Down and derby
Battle Born Derby Demons resurrect roller derby
Spectators new to roller derby might still hold onto the sincere hope that winning in roller derby involves girls knocking other girls down and possibly stomping each other. The brain easily focuses on the ample possibilities for violence in this sport. But it’s just not so. Not completely. Roller derby involves much more complexity, strategy and skill than that. It only takes a brief exposure to the Battle Born Derby Demons—Reno’s all-women team of moms, teachers, working professionals and students off all ages—to be sold on the idea of some high-impact fun.
Rules of the game
In women’s flat-track roller derby, each team fields five players: a jammer, three blockers and a pivot. At the start of each two-minute jam, the pivots, who are the lead blockers, are positioned in front of three blockers forming the pack. Twenty feet behind this pack, the jammers are positioned on the track. When the whistle blows, the blockers and pivot move around the track counterclockwise. Once all the blockers have passed the initial point where the pivots were positioned, a second whistle blast signals the jammers to take off.
The basic conceit of scoring in roller derby is that the jammer for each team scores points by passing members of the opposing team—the blockers and pivot—who try to block them. There are other rules involved, such as that the first jammer to break through the pack is the lead jammer and can call off the jam at any time by placing her arms on her hips. Such nuances are important, as the lead jammer can control scoring if far enough ahead of the opposing teams’ jammer. The thing is like a two-minute bout of Red Rover on wheels. The blockers and pivots try to stop the jammers from passing them. The jammers objective is to pass as many as possible.
Inevitably, all this skating, passing and blocking leads to some serious contact with other players—and with the ground. Whereas roller derby is not exactly a no-holds-barred kind of operation, the opportunities for falling, pushing, hitting and toned-down versions of combative behavior are plentiful.
It’s the night after a fashion-show fundraiser, and cocktails are traded for skates and hardware in preparation for practice at the downtown ice rink on the corner of First and Virginia streets. Here in the cold wind, it’s all mouth guards, elbow and kneepads, bruised legs and hard asses. This ain’t no fashion show—this is the real grind. As the women begin doing laps around their carefully designed track, one might contemplate what exactly is the best training for this sport. Apparently, it’s practicing in the cold wind and suffering multiple falls. The women look like boxers as they put in their mouth guards. There is only one pink helmet, and this may be the only place where a schoolgirl skirt is seen at a serious athletic practice. But even at 100 feet, these details are balanced by the green and black bruises in plain sight.
The same cold wind that whips around the women keeps the area clear except for a skate boarder in a flannel shirt and what appears to be a roving band of tweekers. The wind is surprisingly cold, and most of these women are just wearing shorts. Still, the bloodlust of an observer might demand a good wreck, which can seem particularly vicious at these temperatures.
As some latecomers stroll in to practice, someone says something about the separation of church and skate, regarding one roller girl’s lateness due to some religious observance. Coach Sailor Doom (Kristina Tarleton) elaborates on the matter: “The only excuse for missing practice is sex.”
They warm up and get into a series of drills and scrimmage action. There is constant attention paid to extended fingers, as a common injury is having your fingers run over after a fall. Though there are other dangers, as well. Carrie Ammo (Carrie Nole), a technical writer at IGT, says, “When I started, a friend asked me ‘What, you don’t like your teeth?’”
The falls get worse as practice continues. After a three-woman pileup, there is some limping and bleeding. Minutes later, four women go down, and one grabs her face in pain. This is a sport that sees a lot of broken tailbones, and stitches to the face are less painful than having a serious break in the tailbone.
Sailor Doom (or just the ominous Coach Doom) is a devilish redhead and human resources assistant during the daytime. Here, she metes out discipline, assigns pushups and admits that her main concern is keeping her players safe, making sure they aren’t falling wrong and paying attention to fingers and teeth.
“I want them to be safe,” she says. “I don’t want us to be known as dirty fighters.”
There is no shortage of aggression at practice. No lack of confidence. Confrontation comes easy. In one interview, one of the first things out of a player’s mouth was, “Why should I talk to you?” This was a doctoral student in roller skates, but the physical exertion and emotion present in contact sports can charge something in a person that can’t just be switched off.
At least three different women said the same thing verbatim: “[Roller derby] is a positive outlet for aggression.” That runs counter to social norms, and particularly to gender roles for women, even today. Despite (or perhaps, because of) the aggro, the tats and all the swearing, the women are still very feminine. There are evident signs of it being Charlie’s Angels meets the Hells Angels, with metrosexuals lining up for the show.
A spectator at one of the Roller Derby fundraisers said she wanted the confidence and strength that the derby girls have for “all girls.” Additionally, the derby women seem to have formed close bonds with the other women on the team. “I’ve meet these incredible women, [and] I love them all,” says Coach Doom. Carrie Ammo adds, “It’s about camaraderie and heart.”
The wind dies down, and the lights come on with stark whiteness against the concrete. Even blocks away from the rink, the clatter of skates can be heard. These women just feel right under that sky, in that light. You can hang on to what one of the women, Milf E. Way, related about what was important about the Battle Born Derby Demons: “We have fun and love each other.”