules as they go, kind of like when football was developing, with the forward pass. There are so many things that are still emerging. And it’s quite a spectacle, too, with the skaters and the fans. It’s like a three-ring circus.”
I mentioned that there’s a ready-made audience for his film here in Butte County.
“There’s an audience everywhere,” he said. “We’ve got 160 screenings around the world lined up already. Northern California is chock full of screenings, but there’s a void in Southern California. The banked track is bigger down south, for some reason. They haven’t caught up with flat track there, yet, I guess.”
A few days later I mentioned to my daughter, Kelly, that I was working on this piece, and also mentioned the Derby Baby filmmakers I’d interviewed. She was startled by the coincidence. As it happens, her best friend from high school, Cynthia Lopez, had just embarked on an ambitious documentary film of her own, a two-year project with global reach. Filming was set to begin in Mexico City, and stops were planned throughout the world to interview people in the women’s flat-track roller derby community.
Lopez lives in Portland, where there’s a thriving flat-track fan base.
“The derby community is a huge, huge deal,” Cynthia told me by telephone on the eve of her departure for Mexico. “It’s a place to adopt a persona, or to be yourself. We haven’t talked with anyone who hasn’t praised that part of the sport. One of my favorite quotes comes from a woman who skates under the name Scald Eagle, who said: ‘Derby happens to be athletics times 20, plus community.’
“One thing we are exploring is how derby impacts women’s self-perceptions,” Lopez continued. “We’re really resistant to images of femaleness that would put us in any kind of box, or any kind of stereotype.”
Jessica Verardi is the kind of woman Cynthia Lopez will be interviewing for her cameras all over the world. She is steeped in knowledge about the sport, and she serves on the local team’s board of directors, a board made up of seven women who do everything from scheduling bouts to recruiting new skaters.
“We have 20 skaters, and we still recruit,” Verardi told me. “We help interested people who want to play roller derby, or who want to volunteer, or referee. We’ll teach them from the ground up, even if they don’t know how to skate.”
I mentioned the high level of enthusiasm for the sport I’ve heard from everyone associated with it.
“I think the appeal of roller derby is female empowerment,” Verardi told me. “It draws girls who want the camaraderie of being in a sport run by women. No matter what we do in our day life, at night we can become strong women after the confinement of the business world. But at night we can show our strength. You let go of your day.”
And, when she’s recruiting new skaters, what did she tell them?
“You put on your jersey, and you’re transformed into a different person for a while,” she said. “This is a sport for anyone who has ever had a desire to challenge themselves physically or mentally, that can appeal to all body types—skinny girls, short girls, tall girls. It’s about female athleticism”
Most of the bouts so far this season have been out of town, so the skaters were looking forward to the Aug. 25 match as something of a homecoming. To pay for their travel and rink time, the Nor Cal Roller Girls raise money through fundraisers. Gate receipts from the bouts also earn money that helps fund their travel to places like Modesto and Ukiah. But the team will be headed to Hawaii in November, an obviously more costly excursion for which the women are currently raising funds.
The Chico women lost the bout in Modesto, but it didn’t take away from the pleasure. “We had a great time with a fabulous group of girls,” Verardi said. “Plus, we got to meet the team we will be playing in August, which is always fun. I love making derby connections.”
And what of the spectators? Why should people turn out to see a bunch of women on wheels going around in circles?
“Fans love roller derby for different reasons,” Verardi replied. “Some come to see the campy side of hot chicks in fishnets and booty shorts. Others come to see the action—girls skating fast while engaging in full contact means that there will always be spills and thrills. The speed and agility of the skaters along with the strategy employed by each team draws the crowd into the game. Fans start cheering for their favorite jammer, the hardest hitter, or favorite blocker. The skaters on each team are playing because we love to skate fast, slam into each other, and get our team in the lead.”
The more Verardi talks, the more enthusiastic she gets.
“This sport is just exploding,” she said. There are now more than 1,200 roller derby teams worldwide, with multiple leagues cropping up in some towns, including some cities in Northern California.
Simmons had her own explanation for the sport’s growing popularity: “I’ve played in two bouts, and I’m still learning. I’m proud I’ve stayed with it, glad that I checked it out. It’s empowering, it’s different. Out of the box. To have a sport that can just embrace so many personalities—whether you’re a super frilly girl or a ‘tomboy,’ this is an all-accepting sport.”