Connecticut Roller Derby: Blood Sisters of the Flat Track

 

Kristin McPherson, aka “Fun-Sized Fury,” gingerly wraps a fresh tattoo to protect it from mayhem. With the Grim Reaper safely swaddled, she slathers Icy Hot on both knees and pops a couple of ibuprofen. An older tat on Kristin’s other arm depicts Kristin in action: crouching forward, listing, resplendent in black retro biker helmet, fishnet stockings, unforgiving “booty shorts” and (almost forgot!) roller skates. Her likeness is navigating a turn on a roller derby flat track. It’s a tossup as to which arm is scarier.

Life is about to imitate art on this bleak Sunday night, in the depths of January, at the Galaxy Roller Rink in Groton, which looks as if it hasn’t changed since Buddy Holly was rocking such venues. The Shoreline Roller Derby Girls are getting ready for their 2013 season: 13 bouts from March to September in Groton and other cities around the Northeast. They will practice three nights a week.

McPherson, who is 38, a hairdresser and from Groton, is one of four pioneering “Derby Girls” who started the shoreline league rolling two years ago. Her previous athletic experience was as a cheerleader. She had taken her son to Galaxy for a birthday party when she spied the sign-up poster that posed the existential question: “Do you want to do roller derby?”

She remembers the moment vividly: “It was like, right away, yes I do. Mind you, I knew nothing about roller derby at all, but I went out the next day and bought the equipment. I had to rent skates for the first few practices. There were four of us and we had the best time. It was love. I felt great getting in shape and wearing fishnets. Who could ask for anything more?”

Raw recruits, known in derby parlance as “fresh meat,” are whirling around the track, two dozen strong. They are learning how to skate in a pack, to block and check opponents, how to pass the opposition, and most important, how to fall. There will be spills and if skaters don’t “fall small,” with hands and arms protected by their torso, there will be broken bones.

Milling about the folding chairs set against cinder block walls 20 feet from the elongated skating ellipse, McPherson and the other veterans are suiting up: knee and elbow pads, wrist and mouth guards—and mascara. This bevy of “girls” is up next; girls is what these 20- to 40-somethings call themselves. A mysterious breeze swirls, as if the air conditioning is on; there are no doors or windows in this bunker to account for it. Then it dawns: It’s the girls careening around the track. The skaters not only have a league of their own, they create their own weather.

Shelby “Britney’s Fears” Carlson, of East Lyme, is at the practice, too, even though she’s nursing two injuries (wrist and foot) from last season and can’t skate. Her husband volunteers as a referee and participates in the drills. Shelby is 36 and studying for a degree in business management; the couple has five children. Like many derby girls, she had an epiphany at her first roller bout. She’d been doing Jazzercise to stay in shape, but hadn’t played sports since middle school. “As soon as the girls came onto the track I was star-struck,” she recalls, “I thought, this is me, I have to do this. I can’t quite explain it, it just took over. I have to be at practice. I have to know everything. I have to watch.”

Geoffrey Sewell is at practice, too, helping out and watching his daughter Meg “Nduce N Agony,” of Norwich, skate: “I was astonished when she wanted to try this, and more astonished when I came and saw what she was doing—the intensity, the excitement and the enthusiasm. These girls live for this. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for this kind of competition for women at their age. They travel all over to scout and see the other teams play. It’s addictive.”
 

 

Roller derby, like rock ’n’ roll, will never die. As the lyric goes on to explain, “It was meant to be that way, though I don’t know why.” Derby did, however, go into suspended animation from 1970 until 2002, when it was resuscitated in Austin, Tex.—from whence it spread like prairie fire. Today, there are hundreds of female leagues and more all the time, in every state, including three in Connecticut, and all over Europe. An estimated 20,000 female skaters ply the flat track nationwide.

This latest incarnation of roller derby is a second cousin to the circa-1960 televised spectacle that featured teams like the San Francisco Bay Bombers: loud and leggy females flying helter-skelter around a banked track, elbowing one another over the railing, pulling hair and staging “fights” like pro wrestlers. Although it retains a healthy dose of theatrics, modern derby is different. There is no fighting, fake or otherwise, no trash talking, no visible signs of animosity between competitors even after a big hit, and no heckling the referees—though, remarkably, there are seven refs and they all couldn’t possibly be getting all the calls right. It sounds un-American, but that’s the way the girls do it.

And get this, the refs are volunteers; they adopt double entendre stage names just like the girls; and, during timeouts they too shake their booty to the music blaring over the loudspeakers. It’s hard to find fault with a pastime that combines sport, exhibitionism, and deliciously abysmal puns. The top two teams for the Connecticut RollerGirls (CTRG), who skate out of Woodbridge, are Stepford Sabotage and Yankee Brutals. The A team for the Hartford Area Roller Derby (HARD) is the Hartford Wailers. Two of the wittier-named skaters for CTRG are Luciana Pulverotti and Eleanor Bruisevelt. And finally, helmets off to Hoosier Mama and Emily Decker’son.

Roller derby started to rock Connecticut six years ago. While the Groton and Hartford leagues began in 2011, the Connecticut RollerGirls have been doing it since 2007. And they do it pretty well. Their season opener in February was sheer entertainment: equal parts sport, street fair and block party. When there was a long delay between the two bouts, no one seemed to mind. The roughly 350 fans, who paid $12 apiece, milled about with the countless derby roadies and family members, perused the row of vendor booths, and petted the gigantic bullmastiff that belonged to the couple selling drums.

Near the well-stocked beer table, one could procure cupcakes, Avon products, logoed CTRG T-shirts, rockabilly booty wear, raffle tickets, a painted face and more. The walls were festooned with banners of sponsors, highlighted by Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. The event program was jammed with local ads, many from establishments frequented by the skaters, such as Claire’s Corner Copia, the Official Vegan Restaurant of CTRG. Businesses get right into the spirit of things: The City Climb ad proclaims “Everyone Gets Belayed.” As befits such a major public event, there were police on duty, an ambulance in the parking lot and a sign-in sheet for media. The girls know how to put on a show.

The first bout went down to the wire, before the Yankee Brutals succumb 140-116 to a team from New Hampshire. In the second, the DC Rollergirls—who are ranked seventh in the “eastern region,” which encompasses Canada and Germany—outscored Stepford Sabotage 193 to 161. When the final whistle blew it was hard to tell the winners from the losers. High fives reign before and after the bouts. The harmony is contagious, but the night is far from over for the home team. Cleanup is a bear, and involves scrubbing off scuff marks made by the skates. Finally, of course, it was party time. The girls’ day at the rink started at 4 p.m. and didn’t end until well past midnight for some.

One has to wonder how these women accomplish it all: They skate three to four times a week; exercise on their own; work on CTRG committees (publicity, sponsorships, etc.); have jobs and families and boyfriends. Denise “DEE Nasty” D’Onofrio, who landed the Pabst sponsorship, among many others, is a Bridgeport middle school English teacher. But even with business support, ticket revenue, merchandise sales and fundraisers, each CTRG skater pays $480 a year to play on one of the five teams. They also pony up for their equipment and travel expenses.

So why is it, then, that these women love it so much they’ve made it among the fastest-growing sports in the world, a sport that the International Olympic Committee is considering for the 2020 games, a sport that increasingly is featured in pop culture, in movies and prime-time TV shows? Why are they addicted to roller derby, which batters and bruises their bodies?

Perhaps a better question is: Why wouldn’t they love it? It’s their game. They make the rules. They set the tone. Sure, it’s a little Zen. Winning isn’t everything. Participating is. They say it’s about supporting and respecting one another—even their biggest rivals. Vince Lombardi just wouldn’t get it.

But make no mistake, these women love to play hard and bang. Ask a derby girl about a memorable hit and watch her smile. Shelby “Brittany’s Fears” Carlson remembers when she nailed the captain of a team from Providence and sent her flying out of bounds: “I was all over her that night, and when I knocked her sideways, it was like, ‘YES, I’m a real derby girl now.’”

Kielty Wintersteen, 23 and a triathlete, had already caught the derby bug from friends back home before she migrated from Indiana to Connecticut last year to teach music in an inner-city New Haven School. She signed right up with the CT RollerGirls in August. She is undergoing a lengthy process of tryouts, skills training and scrimmaging that has taken nearly six months before she can be assigned to a team. She’s picked out her derby name, “Kill-Ty Pleasure,” and is raring to mix it up on the flat track.

She explains derby this way: “We have our real lives, and then at practice and in bouts, I am Kill-Ty Pleasure, not Ms. Wintersteen. I get to be a different person. I love learning something new. I joined because I want to meet new people in a new city. But I also love the workout—it’s a killer workout. And I love being able to hip-check someone legally, it’s awesome. I can’t do that at school.”
 

Connecticut Roller Derby: Blood Sisters of the Flat Track

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