Game of Chess on Wheels
You won’t catch these roller derby girls wearing skimpy shorts and cropped tops at this weekend’s United We Roll Alaska State Tournament and Boot Camp roller derby tournament in Wasilla at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center.
They aren’t competing to show off their bodies or be recognized as hottie roller derby babes. “You won’t see us dressed in booty shorts,” Jennifer Cruz, president of the Boom Town Derby Dames of the Mat-Su Valley, said after Tuesday night’s scrimmage practice in downtown Palmer. “We aren’t here to just show up and wear the outfit. We are here for the sport and for our sisterhood.” She isn’t kidding and neither are the other gals that spend a couple nights a week skating around the oval in a downtown Palmer gym.
Should you opt to attend one of the state tournament “bouts” as the games or matches in roller derby are labelled, you will discover a diverse set of women hailing from varied backgrounds all with one thing in common: love for the sport. The gals from BTDD, sponsored by Chepo’s of Eagle River and Wasilla, certainly are girls that wanna have fun in their chosen sport, but they aren’t out on the track for folks to check out their behinds or busts. They are there to improve themselves and their team. Yes, to some extent, they are there to somewhat escape temporarily from their otherwise normal routines of kids, laundry and work. Yet, this group is all about building camaraderie and support for each other through roller derby skills improvement. It is cool with them to call it female empowerment.
“This team encourages empowerment,” Cruz explained. “We help each girl take whatever it is that she brings to the team and we help her make it and herself part of this team. We don’t have cookie cutter roles for the girls on this team. We discover what is best about each girl and make it a vital part of our team.” That includes encouraging different body types to take on team roles such as “jammer” that the sport traditionally has reserved for the tiniest of skaters.
The “jammer” is the team member that scores points in roller derby by lapping the rest of the opposing team called “the pack.” A lot of jammers are smaller gals whose diminutive size means they can easily squeeze between other skaters in an effort to get around them. “We develop jammers of all types,” Cruz said. “We have gals that are the sneaky types and we have others that are bulldozers, but they are all vital and key members of our team.” Of course, this sport isn’t without its injuries. It is bound to happen as gals push and shove each other – no elbow throwing or hits in the back allowed, though – while on quad skates cruising around a flat oval track with rope and wrestling tape as its only boundary markers.
Cruz broke her collar bone in the state’s first tournament in Fairbanks in 2013.
Brittany Bras of Chugiak sprang her ACL ligament in February during Fur Rendezvous bouts. She was at Tuesday night’s scrimmage, but she wasn’t skating. Instead, she was blowing the whistle signaling for her teammates during the practice. Her injury is a bummer, she admits, but it isn’t keeping her from being an active part of the team and hanging with the gals that have become her extended family. Bras – better known on track as “Bras Knuckles” – has been a roller girl for two years now having started in what is known as the “fresh meat” program four years ago. “Fresh meat” is just what it sounds like: gals wanting to learn the sport but are new to it and in some cases – completely new to skating. Bras – a merchandiser at Carrs Quality Center in Eagle River by day – said she was drawn to the sport because of its combination of a variety of athletic types.
“Derby just meshes it all together,” Bras said. She referenced the lean and mean gymnast body type, the tall basketball player type and the powerful legs of the soccer-playing type. “It doesn’t matter what body style you are, as long as you put the work in, derby offers something for everyone.”
The physicality of roller derby is what drew Sally Laret of Chugiak who works in the attendance office at Chugiak High School to the sport. She played hockey in high school and was a member of the first girls’ hockey team at CHS in 2002 playing in the wing position. She had a big smile on her face when asked why she is a roller girl.
“It is a contact sport,” she said.
Tuesday night, Laret was skating as referee. The seven-year veteran of roller derby is also 27 weeks pregnant, but that is not preventing her from being on skates. She readily admits part of the draw for her is the escape.
“It gets my mind off everything else that is going on in my life,” she laughed. She also enjoys being on the other side of the whistle.
“It is making me a better skater for the team by now focusing on skills development for the other girls,” Laret said.
Her eyes were keenly focused on how “the pack” at Tuesday night’s scrimmage worked together to attempt to block jammers. In between the mini sessions that a practice scrimmage entails she was sharing her observations with her teammates. Tuesday night’s scrimmage had its fair share of spills and thrills, but falling down is just part of roller derby. The gym owned by the Mat-Su Borough in downtown Palmer was filled with laughter as well as the skaters practiced their techniques and congratulated each other on performance.The supportive atmosphere of Tuesday night’s scrimmage is something the skaters say transfers to their bouts t which creating a family-friendly event featuring competitive fun and sportsmanship is the goal. Husbands and children lend a hand at events. Cruz’s husband, Michael Schwahm, is an announcer at bouts. There are many other tasks to complete at bouts from being a non-skating official to keeping score and taking statistics to helping with concessions. It is a skater-run program: Monies to pay for rental for practice locations and for bouts come from skater dues and sponsorships that the skaters themselves secure. It is a work in progress, Cruz admits.
The sport is gaining its loyal fan base in Alaska. And it is bringing in roller derby royalty from the Lower 48 for special events. For the first time, this year’s state tournament features a specialty training clinic with one of roller derby’s super stars – Miss Tea Maven of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby in New York City. Cruz cannot wait for Sunday’s boot camp scheduled for after Friday and Saturday night’s bouts in the tournament. Training with Miss Tea Maven in small class sizes of only 10 skaters is a roller derby girl’s dream come true, she said. Cruz looks forward to learning more of the legend’s strategies.
“Roller derby is all about strategy,” Cruz said. “It basically is a masterful game of chess on wheels.”
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the Boom Town Derby Dames online at www.boomtownrollerderby.org. Learn more about the United We Roll Alaska State Tournament and Boot Camp online at //www.boomtownrollerderby.org/events/2016/4/22/united-we-roll-alaska-state-tournament-and-bootcamp.