Gwen Brous was an only child until recently. Now she has more than 30 sisters, she said.
Brous and her "sisters" are also known as the South Shore Roller Girls. Their inaugural roller derby home bout in Northwest Indiana was in April at the Jean Shepherd Community Center in Hammond, where they drew more than 500 fans.
The South Shore Roller Girls have adopted the tag line, “Bleed Blue.” In that first match, they defeated the Barbed Wire Betties of DeKalb, Ill., 217-73.
If you’re not familiar with roller derby, it’s probably best to check out Netflix and rent the 2009 film “Whip It!” with Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page. The film that brought a lot of new interest to the sport, which already was popular on the West Coast, where, like in the film, the girls skate on banked tracks. In the Midwest, it’s pretty much all flat tracks like that at Jean Shepherd.
One thing the flat tracks have is what is called “suicide seating,” where fans can sit just out of reach of fast moving athletes. Always have your eyes open. It's not called Suicide Seating for nothing.
The girls are all known by their nicknames.
Tycee Shipley is the "Colorado CrusHer." She lived in Colorado before being recruited to come to work as a mechanical engineer at U.S. Steel. Now a resident of Crown Point, she likes to work off her work frustrations on the rink.
“I love to skate fast,” she said.
Shipley sometimes is one of the team’s jammers, a position responsible for scoring points. Jammers have to pass members of the opposition.
"I like being around a bunch of really strong women,” Shipley said. “I like the unity of the team.”
Hockey has the penalty box. If you mess up in derby, you get put in the Sin Bin.
South Shore Roller Girl Jeni Smith said a lot of people don’t realize that her moniker, “Almost Shameless” is a nod to her favorite film, “Almost Famous.”
Like the film, Smith has earned an R rating. Her tag line states “She may be a lady, but she’s got the mouth of a sailor on the track.”
Smith, of Valparaiso, was a swimmer in school but roller derby is her first contact sport.
She said it doesn’t matter what the scoreboard reads at the end. It's how the team perceives each other and the way its members act as a group.
“That’s the way I take it,” she said. It’s about bringing the community together. We do a lot of fundraisers. We’re constantly looking for sponsors, too. We are a nonprofit organization.”
Brous, or “Armagwendolyn,” said she's always loved roller skating and has long been a fan of wrestling, so derby brings them together, in a way.
“The sport is making a comeback and hopefully it’s going to get bigger in the region,” she said. “It’s something to do with the family, it’s entertaining and sometimes it’s interactive.
JoAnn Ralstin, who call herself a 'professional stay-at-home girlfriend and is known at the rink as “Xena Roller Princess,” enjoys the exercise derby offers.
“It’s a way to release aggression and get rid of the stress,” she said. “It’s a sisterhood. We fight like sisters, we get at each others' throats sometimes. There’s a lot of drama, but we put our skates on and on game day we become one.”