The women of the Region Rat Rollers aren’t afraid to take some hits – or give them.
As I stood there in borrowed pads and speed skates, Mallory “MALtreatment” Martin, a veteran skater, was called over to show me what a real roller derby hit feels like.
We crouched down into derby stance. I braced myself.
“You ready?” she asked.
I was, I replied with trepidation.
She popped up from derby stance and rammed her shoulder into my side. I managed not to fall, but I did execute a type of ungainly hop to one side to keep my balance.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Martin said. “It hurts a lot because I’m bony.” I rubbed my elbow, grinning embarrassedly.
“That wasn’t so bad,” I said. “That was kind of fun.”
“That was a love tap from Mallory,” one of the other team members said.
Roller derby, a sport that originated in the early 20th century, has experienced a grassroots resurgence in recent years thanks to the efforts of volunteers and enthusiasts.
While larger cities have had roller derby leagues since the early 2000s, the sport has finally come to Northwest Indiana in the form of the Region Rat Rollers – Northwest Indiana’s own all-female flat track roller derby team.
April “Lucifurious” Beres, founder and president, says that although most leagues represent a specific city, her 40 skaters come from Lake and Porter counties, and some from just over the border in Illinois.
“I wanted to do something different because the region is different,” she said. “I feel like we are a diverse region without much segregation, and I think our league really represents that as well.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ROLLER DERBY
“It started out as something people did to earn money during the Depression,” Beres said. “They would race to win a pot of money. During the Depression people would do anything to win money, so they were serious.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, roller derby was more like professional wrestling, with scripted bouts and a pre-determined winner, which emphasized drama over athletic ability. When the revival of roller derby began a decade ago most of the theatrics were dropped, although some elements, including the colorful nicknames for players, were kept.
Region Rat Rollers boasts a team of 40 players, including such players as “Senorita Scarcia,” “Yvonna Rumble,” “Roxie Hurt,” “Xena Roller Princess,” “Suzilla Gorilla,” “Queen Eliza Bash,” and others. Many women on the team are 40 years or older, and most have children. One of the players brought her husband — who is also the team’s “Fresh Meat” Coach, Jason “Coach Pain” Garcia — and two kids to practice.
The team has been training since February 2012. Recently the league has been training with Matt “Psych & Destroy” Eich, a skater from the Chicago Bruise Brothers, Chicago’s first flat track men’s roller derby league.
In modern roller derby, the bout – or match – pits two teams against each other on a flat roller skating rink. Each team has five members on the rink; four skaters, whose job it is to block the members of the other team so that the “jammer,” or the scoring player, can gain points by lapping members of the opposing team.
“Some of the bouts with established leagues are huge,” Beres said. “Windy City [Rollers] bouts are held at the [UIC Pavilion], and it’s packed just as much as going to a Blackhawks game.”
The Windy City Rollers are current ranked #1 in their North Central division of Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) leagues.
Although still on the fringes of the sports world, roller derby has gained a large following by spectators and participants alike. Since its modern inception in 2001 in Austin, Texas, more than 1,200 derby leagues have been established worldwide. Roller derby is currently in consideration for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games.
BUT WILL IT HURT?
Contemporary roller derby is a far cry from its roots as a free-for-all on skates.
“The biggest misconception about roller derby is that it’s chaotic and violent,” Beres said. “Really we have a lot of rules in place to make sure it has a sense of order.”
Skaters wear pads and learn safety techniques to prevent injury.
“You’re trained to fall properly and get back up within a couple of seconds,” Beres said.
Even so, as I walked into the Jean Shepherd Center twenty minutes before the start of practice, I witnessed some of the skaters comparing battle scars.
“I’m still being careful with my knee,” Beth “Señorita Scarcia” Garcia said. “Not subconsciously.”
“The last time I fell, my hand got twisted underneath me. I had a bump on my hand for ever, I didn’t think it would ever go away,” Monica “Demonica” Gideon said.
Another skater, Gwen “Armagwendolyn” Brous, walked in during this conversation, wearing a knee brace over her jeans and bright red Converse sneakers.
“It’s not a tear – just some bruising,” Brous announced. The other girls cheered.
Although league skaters are required to learn certain skills, like how to fall, where and how to hit, how to take hits, and how to jump, most of the Region Rat Rollers didn’t show up with all their skating skills in place.
“At first, I was ‘Bambi on ice,’” said Amanda “Manddy LongLegs” Szentesy, one of the team’s referees.
“Some of the skaters were ‘koala bears’ hanging onto the wall at first,” Beres said. “But some of the ones that came in knowing nothing are now our best skaters.”
Szentesy, a referee, was present to watch over the players even during a routine practice. She was the one who gave me a cursory lesson in proper roller derby practices as the other girls circled the rink, running drills with their coach.
IS IT FUN?
“I joined because it seemed really interesting,” Szentesy said. “My friend was on the league and it seemed like a fun thing to do.”
But the fitness benefits have been the best outcome of joining the team for Szentesy.
“I have a bad heart, so I need to exercise,” she said. “The last two visits to my cardiologist were the first time ever I haven’t been yelled at for not doing enough.”
Indeed, several Region Rat Rollers have reported a weight loss of 20-30 pounds over the last year. “I’ve always been thin, but now I’m getting muscle definition that I’ve never had before,” Szentesy said. When she isn’t skating with the Region Rat Rollers, Szentesy is a chemist with ArcelorMittal.
Although I was confined to the outskirts of the rink working on basic skills, the majority of the roller girls who showed up for practice were doing far more interesting things, including lining up to practice blocking the jammer. The women skated in tight formation, arms outstretched to create a wall.
“Out, out out!” they shouted, letting the others know where to concentrate their blocking. They veered around the track, shoulder to shoulder with their teammates, while “Yvonna Rumble”, the jammer for the exercise, attempted to break through the line.
Szentesy pointed out how they were skating – knees bent, back straight, and very close to each other.
“There’s no personal space in derby,” she said.
Many roller derby leagues around the country, including Region Rat Rollers, are certified non-profit organizations.
“We don’t get paid to do what we do,” Beres said. “We’re a non-profit organization.”
The league has a board of directors, but because they are working toward 501c3 status, everyone that works on the team or participates in the sport is there on a volunteer basis.
“Most of the women have 40 hour a week jobs, and then they come to practice or work on our committees on top of that,” she said.
Because the league does not offer compensation to any of its members, they are able to use the funds they raise to donate to charitable organizations. In the last year, they donated $1,300 to the Humane Societies of Northwest Indiana, $1,250 to Haven House, and $900 to The Caring Place, all prominent charitable entities in Northwest Indiana.
GETTING A FLOOR
Even though the team is able to donate so much to charity, running a team has its costs, and holding bouts with other leagues even more so.
“A goal of mine this year is for us to buy a floor so that other teams have an easier time skating with us,” Beres said.
The existing floor at Hammond’s Jean Shepherd Center, the Region Rat Rollers’ usual practice venue, is made of a poured rubber synthetic material. According to Beres, “It isn’t ideal, but it has made us better skaters because we always have to work harder to push off than we would on a wood floor.”
The new floor would cost between $8,000 and $10,000. It would be portable and removable after each practice or bout.
The Region Rat Rollers’ website will be launched in early 2012, and will have a page for donations to the league and to the league’s partnered charities. Until the website is launched, any inquiries can be directed to April Beres at email@example.com.
The Region Rat Rollers are holding open tryouts on Saturday at the R-Way Skate Center in Portage. “For tryouts, we’re looking for people with a good attitude, as well as coordination and good balance,” Beres said. “We’ll work with you from there.”