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Roller derby's popularity in Western Pennsylvania continues to grow

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Members of the Steel City Roller Derby league participate in a jam during a practice. Skaters are allowed to check but cannot trip, punch or elbow other skaters.
Submitted | Dawn Derbyshire
Members of the Steel City Roller Derby league participate in a jam during a practice. Skaters are allowed to check but cannot trip, punch or elbow other skaters.

Bonecrusher, Inna Gadda Da Beatcha, Oscar De La Hurtya and Vicious Virus are just some of the women you will encounter twice a week at Romp n' Roll in Glenshaw.

While the names sound like pro wrestlers or masked crime fighters, what these ladies are doing is a legitimate sport.

They are part of Steel City Roller Derby, the largest and oldest roller derby squad in Western Pennsylvania. Along with Westmoreland Roller Derby — not to mention teams in Erie with the Eerie Roller Girls and in Johnstown with the J-Town Roller Girls — the group is just one of hundreds of roller derby teams across the United States. While some may see it as the scripted sideshow act of the 1970s, skaters today focus on the athletic aspects of the game.

Despite the sport growing in popularity world wide, local teams are still trying to get Pittsburgh to take notice. Once it does, skaters feel the popularity will grow.

“I think we could have a lot of fans in the city,” said Leannibal Lector, who is known as Leanne Groll outside the rink. “The fans we do have come back for every game, no matter what is going on. Even if there is a hockey game. They will tape the game, come watch us and then go home and watch the Pens.”

Nothing new

While the sport has seen recent popularity, it actually dates to the 1930s. Leo Seltzer, a Chicago entertainment promoter, was looking for a way to capitalize on a trend in roller speed skating. He originally designed marathon speed races on an oval track but eventually replaced the endurance events with teams and formed a point system.

The sport gained popularity nationally with the dawning of television. It regularly ran in the 1950s and 1960s, but by the 1970s the sport moved into a scripted format much like pro wrestling. Instead of focusing on athleticism, the skaters used theatrical antics to rile up crowds.

The sport dropped out of mainstream audiences' attention in the 1980s but began a revival in the 2000s. The revival led to 50 leagues by late 2005 and jumped to 135 a year later.

There are now more than an estimated 1,100 roller derby leagues. The sport has become popular enough that is was under consideration to be added to the Olympics for the 2020 games.

“It is everywhere,” said Stefanie Kessler, who skates as Vicious Virus for Steel City Roller Derby. “Say you go on vacation, if you find somewhere they play derby, you walk into 30 new friends. It is growing.”

The new popularity in the sport may owe something to the fact it's played on a flat track rather than the old-school banked track. Flat track allows more teams to hold events due to being able to use common roller skating rinks.

Steel City Roller Derby started in 2006 and has five teams within the league. The Steel Hurtin' is a the A-team, almost a varsity team, and the Steel Beamers are the B-team/ junior varsity. It also has three interleague home teams – the Allegheny Avengers, Mon Monsters and Penn Bruisers.

The teams host teams from across the country and have traveled to destinations including California, Canada and even the first international tournament in London.

Steel City Roller Derby is a member of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, the international governing body for the sport of women's flat-track roller derby.

Westmoreland is the new kid on the block. The league is in its second season and competes against teams from Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia.

Law and order

While it might just seem the sport is a group of women racing around an oval, strategy and rules are plentiful.

Each team sends five skaters to the track. Each team has a jammer who skates faster than the rest of the group and is the source of the scoring. They get a two-minute jam to pass opposing skaters to attain points.

In their way will be each team's three blockers, who try to keep the other team's jammer from passing them. Each group of blockers is led by a pivot who usually stays in front of the blockers to make them go faster or slower.

Before each jam, the teams line up side-by-side with the pivots in front, the blockers in the middle and jammers in back. When the whistle blows, each team tries to get their jammer to the front of the pack. The first jammer to move through becomes the lead jammer. The lead jammer can put her hands on her hips to end a jam early and not allow the opposing team a chance to score.

“Each team has its own strategy,” Groll said. “Blockers play offense and defense. They try to get their jammer through the pack while blocking the other jammer. There are certain formations, and the other team can do things to counter it.”

While checking is a major part of the game, moves like tripping, shoving, punching and pushing players from behind is not allowed. There is a penalty box for players who break a rule. If a jammer goes in the penalty box, her team will be unable to score.

While one might expect extracurricular activity to happen on the track, skaters say for the most part everyone remains even tempered.

“It happens sometimes,” said Sarah “Tammy Toestep” Jacob, who skates for Westmoreland Roller Derby. “Being in a physical sport, it is bound to happen. But most of the time everyone is cool and collected.”

No pain, no gain

Ten skaters going around the track at high speeds obviously can lead to injuries, and it is a chance the skaters are willing to take. Some common injuries players deal with are ankle breaks, torn ligaments and concussions.

“We are also taught to hold in our thumbs when we fall,” Kessler said. “If you don't, they will get bent back.”

Cassandra Dale, who skates as Daley Dose for Steel City Roller Derby, was the victim of one of these injuries — a broken ankle. But she said that is part of the game. Did she ever think of giving it up?

“Never,” she said. “I never thought of stopping. Being in roller skates, ankle injuries happen a lot. A lot of knee injuries go down, too.”

The athletes have several forms of protection. Skaters wear helmets, mouth guards, kneepads, wrist guards and elbow pads.

“Some girls will actually wear protection for their tailbone,” Dale said. “That is another common injury.”

Also, having proper equipment is key.

“You need good knee pads,” Kessler said. “That is most important. You go through a pair or two of cheaper knee pads, and you realize it isn't good for you.”

While the sport is physically demanding, the athletes made it clear that anyone of any skill level can do it. Whether they are a longtime skater or have never been on skates before, as long as they are committed they are welcomed.

“Anyone can do it if they put the time in,” Jacob said. “Some people who come out have never skated before. Our fresh-meat team has girls who have only been skating since March, and they are doing so much better.”

What's in a name?

While modern-day roller derby tries to distance itself from its scripted ancestor, it still carries over one distinct aspect – derby names.

“It is like an alter ego,” Dale said.

Skaters get to chose a derby name and their number when they join.

While it seems simple, uniqueness is key. There is a database collecting derby names from across the world. If your choice is already in use, you have to come up with something else.

“It is something that started way back when derby first started,” Kessler said. “A lot of people pick something that has to do with their lives.”

While many use these derby names, some teams from across the country have used their real names in competition to add extra legitimacy for the sport.

Even with teams that use derby names, having people understand the legitimate aspects of the game is the top goal. Nothing is staged, and the athletes are giving 100 percent every game.

“We are always out promoting it as a sport,” Groll said. “There are not too many teams trying to play up the niche side of roller derby anymore. We are also trying to legitimize the sport with junior leagues.

“We wouldn't want our kids to come out and play if it wasn't real and we were fake punching and falling down.”

Starting young

One way the roller derby hopes to grow is with the introduction of junior leagues.

Zoe O'Reilly, who skated as Whiskey Mic, helped start this first junior (or brat) league — the Tucson Derby Brats — in Arizona in 2006 for skaters under the age of 18. The number of junior teams has grown to more than 200 since then, and the Junior Roller Derby Association formed as a governing body.

“I never considered myself a kid person at all, but I loved what I saw from the girls,” O'Reilly said. “It rejuvenated my own love for roller derby.”

When she relocated to Pittsburgh a few years ago, she decided to bring the sport to the area. It was hard at first due to people questioning allowing kids to play such a physical sport, but when a former Tucson Brat moved to the area it was all she needed to convince people of the legitimacy and benefits of having a team.

“One of the first questions people has is, ‘Is my daughter going to get hurt?,' ” O'Reilly said. “We explain it is a full-contact sport, and the girls will get hit. But junior derby is done in stages and goes from no-contact to mild-contact to full-contact.”

The team has grown to 16 members since its start in November 2012. The ages of the skaters range from 9 to 17. The girls are not thrown head-first into competition and must first go through several tests. The girls have to complete several endurance tests along with tests for their stops, jumps and blocks.

With roller derby reaching its peak in popularity in the 1970s, many of the skaters never knew about roller derby until the release of the film Whip It.

“Honestly, when I first saw that movie, I thought it was really cool that girls could have a sport that was so rough,” said Alicia Baranauskas, who skates as Bipolar Bear.

While the kids are learning about the sport, so are the parents. Some remember the campy roller derby of the television era and have been surprised to discover the legitimacy of the sport.

“I have learned so much about the roller derby,” said Baranauskas' mother Barbara, who is training to be an official. “I knew nothing about it before hand.”

“It is nothing like what used to be on television,” said Barbara's husband Dan, who is working to be an off-skate official. “Once you see it, you realize how hard-hitting it is. It resembles hockey, in my opinion. I like it a lot.”

O'Reilly said the team focuses on roller derby, but it goes beyond just being a sport. It provides a place for girls who may not have thought there was a team sport for them.

Coaches, players and parents say the confidence and physical changes the girls have gone through are a key benefit.

“I used to care about what people thought, but not anymore,” said BobbiAnn Layman, who skates as Hashtag Winning. “A lot of the girls have lost weight. I have lost like 20 pounds. It may not look like it, but our weight has changed into muscle. If you poke me now, it isn't like poking the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

The Pittsburgh Derby Brats will have their first game Aug. 31 when they travel to Akron to take on NEO Jr Roller Derby. The game is only six months after the Brats had their first practice.

“I would give up my whole summer to have it come sooner,” Baranauskas said. “We have been practicing so hard. I know everyone is as excited as I am.”

It is the next step for the next generation of Western Pennsylvania skaters. While the sport is still in its infancy in the area, this group will look to help continue the sport's growth as they progress and become adult skaters.

“I would love to keep doing this when I get older,” Layman said. “The older skaters are like big sisters. I would be so excited to skate with them.”

Nathan Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at nsmith@tribweb.com or 412-388-5813.

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