Derby City Roller Girls

Feb 25, 2015 at 4:17 pm
Clockwise from left: Kimmy Crippler, Alysassian, Johnnie Knocks'em, Carrie A. Glock (Kneeling).
Clockwise from left: Kimmy Crippler, Alysassian, Johnnie Knocks'em, Carrie A. Glock (Kneeling). Craig Davis Morgans' Photography

There’s a fine line between Jaki Madonia and her alter-ego, Slamus Aran. It’s extremely fine, in fact.

A self-described nerd who works as a credit card call center rep by day, but when she pulls on her skates, helmet and black and red uniform, something … well, unexpected happens. Suddenly, the tall brunette is slamming her weight into other women with calculated abandon, doing her best to take them out of the play so her team’s jammer can pass. Concussions and broken bones are always possible. Bruises and sore muscles are expected.

But when asked why she enjoys competing in the time-honored sport of Roller Derby, the 34-year-old Madonia, who has been competing since 2008, pauses.

“Let me phrase this in a way you can put in print,” she begins. “It’s a great aggression outlet. I don’t usually punch people in my everyday life.”

Her words bring not only chuckles but nods from three teammates who are seated across from her.

“My real answer is it’s a great sense of competition,” Madonia continues. “It’s something physical; it’s something fun. Obviously, it’s addictive. I love my team. I love the sense of belonging. I love the physicality of it.”

You may remember watching Roller Derby on TV back in the 1960s and ’70s; it didn’t disappear, but fell out of the public eye, and now it’s back in a familiar but reimagined form. The sport traces back to the 1930s in its early banked-track form, and still boasts well over 1,200 amateur leagues around the world. A hugely popular sport by the 1940s, the competition slowly but surely gave way to theatricality, which helped lead to the tradition of flamboyant stage names and sometimes even costumes.

Most who remember Roller Derby from its heyday probably remember the easy comparison to professional wrestling, with the focus on featured personalities and frequent occurrences of wild, but clearly scripted, extra-curricular run-ins, or as they were and continue to be referred to in Roller Derby as “cat fights.” But Roller Derby has come a long way since its showboating past; for instance, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association now has nearly 250 affiliate clubs. And Roller Derby was even being considered as an added sport for the 2014 Olympics.

And the fact is, it’s about the athletics now as much as the entertainment. More so, as far as the participants are concerned.

The Derby City Roller Girls, Louisville’s WFTDA-sanctioned club, certainly aren’t in it just for the show – as a testament to Madonia’s words, this crew of about 40 women from around Kentuckiana practices four times a week at full-speed. They aren’t “rehearsing;” they’re competing amongst themselves to get better so they can suit up for Saturday night bouts and take on regional competition from around the Midwest and Southeast.

The women involved always take it seriously, even if some people still refer back to what they probably saw on local and regional TV decades ago. And if taking it seriously means taking out one of their friends and teammates during an in-practice jam, well, so be it.

Brooke Hernando, whose track name is Johnnie Knocks’em, is all of five-feet-one. Many of her teammates best her by a foot and probably 40 or 50 pounds. It means nothing.

“When she hits you… it’s not fun,” tall, blue-haired Cassandra Waddell, aka SlingHer Kyle, says. “I don’t want to jam against her.”

“If you know how to use your body right,” Madonia chimes in, “it doesn’t matter how small you are. She’s got these … bony, bony, bone parts.”

But “cat fights” simply don’t happen, at least amongst teammates. They’re all in it together, and spending an afternoon talking with them about the sport and the team solidifies this assertion. One endearing aspect of watching them interact is that they refer to each by their respective alter-egos.

“They can break me in half and then SlingHer can give me a hug afterwards,” says Valerie Johnson, aka Reck It Roxie. “It’s really an awesome sense of family.”

Hey, siblings play rough sometimes, right? So it is with the Derby City Roller Girls.

The Other Derby

While Roller Derby takes a distant second in popularity to another local event with the word “derby” in its name, it’s nevertheless an intriguing sport. Some point to baseball as unique because it’s the only major sport in which one doesn’t have to possess the ball in order to score.

But in Roller Derby, there is no ball; points are scored by lapping opposing players. Five members from each team take the track for a series of rounds, called “jams.” Four of these players are designated blockers, and one is designated as a jammer, which is the only person who can score points.

Each jam consists of a maximum of two minutes in which each team’s jammer, who wears a star on her helmet for identification, attempts to lap the other team’s players as many times as possible. Blockers, meanwhile, try to not only stop the opposing jammer from getting past, but also help enable their own jammer to shake free of would-be blocks. So, in a sense, they are playing offense and defense simultaneously. You don’t see the ridiculously-specialized NFL doing that.

Of course, all the blocking and hitting is regulated, and illegal hits can result in a player —even a jammer — being sent to the penalty box. One way to get a penalty is by “gaining position,” which occurs when a jammer is knocked off the track and attempts to return ahead of the person who knocked her out. That’s a technical penalty.

“There are technical penalties and there are physical penalties,” Madonia says. “If you hit somebody in the face, that’s obviously illegal.”

And the hitting is real. Very real. Elbows to the face sometimes happen accidentally.

Strategically, a jammer who gets the lead in the jam by being the first to lap all her opponents holds most of the cards because she can “call” the jam at any point, ending it. So, if the other jammer is catching up and the lead jammer sees her team can likely score no further points, she can end it. In other words, quit while you’re ahead.

What happens then is that another jam begins anew, likely with a new batch of players or at least a few substitutions. The total bout is made up of two 30-minute periods, during each of which there really is no limit on the number of jams that can take place.

Meanwhile, the audience yells, chants and cheers. (And, if you’re the visiting team, there’s a fair chance you’re going to get jeered, as well.) There’s an announcer named Captain Tightpants. There’s even a warning on the Derby City Roller Girls website that their home floor at Champs Rollerdrome, located at 9851 Lagrange Road, can get very loud, and to prepare accordingly.

And unlike some other sports, such as the aforementioned baseball, there’s not a lot of standing around during a Roller Derby bout.

Patrick Fette is a member of the Derby City Whisker Club, an organization of bearding enthusiasts that works with the Roller Girls, helping them set up for bouts and occasionally sharing in community outreach.

As such, Fette has been to countless bouts. Asked what a first-time Roller Derby attendee can expect, he says, “They can expect an action-packed good time. The crowds are always lively and the bouts are fast-paced and exciting. It’s a great way to spend a Saturday evening.”

And if you’re a Roller Girl at a home bout, you’re something of a celebrity. This is an aspect of the sport that remains a bit uncomfortable for many of the team members.

Madonia describes being recognized and pointed out by her track name after one bout. For some seeking the celebrity limelight, it might have been an opportunity to draw attention to one’s self – but Madonia says she smiled, waved and then slinked away. Not that she doesn’t make the most of her presence while on the track, doing her best to get the crowd into the energy of the bout. But she doesn’t seek the limelight.

As noted, a fair percentage of the Derby City Roller Girls describe themselves as “nerds.” The other word they use to describe themselves is “awkward.” They are gamers or comic book geeks. They typically weren’t the star athletes or the homecoming queen in their former lives. And that means Roller Derby can transform them in many ways — physically, emotionally and psychologically.

In other words, it’s about a lot more than simply knocking people down.

The Roller Girl Mindset

Waddell, 25, admits she was never athletic. In school, she was interested in theater and marching band.

“I really liked flags and color guard,” she says through facial piercings. One side of her blue hair is shaved down, but these visuals do nothing to hide a sweet demeanor and a welcoming personality. Still, that doesn’t mean she won’t knock you down if the situation calls for it.

That might not have been the case before she found the Derby City Roller Girls; until recently she worked as a bartender, but she says she previously was “a super, super meek person” with “really bad social anxiety.” She says she had a difficult time getting along with other women.

“Roller derby has changed that,” she explains. “Meeting so many people with different backgrounds, it’s been really amazing. It’s pushed me to gain a sense of confidence. I’ve come leaps and bounds from where I used to be. I notice it in my everyday life more; I believe in myself more.”

She also admits that, before she switched to working in customer service, Roller Derby gave her the confidence to kick people out of her bar when necessary. That’s the Roller Derby effect. Not that it has made her aggressive — just confident.

For her part, Hernando (Johnnie Knocks’em, if you’re scoring at home) had a somewhat athletic background, but not in an aggressive sense.

“I was a ballerina,” she says.

Now 25, Hernando joined the team four years ago when she came of age (the minimum age has since been lowered to 18 to encourage membership), leaving her “ballet nerd” persona behind. Roller Derby tapped into her inner competitive spirit in ways that surprised even her.

“I have such a hot temper that you wouldn’t really assume I have,” she says. “You can do something productive with it. This is like the one sport I know of that is highly assertive and specifically geared more towards women. I like the female empowerment of it.

“Plus, I’m a small woman and that makes me feel inferior sometimes. This makes me feel powerful.”

Of course, there’s another side to the story. Johnson/Reck it Roxie was always into sports, saying she was always physical while growing up. She was a sports nerd, if such a thing exists.

“My mom said she pretty much raised a little boy,” Johnson says.

The pretty 22 year old then draws laughs from her teammates when she blurts out, “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have a ball in my hand.”

But after high school, she notes, finding competitive sports was difficult. She continued riding motocross for a while, but other than that it was mostly recreational leagues that were available. But she saw a Derby City Roller Girls flyer, went to a bout and was hooked.

Since she made the team, she has treasured the feeling of family that pervades it. She describes herself as being socially awkward and notes that she also previously had trouble communicating with other women.

“I don’t want to say I never got along with women; I just didn’t understand them,” she says. “This is a group of women I not only understand but I also adore. Roller Derby has given me so much and taught me so much about life.”

“I like that there’s that family sense” with her team, Waddell says. “We all hang out together and cheer each other on at practice. It’s really good to hit somebody and then be able to hug them afterwards.”

Oh yes, the hitting. Don’t forget the hitting.

“There really is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you slam into somebody and they are lying on the ground looking at you,” Slamus Aran says.

While the conversation carries on in a local watering hole, the group’s server interrupts.

“Did I hear you say ‘Roller Derby’?” the small-ish woman says. When she gains confirmation, and the group tells her how to apply for a tryout (the info is at DerbyCityRollerGirls.com), her excitement abounds.

“I want to do Roller Derby so badly,” the server says. “I need this! I gave up on it because I thought I was too old.” (She notes that she’s 33.) She takes a business card and promises to be in touch with SlingHer Kyle about a tryout. The Roller Girls say that’s not uncommon; lots of women want to get involved and just aren’t sure how — or they lack the confidence to make the first move.

The good news for women interested is that not only are there two teams — the All-Stars and the Bourbon Brawlers — there is also a recreational team to give skaters a chance to learn the sport and hone their skills under the tutelage of the current team. In addition, the Derby City Roller Girls have launched a Junior Roller Derby, designed for girls ages 6-17, with three skill-based divisions. That pipeline will be full for years.

Community Derby

The empowerment Roller Derby offers not only helps feed recruitment; it helps feed overall community outreach. Whereas someone like Waddell (Slingher Kyle) might not have had an easy outlet for doing community work before, it is now built into how the organization works. So, it’s not just a physical and mental empowerment; it’s a social one.

And the Derby City Roller Girls are a strictly DIY organization — every team member has a role, a job. Someone has to reach out to other teams and schedule bouts. Someone else has to handle marketing and media. Someone has to be in charge of community interaction. When these women aren’t skating and knocking heads, there’s a good chance they are working behind the scenes. Or they are out promoting the team or an upcoming bout.

If not, they may be at a community event like the Polar Bear Plunge at Brown-Forman Amphitheater, which they will be attending (and many of them taking the plunge) this Saturday, Feb. 28. Prior to Valentine’s Day, the DCRG hung out with St. Leonard School art students to help them make Valentines for Wayside Christian Mission. They also participated in the Cupid’s Undie Run, wherein they ran in their underwear to help raise money and awareness for the Children’s Tumor Foundation.

The group works with many charitable organizations and stays active and involved in community events. Add that to the four practice sessions per week, the DIY commitment to running their own organization and, of course, the bouts, and what you’ve got is more of a full-time commitment than a hobby.

“There is a term called ‘the Derby Widow,’” Madonia says.

“I didn’t really think of that when I first joined the team,” Waddell adds. “You don’t realize how big of a commitment it is. Once you start Roller Derby, you get bitten by the bug and it takes you over. It’s kind of a full-time thing — you really need the support of your significant other or your family.”

“I showed up to practice thinking it was going to be like a slow-pitch softball league or volleyball beer league,” Johnson says. “I came home from tryouts and I was like, ‘Well, this is like a part-time job.”

“It permeates into everything you do,” Hernando concurs. “This is not a hobby anymore.”

Not that anyone is complaining. Each skater seems to find a safe place in the Derby City Roller Girls. Those who don’t have the support of family or a significant other find that support system within the group.

“We’ve supported people through divorces, through losses of family members, through car accidents,” Madonia says.

“It really is your other family,” says Johnson.

And their arms are always open to new skaters. Come one, come all. Bring them your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Bring them your awkward — any woman looking for a sisterhood, a place to not only get a physical workout but to feel she belongs.

And if you spend any time at all with the Derby City Roller Girls, you’re going to hear about that sense of belonging early and often. That word “awkward”? Yeah, it gets thrown around a lot too. That’s part of where the bonding takes place.

“I am notoriously awkward,” Johnson says. “I am really, really painfully awkward.”

“I have terrible people skills,” Hernando chimes in, “but you guys make me feel less weird.”

Not that anyone is apologizing. Or complaining. Or necessarily in agreement.

“I see [them as] bad-ass athletes,” Fette says. “They train hard and play to win. I don’t really consider that to be nerdy or awkward.”

Indeed. Maybe it’s a state of mind. Or maybe it’s just that feeling of belonging that helps bring the Derby City Roller Girl bad-assery to the surface. Just add helmets and skates.

“When all of us awkward people get together,” Waddell says, “we don’t feel so awkward anymore.”

In other words, don’t try to block their jammer; that’s when awkward goes out the window.

The Derby City Roller Girls’ Bourbon Brawlers will take on the Terrorz of Tiny Town from Columbus, Indiana, on Saturday, March 7, at Champs Rollerdome. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the bout begins at 8 p.m.