Roller derby more than 'just a workout'
It's Saturday night and skaters are ready to rumble at Romp n' Roll in Glenshaw.
The Allegheny Avengers are about to face the Penn Bruisers to defend their title as reigning champs in the Steel City Roller Derby League.
It's the season finale before select members from those two teams, plus the Mon Monsters, embark on a traveling season that will begin April 9 in Boston.
The action in this fast-growing, all-female, full-contact sport will be swift and literally bruising, as skaters speed in packs around a flat track, blocking, jamming and butting opponents.
Bouts consist of multiple 2-minute jams involving four blockers and one jammer who scores points by pushing through a pack. Skaters try to force opponents out of bounds with hits from the shoulder, hip or rear.
The competition is fierce. So, too, is the camaraderie. Although derby has a theatrical component — owing to its origins in sports entertainment — these women are out to win.
“We're here to push each other to be the best team and the best players we can be,” says Meryl Surks, whose skating pseudonym, Mermaid Mayhem, derives from her job as aquatics director at a local community center.
She started competing in a recreational league as a way to meet people and get more exercise, and has worked her way up to the Steel Beamers traveling squad.
“Derby turned out to be more than I imagined,” says Surks, 27, of Regent Square. “It's not just a workout. We're a team working together, really hard, toward a common goal.”
Roller derby has been around for more than a century, to varying degrees of popularity. While the televised bouts of 60 years ago smacked of showmanship, resurgent interest of late has emphasized athleticism. For some, it is a feminist sports frontier.
Avengers team captain Maggie Wright, a 28-year-old University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist, put on quad (four-wheel) skates for the first time in 2012. Although she has always been athletic, Wright says roller derby is uniquely empowering.
“In other contact sports I've played, ice hockey and lacrosse in particular, men and women play in their respective leagues/teams, each with a different rule-set,” says Wright of Friendship. “The men's rule-set permits a great deal of aggressive contact that is simply not allowed in the women's rule-set. This has always bothered me, as it gives off an implicit message that women shouldn't be engaging in rough contact sports, that we're too fragile or sensitive.”
Wright uses the track pseudonym Poppin' Fresh, because, she says, “I get back up real quick when I'm knocked down.”
Quirky nicknames are a tradition in derby culture and have more than entertainment value, Wright says. “When you pick a track identity, it lets you use yourself in ways you might not otherwise … to be bolder and more assertive. This is a safe space, where even the most passive woman can practice leadership skills.”
Roller derby can be a means of self-discovery, says Leanne Groll, 29, of Youngstown, Ohio, and part of the Steel Hurtin' traveling team. “I think a lot of women are Type A and don't realize it.”
She once broke an ankle in a bout but regarded it as a learning experience. “If someone puts a hit on you, it makes you ready for the next time,” she says.
Jennifer Gaskins, 33, who competed on the elite Team USA in the inaugural 2011 Roller Derby World Cup, shares Groll's perspective. “I love being knocked down because it teaches me to get back up,” says Gaskins, who goes by the name 'Snot Rocket Science.
In the 10 years she has skated, she has seen other women blossom. “I've watched the way they see their bodies and use their bodies,” she says. “I've watched their self-confidence grow.”
Emily Weise-King — aka Painsley Sharp — began roller skating two years ago after friends in the San Francisco Bay area told her how popular the sport had become.
“I hadn't skated since I was a kid,” says Weise-King, 34, a Web content manager who lives in Squirrel Hill and is the mother of a 5-year-old. “But I'm now in the best physical condition of my life. And I find skating is a healthy outlet if I've had a frustrating day.”
Skaters go through training before they can compete, says Cassandra Dale, 41, of Gibsonia, who is captain of the Steel Beamers. “You learn everything from how to skate to how to fall to how to ‘hit' people safely and legally. You have three months to prove you know what you're doing.”
New recruits are called fresh meat.
Competing in derbies requires committing to at least two practices a week and paying out-of-pocket expenses.
“We're self-funded,” says “Daley Dose” Dale, who works as an engineer. “We buy our own uniforms and skates. A few women may get some merchandise sponsored, but skates wear out like tires on a car, and can cost in excess of $500. Wheels are $120.”
The seven referees required at each game, as well as coaches, officials and announcers, typically work as volunteers.
Steel City Roller Derby is one of 355 member leagues sanctioned by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association. It recently was ranked 28th by WFTDA, which also has 81 apprentice leagues.
Growth has been expansive in the last seven years, with the London Rollergirls becoming the first league outside North America to join as apprentice members. Leagues in Berlin, Bogota and Japan have since come on board.
WFTDA establishes the rules of the game, which include no tripping, shoving, elbowing or face contact.
“As a mother, I'm thinking it's a dangerous sport, but it's also changed over the years,” says Wendy Woodward, who drove from Harrisburg to watch her daughter, Lora Woodward — aka Loraxe — skate. “It's more regulated now. It's more of a game.”
Deborah Weisberg is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.