I am in a large, crowded and noisy room watching a group of women on roller skates delivering powerful and cringe-inducing hits to one another and taking spills that no amount of protective padding–store bought or God-given–could ever fully protect them from.
By day, they are college professors and paramedics and stay-at-home moms, police officers, construction workers, office workers, massage therapists and college students.
But not tonight.
Tonight they are Animal Mother, Bat R Up, Fannysaurus Wrex, Fonda Cuffs, Furyis Jorge, Hitzy Blonde, Left 4 Deadwards, Joy FullPain, Ophelia Fracture, PsycHo AnalyzeHer, Toxic Sugar, Triple D. Zaster, GLADi8Her and Zom B Blokr, among others.
They are Iowa City’s Old Capitol City Roller Girls, and whatever caring or nurturing or healing or mothering instincts any of them may have were checked at the door when they arrived.
It’s bout night and there’s only one thing they’re here to do, and if it doesn’t involve the kicking of ass and the taking of names, it will just have to wait.
Founded in October 2008, Iowa City’s Old Capitol City Roller Girls are three games into their first full season (with a 2-1 record) and have grown from just five people at their very first meeting to an active roster of 20 “bout-ready” skaters and 12 women comprising their “fresh meat” group of skaters-in-training.
In this time, they’ve planted deep roots in the community, have earned a reputation as one of the most exciting shows in town and have a large, diverse and passionate fan base to show for it.
Made up of women from ages 20 to 50, the team is open to anyone willing to put in the tremendous amount of hard work necessary to join their ranks.
Tonya Kehoe, the team’s co-captain and coach of the “fresh meat” skaters says that they’ll “take people at whatever fitness level they’re at. Most of them don’t have any previous skating experience, and even if they do, this isn’t just skating in the park. It takes at least six months of training before they’re ready to bout.”
That training includes five hours of group practice each week plus assorted “dry land” or off-skate conditioning exercises skaters are expected to do at home to build up their balance, agility and core strength.
“Injuries are common,” she says, “like any full contact sport. So the first thing I teach them is safe falls and safe stops. The concrete floor is hard and isn’t going to get any softer. Our number one priority here is safety.”
Those injuries have included twisted and broken ankles, bruised ribs, broken fingers and “rink rash,” the skaters’ term for the abrasions caused when bare skin slides across hard floors at high speeds.
“But that’s what all this training is for,” she adds, “it’s like a boot camp where we get them in shape and teach them how to play. And we’ll never send anybody out with the wolves before it’s too soon–a lot of people are afraid of that.”
Watching the collisions they endure and hits they lay on each other just during practice, I can definitely see why.
In addition to the half-year commitment just to practicing before they might see action in a bout, each player has to pay monthly dues to participate and has to have insurance coverage that will cover any injuries they suffer.
The skaters are also responsible for purchasing their own “kit” (skates, helmet, wrist guards, elbow pads, knee pads and a mouth guard) that can run from $250 to $500, a considerable investment just to join the team.
“We do this because we want to do this,” says Laura Claps, the team’s bout-day captain as well as a coach. “This isn’t high school or college. Nobody is doing this for a scholarship or to fit in. Nobody was pressured into this by their parents. Our own drive is what brought us here.”
What is it that drives so many women from such different backgrounds to something so physically, emotionally and financially demanding?
Amber MacMillan, who’s been on the team for just over two months, sums it up best. “It’s the camaraderie,” she says, “it’s amazing. Really like a family. Everyone has been very welcoming and supportive even from the first day I just came to watch.”
I hear an almost identical sentiment from all of the skaters I talk to.
“All sports have a certain amount of camaraderie,” Claps says, “but the bond you make with other women playing roller derby is tighter than any of the other sports I’ve ever played. We come to practice and literally beat the living shit out of each other; we push each other right up to the brink of blowing up. That’s going to create a really tight bond.”
“That’s what’s so great about derby,” Kehoe adds, “It is a sisterhood. It’s inclusive. It’s non-discriminatory. There’s a place for everybody. Big and strong? We’ll use you. Tiny and skinny and fast? We’ll use you.”
“It can be a very tricky thing,” Claps adds, “working with so many strong and independently-minded women, but its also very rewarding.”
To play a fast and (literally) rough-and-tumble sport like roller derby requires a tremendous amount of practice, as well as a very high tolerance for pain.
At one of their practices, held at the Marriott convention center, I watched 30 women of a variety of sizes and ages skate in a circle around the track that’s been marked off on the polished concrete floor in the large empty space.
After a particularly vicious collision–of which there have been many–one of the skaters was slow getting up.
After being tended to by some coaches, she gingerly gets back on her feet and skates slowly towards me while holding her hand to an area just below her hip.
She sits down in obvious pain and picks up a bottle of water.
“What happened?” I ask her.
“I think I broke a fallopian tube,” she says between sips of water.
In all the years I’ve played or watched a variety of sports, this is the first time I’ve ever heard someone complain of this injury. But I’ve never been to a women’s roller derby practice either.
“When it’s bout day, it’s their job to knock people down, it’s their job to hit hard and it’s their job to beat you,” says Claps, “If I can prepare them for that in the most brutal way ever I’m okay with that.”
The drill she’s running, called “Blood and Thunder,” is brutal, but it’s exciting enough that I could watch it for hours.
It’s a “last woman standing” affair that involves all the skaters skating in a circle with kitchen sponges clenched under their armpits as they try to knock each other down with hip-checks. The sponges are there to train the skaters to keep their arms tucked in while they skate.
All artists practice what they perform but I’ve never seen an actor or a violinist covered in the constellations of purple and yellow and black bruises that almost every skater here is sporting.
They’re used to it though it and it shows–these are some truly tough women.
As soon as a skater drops a sponge, falls or gets knocked to the ground, they’re eliminated. But they stay right where they were eliminated, and the remaining skaters now have to skate around this ever-growing group of human obstacles. One by one, the remaining skaters fall and their grounded teammates shout encouragement to those still skating.
“Hit her so hard she pees,” one of them yells.
Mostly though, it’s encouragement. Barked orders softened with positive reinforcement.
Claps is the one of the bigger skaters on the team and one of the few remaining skaters as the drill goes on. Her teammates seem to particularly relish the chance to see her eliminated and enthusiastically cheer on the remaining skaters trying in vain to knock her down.
It doesn’t help though, and once again she’s the last skater standing.
“It’s all fun,” she says, “I’m notoriously hard to knock down.”
When I see her in their first bout, this becomes abundantly clear.
On bout night, what was formerly just a big empty space has been transformed into a bona fide roller derby arena with seating for 600 people.
One hundred percent of this transformation was the work of team members and their families who arrived at noon to start setting up.
“Some of us got here early to set up and some of us will stick around afterwards to help break it all down,” skater Quinn Dreasler tells me. “It really is a family affair. When the doors open in a bit and we start letting people in, my mom will be selling the tickets.”
When I arrive for their first home bout the crowd was numbering well into the 700s–the final tally was actually 831–and with the exception of a couple of Hawkeye football games I’ve been to, it’s the biggest event I’ve ever been to in the Iowa City area.
Although every penny the team generates from ticket sales, fund raisers, sponsorships and selling merchandise already goes back into supporting the team–no player receives so much as a dime for all their hard work–the team is working toward becoming a certified nonprofit organization.
Charitable giving accounts for a big part of their budget and at each home bout, the team presents a generous check to a local charities that have a “pro-women” mission statement in line with their own.
Past recipients have included the Boys and Girls Club, Girls on the Run and the Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP).
Before the bout begins, each player is introduced by the announcer, who reads the fictional bio each skater has created for herself, while she takes a lap around the track giving high-fives to the fans.
Adopting fictional “nom de skates” and bout night alter egos has been a part of the sport for as long as anyone can remember, and it adds a dramatic and theatrical flair to the sport not seen anywhere else except for pro wrestling.
In order to insure that no two players anywhere have the same derby name, new players have to submit their names for approval to the International Rollergirls’ Master Roster, a comprehensive list of nearly 20 thousand names compiled from the nearly 700 roller derby teams now playing worldwide.
I was shocked to learn there were that many teams in action but given the fact that derby is an exciting and fast-paced sport that provides good role models for young girls, plenty of violence and attractive women to appeal to men, and almost no team anywhere charges more than $10 for a ticket, it makes a lot of sense.
This sport is decidedly not pro wrestling, however.
“That’s a misconception a lot of people have,” Claps says, “That this is like pro wrestling on skates. That’s it’s all thrown elbows and tripping each other and kicking folks and all kinds of nasty stuff, but it’s not. Are there occasionally fights? Sure. But that’s not what we–or this sport–are about. There are still some teams like that and that’s how it might have started, but those are teams that play on a banked track not teams playing under WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) rules like we do.”
One skater in particular, GLADi8HER, seems to particularly relish the chance to fire up the crowd during her pre-bout intro. Her mouth guard and big infectious smile gives her a Cheshire Cat grin that the crowd will see a lot more of once the bout begins and she starts scoring points.
Claps tells me that this kind of showmanship is “something that can’t really be taught, that’s just who she is.” It works though, and the crowd eats it up.
Don’t be fooled though by their demeanor. Some of the hardest hits and most impressively graceful bits of sneaky snaking I see come from skaters that have the same calm expression on their face while they’re playing as they do when they’re in the dairy aisle at Hy-Vee.
I’ve seen them there, these are our neighbors.
Each bout has a theme. Their first home bout was the St. Patrick’s Day themed “Four Leaf Clobber,” and their second was “Malice in Derbyland.” At each bout all the players, as well as many of their fans, dress in costumes inspired by the theme, and this shared pageantry truly blurs the line between the fans and the players.
Announcers provide a running color commentary throughout their bouts, and they employ a fair amount of double entendres (“look at these naughty, naughty girls slamming into each other”) that put a smile on the face of the adults and sail harmlessly over the heads of the many children in attendance.
Sex appeal has always been a big part of the sport of roller derby, -and the women on the team do look really good in their fishnets and short-shorts, but it’s really just an added attraction, a bonus bit of flair and flash secondary to their impressive athleticism and toughness. (Even the custom wearing of fishnets and stockings had its roots in the physicality of the sport as they significantly cut down on the amount of “rink rash” players will suffer sliding across the floor when they fall.)
After their bouts they mill among the crowd talking to friends and family and pose for pictures with their fans. The ease with which they inhabit the fictional bios they’ve created for themselves even now–off the clock–makes me wonder if, for some of them anyway, the fictional bios are their real identities and it’s who they are the rest of the time that’s the fiction.
It’s inspiring to see the many young girls who approach them for autographs after each bout, knowing that they have real and local role models to look up to, rather than vacuous Hollywood celebutantes best known for leaving the house without wearing underwear.
The crowds they draw for their bouts are unquestionably the most diverse ones I’ve ever been a part of as long as I’ve lived in Iowa.
Local farmers wearing their “Saturday best” overalls and feed caps wait in the beer line behind local hipsters sporting their “Saturday best” piercings and skinny jeans, while teenage boys and girls flirt with each other while ignoring their parents who are, in turn, ignoring them.
Lesbian couples sit holding hands in the “suicide seats” (so named as these are the seats closest to the track where skaters occasionally careen into the spectators after losing control) while on either side them sit folks that are clearly some of the players’ grandparents.
With just over two minutes on the clock during their second home bout, the captain of the visiting team takes a bad fall and lays on the track for a solid 10 minutes, being attended to by coaches and medical personnel.
Although I’ve been told by a number of players that there’s “no crying in derby,” it looked like she was, but, I’ll find out later, she tore the ACL in her knee and will miss the rest of the season so who could blame her?
Everyone cheers when she’s finally lifted onto a stretcher and wheeled to the ambulance that’s on hand for all bouts.
While she’s being wheeled away she raises her hand and gives a thumbs-up signal to the crowd.
They crowd erupts even more when she does this and it perfectly sums up how I feel about roller derby: thumbs up all the way.
Once she’s healed, I have no doubt she’ll don her skates and come down to face off against the Old Capitol City Roller Girls once again, and I have no doubt I’ll be in the audience when she does.
How could I miss it?