Iowa City’s youth roller derby league emboldens kids of all kinds

The Misfits — I.C. Bruiser’s top tier roller derby team — gather around their coach. — photo by James Hirsch

Kids of all genders and backgrounds gather at the center of the Grant Wood Elementary school gym, laughing and greeting their friends, only stopping when volunteers announce it is time to circle up. “Collide A Scope! Danimal! Bruz-A-Lot! Rainbow Assassin!”

Introductions before practice are necessary for the I.C. Bruisers junior roller derby league. Its free price tag and welcoming environment bring in new skaters from the Iowa City area each week.

The first step is picking a derby name. Cece Ferreira, whose family started the league in 2014, said derby names help skaters be who they want to be, free of outside pressures or expectations. Cece, whose pronouns are they/them/their, said they appreciate how the league provides a safe space for young people to be themselves.

“Once I go to practice or games, I don’t have to be Cecelia — I am Rainbow Assassin,” Cece said. “Most of my teammates actually just use derby names outside of derby.”

Roller derby is a contact sport played on an oval-shaped track where points are scored by lapping opposing team members. The I.C. Bruisers junior roller derby league was founded by Brian (Beezer) and Veronica (Madame Paperwork) Ferreira after they moved to Iowa City. Both were officials in adult leagues and brought their kids to Old Capitol City Roller Derby games.

Cece, the youngest member of the Ferreira family, wanted to be involved in the sport after seeing women skating around hitting each other in glittery outfits. However, the closest junior roller derby teams to Iowa City were in the Quad Cities.

With more than 60 active skaters ranging in age from 5 to 17, the Bruisers are supported by donations and parent volunteers. The size of the group and range of skill levels have necessitated a three-way split. The Misfits are the most experienced and competitive, ready for full contact and playing with the same rules as professional leagues. The Black-Hearted Bruisers includes kids just learning how to participate in contact as well as those developing skills in full-contact play. The Bug Bites are no contact, instead focusing on honing fundamental skills like controlling skates and falling safely.

In an effort to eliminate bias the different groups are not based on age, gender or any other characteristic besides skill level. When determining who will skate in bouts (derby lingo for games) against other teams, Veronica said a rubric is used so things are fair and transparent.

Photo by Danforth Johnson

While the Bruisers is free to join, that’s not the case for most junior roller derby leagues. With startup gear costing a few hundred dollars, in addition to recurring league dues and other fees, Brian said roller derby is normally more of a middle-class sport. The Ferreira family and the rest of the volunteers work to involve all interested young people in the league.

“We wanted to try something new, something different — to see if we could do it free,” Brian said. “I was able to work with the city to donate some space just to see if we could make it work, and we have been able to make it work.”

Veronica said most of the Bruisers’ funding comes from their annual Skate-A-Thon, a crafts and vendor fundraiser held early each spring, as well as grants and other small fundraisers throughout the year. Brian said the fundraisers are great because they showcase the community environment of roller derby.

“If we were to ever run out [of gear], then adult volunteers donate to make sure we have what we need,” Veronica said. “It’s not uncommon for us to run out of mouth guards and have somebody run to the store real quick and go, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. They’re only a buck a piece.’”

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Brian estimates around 70 to 75 percent of the kids on the Bruisers would not be involved if it were not free. Parents from all backgrounds said they felt derby improved their children’s health, social sphere and, most importantly, confidence.

The confidence boost happens quickly. Nina Jakob (Bruz-A-Lot) said the team’s structure improved her confidence from the beginning. She was able to move up a level after only a month on derby skates.

“They really value your opinion here, and that just makes you a lot bolder to say your opinion in public,” Nina said.

Photo by Danforth Johnson

The abilities that Nina and the rest of the skaters are achieving are especially important during childhood, which is when kids develop a notion of competency, according to psychologist E.H. Erikson. Building on Erikson’s theory, a study of team-organized sports published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise in 2009 indicated that an increase in how an individual views their athletic competency leads to an increase in self-esteem outside of the sport.

Many team parents said the Iowa City derby community provided a large support system and accepting environment for their kids, with fellow derby members becoming like family. Even inter-team camaraderie is not atypical of derby leagues.

“There’s a team in the Quad Cities that I consider my derby family just as much as I consider my own team,” Cece said. “I’ll sub in for them whenever they’re short skaters, and I talk to them just as much as I talk to my own teammates.”

This family aspect was especially important for Cece after moving to Kalona. As a 13-year-old with neon blue hair and multiple facial piercings, Cece said it is hard because people see their appearance and automatically think they are up to no good.

“When you get to know me I’m a really nice person and I have straight A’s,” Cece said. “I’ve always been super outgoing but I can only stick to this small group of friends that I have — and half of them are in derby.”

Ileana Knapp (Collide A Scope), one of the skaters who has been on the Bruisers since the beginning, joined in the hopes that derby would be a positive outlet to channel and organize emotions.

“I’m a lot more outgoing in these settings because I know I’m not going to be judged for who I am or what I choose to dress like,” Ileana said.

Photo by Danforth Johnson

Daniel Kenyon (Danimal), a freckled boy with shaggy hair, said his favorite aspect of derby is hitting.

“It’s cool to think that I’m not going to injure someone but I get to do something that looks like it could cause an injury,” Daniel said.

In practice, Daniel pays close attention to what his coaches tell him about his technique. In a bout, he takes on the position of jammer and darts through the pack with speedy dexterity. He takes care not to get too rough with anyone and checks in on an opposing skater when they wipe out.

Brian said seeing kids excel while having fun is one of the most rewarding parts of being a derby coach, and watching the derby community develop has made him happy.

Many volunteers join because that happiness is contagious, Veronica said. The community often spills over into the Ferreira home.

“Our house almost always has at least half a dozen teenagers in it, which is awesome,” Veronica said. “Sometimes they’ll come over because things aren’t so cool at home, and it’s awesome to be that person for somebody.”

The league is a safe space for LGBTQIA kids, as well as those with different body types and abilities. Derby does not have an ideal type of athlete, Cece said. Skaters just need to stay active and go into it with a positive attitude.

“We have a really short, really skinny girl who’s like 8 or 9 who helps us because she’s really fast and people are afraid to hit her because she’s so small,” Cece said. “We also have a very large girl with a lot of body mass who loves the way she looks, and we’re so glad she does because people are afraid to be hit by her.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 226.