Sac’s two roller derby teams combine forces to form an all-star league
The steady rumble of roller skates on a large flat track grows louder from inside a brick-layered warehouse on the outskirts of downtown. On a Tuesday evening in November, women enter the chilly building one by one carrying pairs of weathered skates and chunky duffle bags, plopping their equipment onto an old-fashioned metal bleacher. As soon as skates are laced and helmets are tightened, each person joins the routine, zipping through lap after lap.
Off to the side, tattered boxes chock-full of old skates, helmets, knee pads and other odds and ends seem to tell a story. More than 40 women are gathered here to practice for competition in the sport of roller derby—and tonight marks some of the last sessions before everyone goes on a short winter break for the season. This practice also marks one of the first evenings that Sacramento’s top roller derby teams, the Sacred City Derby Girls and the Sac City Rollers, are practicing together since both the players voted to join forces after 12 years of being separate entities.
The decision to combine both high-level teams, once rivals on the track, was announced in October 2017. Now, this badass all-star team of athletes has a roster that’s more than 70 women strong and collectively known as Sacramento Roller Derby, and their new season is just beginning.
“Five minutes, ladies!” a toned, blue-eyed woman calls out from the center of a scuffed track inside an 11,000-square-foot warehouse. Her authoritative manner inspires laggers to quickly lace up their skates and get in a few warmup laps. It’s just before 8 p.m., and some women are skating in pairs, perhaps discussing their long workday, as James Brown’s howls echo off the walls. Others stretch their legs and arms as they cruise around the smooth surface to warm up their muscles.
Suddenly, the music stops and everyone gathers in a circle to take turns introducing themselves by the playful derby nicknames each woman has created for herself to expresses her persona and quirky spirit. The women also say what position they enjoy playing—blocker, pivot or jammer—the latter position being the one with the most glory. (See sidebar.)
Sacramento Roller Derby is a 100 percent volunteer-run nonprofit, with dedicated skaters taking on multiple roles within the league. Women sit on the board of directors or serve as treasurer, marketing director, donations coordinator, etc. Everything is governed democratically.
Annie Reksic, a 10-year veteran skater with Sac City Rollers, says the combined team has been “a long time coming.”
“Both leagues started around the same time within the same year, and we’ve always had to share sponsors and a fan base and resources throughout the Sacramento area,” Reksic says. “We both have a lot of the same attributes and goals, and we’ve had these discussions throughout the years about coming together and merging into one megateam.”
For skaters like Shock ’N’ Auburn, time spent as a pivot, blocker and jammer with the Sacred City Derby Girls gave her the experience to help others succeed by training and coaching women of all skill levels. She admits that when she first started, she made close friends with the floor because she didn’t know how to roller-skate whatsoever.
“I ran into the wall at tryouts because I didn’t know how to stop,” she recalls. “I fell a lot. But, they said, ’Well, you have gumption. If you want to come back, we’ll teach you how to skate.’ We practiced three times a week, and the days we didn’t practice, I would work on my stride and work on being comfortable turning around and work on all of the weird, little things that aren’t really the fun part of derby, but the necessary parts of derby.”
Ask any woman how she found roller derby, or how derby found her, and each will share a personal story that is as diverse as Sacramento Roller Derby’s roster. For Bobbypin Vixen, a blocker and pivot who drives more than 140 miles from Dayton, Nevada, to practice twice a week, derby is a sport her family does together.
“[My son] pushed me to lace up some skates at a time in my life when I needed change,” she says. “It took over a year to convince me to do it. After the first practice, spent mostly sitting on my butt because all I could master was falling, I knew I loved it. I needed it.”
Her 14-year-old son, whom she refers to as Peanut Butter Jammer, skates for a junior team in their hometown, and her husband, Jose CanSkateO, is also an official for Sacramento Roller Derby.
“Derby pushes me outside of my comfort zone,” she says. “Comfort zones are beautiful, but nothing grows there.”
We’re not G.L.O.W.
Roller derby first experienced a wave of popularity in the 1940s, when its raised, banked-track marathons turned the game into a spectator sport in America, at a time when the bikini just started hitting the beaches and Mount Rushmore was finally completed.
It was broadcast live on television throughout the country to spur interest, but attendance and ratings started to decline throughout the ’60s and ’70s as attention shifted to a more theatrical version of the sport, where athletes donned flashy garb and adopted dramatic characters as found in men’s and women’s wrestling. Derby even staged matches: Picture the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (G.L.O.W.), with its scripted rivalries and cheesy costumes, on roller skates. It was short-lived.
Serious athletes say the biggest misconception about modern roller derby is that the sport consists of women who wear fishnets and booty shorts and purposefully elbow their opponents in the face or send them flying into cement walls.
These imaginative assumptions irk athletes like Lolz Lemon, a blocker for SRD who’s on the mend from a broken-leg injury last year. She sternly points out that elbowing is first and foremost illegal, and fishnets are highly impractical during games.
“When derby began, there was definitely a niche market that was very G.L.O.W.-like,” she says. “It was just as important to win the after-party as it was the game, like, who can drink the most or party the hardest. But now, this avant-garde sport is one of the only highly competitive women’s sports out there that women can easily join everywhere.”
While there is no elbowing allowed, roller derby is a contact sport. Two teams with five players each skate in a pack, counter-clockwise, on a flat track. As the jammer tries to break free and lap the pack, blockers try to make that difficult. There is a lot of hockey-style checking involved.
Miley Makes U Cryrus, a 43-year-old blocker for SRD and mother of two boys, says the sport of roller derby helped her get out of the 9-to-5 rut, and that her sense of self was rekindled by skating with her newfound friends on the track.
“Derby was something that made me identify as me,” she says. “I’m not just this person who just goes to work. I’m an athlete. It’s identified me as being more than my sons’ mom. This is something I do for me, but it also transitions to my kids because they are also young athletes. I think a lot of my perseverance through derby and through injury is reflecting on them and showing them the positive side to athletics at any capacity.”
Formed just months apart from each other in 2006, Sac City Rollers and Sacred City Roller Derby Girls both went on to become registered with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the sport’s international governing body, which ranks teams on a points system based on the number of sanctioned games played and the amount of difficult teams faced.
Sacred City Derby Girls had, in fact, split from Sac City Rollers. The divide led to a decade-long rivalry on the track, but when asked what caused the original rift, many of the most seasoned players say they can’t even recall.
“That was a long time ago,” Lolz Lemon says. “There hasn’t been any animosity for quite awhile. We were just two different teams. Roller derby itself is one community that is very close. Though we were on different teams, we might show up to each other’s events, we shared refs. And now we’re working toward the same goal because we’re one group.”
This year, WFTDA lists 400 full-member leagues from countries like Argentina, France and New Zealand, with more than 200 registered teams in the U.S. alone.
The revival of derby is widely credited to the Texas Rollergirls, a team that formed in the early 2000s in Austin who were the first in the nation to skate on a flat track versus the bank-style track the sport was known for in the past.
The resurgence also paved the way for some of the country’s leading teams to form like the Portland, Ore., Rose City Rollers, who are also credited as a founding member of WFTDA.
In January, Sacramento Roller Derby hosted its first tryouts and formed four teams for women 18 years and older. The A Team will travel and compete on a national and international level within WFTDA. Members including Shock and Annie Reksic will travel with their team and represent Sacramento in competitions like The Big O in Eugene, Ore., and they’ll also fly to Houston, Texas, to compete in The Clover Cup in March. These important games will earn SRD points toward its international rank with WFTDA. In June, all competing teams from across the globe will be split up into two divisions and, depending upon rank, will be invited to compete in the season’s playoff tournaments.
“When you go to Portland or Seattle, people know who their team is,” Shock says. “They have billboards up. And we have those levels of skilled players here. I’m excited to bring a much larger fan base to Sacramento. Look at the [Sacramento Republic FC]; there’s nothing to say that we can’t have something of that caliber, because these athletes will absolutely excite people who come to see derby whether they loved it forever or they’re brand new to it.”
For Red Tornadho, a nine-year veteran originally with Sac City Rollers, finding derby introduced her to a second family that she says she didn’t know she needed—or wanted—but the bond she’s experienced is unlike any other.
“I met these people, and they are a part of my life almost daily,” Red says. “I think we’re going to surprise people. The competition just within our own teams is going to drive everyone to become better. And I think we’ll even surprise WFTDA. We’re a team. This isn’t just a fun thing we do. We take it very seriously.”