A swarm of helmets, kneepads and sparkly shorts sped around the D.C. armory track Saturday. Ladies with names deriving from political figures to sexuality skated into each other as part of the city’s most vicious sport.
Women from all backgrounds and athletic abilities, with different day jobs and body types don derby costumes – anything from glittery pink fishnets to athletic, white knee socks, with a mix of permanent and Sharpie-drawn tattoos – to partake in the intense contact sport of roller derby.
No matter what these women do by day, derby brings them together at night.
Samantha McGovern, a two-time graduate and current employee in the Division of Operations, is a member of the Majority Whips – the newest team to join the DC Rollergirls league.
Known to her teammates by her derby name, “Grreen Eggs and Wham,” McGovern refers to the entire league as a family, calling everyone a little quirky. A truly perfect example of all that is D.C., members who join are transplants to the District from across the country and work in all forms of employment from government jobs to teachers and lawyers.
Despite diverse backgrounds, the players all share a forceful passion and dedication to their sport. All members devote serious amounts of time, sacrificing relationships, outside social lives and money to compete. Gear itself can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – kneepads alone go for $80 – and the amount of time spent practicing can total 10 to 15, to over 20 hours a week.
That’s not counting the duties each league member takes on to sustain the league. Whether it be acting as league secretary, baking treats for concession stands, filling out contracts for practice space or stepping up to lead their intense training sessions, the athletes do it all.
By having every one of the about 80 league members take on responsibilities, they forge an over-arching coalition of the all league teams with a common goal greater than just winning a bout – they just want to skate as often as possible and maybe even inspiring someone else in the audience to do the same.
But with the gutsy blocks and virile checks coming at players from every angle, a high level of focus is needed on the track. As the first whistle sounded on Jan. 28, the first match – known as a bout – of 2012, nearly 3,000 fans watched eight fierce women take off from the track’s front line, known as the pivot line. These women formed the pack.
Each team is led by one member wearing a “pivot panty” on her helmet, a striped cap that signifies she is in charge.
Meghan Griffee, known on the track as “Artemis Conduct,” or Acon for short, describes the Majority Whips’s pivot-panty-wearing leader as the quarterback, quickly calling plays and astutely controlling her teammates and fearlessly leading the pack.
Seconds later, after the sound of another whistle, two more women, known as the jammers, take off, elbowing their way through the other players, swiftly dodging blocks and checks, trying to make their way through the pack without committing any of the 32-page rule book’s penalties.
The player to do this earns the title of lead jammer, controlling when the up-to-two-minute jam session ends. A jammer’s job is to get through the pack as many times as possible while committing as few errors as possible.
Jammers are the only team members with the ability to score points. They do so by successfully making it through the pack, dodging blocks and hip checks from the opposing team who try to thwart their efforts.
By day, Griffee, a blonde-haired, energetic, quick-to-laugh skater, is a regional manager for a communications firm from Germantown, Md. at night, and throughout every other moment of her free time, she is a dedicated member of the Cherry Blossom Bombshells.
After learning about derby through a friend, Griffee went out for the “fresh meat tryouts,” specifically for women new to derby. McGovern explained that the last few tryouts attracted over 80 women, widening the ring of potential derby talent.
“I was a hot mess on skates at first. I could barely stand up,” Griffee said.
Griffee spent four weeks preparing and battled it out with fellow derby hopefuls at the tryouts.
The players who survive go on to a derby boot camp. For Griffee, this meant 10 weeks of intensive training. Next is the draft. Teams can have up to 18 skaters, selecting 14 to suit up on bout day – the derby equivalent of game day.
“It’s chaos. People are running around and yelling and screaming and skating and hitting you and trying to hit you – it’s chaos,” Peggy Sue, better known to her teammates as Dyke Diggler, a 42-year-old member of Scare Force One with bright pink streaks in her hair and star tattoos down her leg, said.
For the women of derby, this high-energy union of athleticism and friendship becomes more than an evening sport or hobby. It’s described as a rush, a release and an unusual yoga-like way to center themselves.
“I mean, it’s football on skates for goodness sakes. We hit ourselves as hard as we can, legally,” Sue.
Roller derby players compare the game to the offensive and defensive lines of a football team. They are responsible for playing both roles at the same time, she said, citing the ability to multi-task as a coveted skill to have on the track.
“Some people know how to skate, but that doesn’t make you a good roller derby player,” Sue said.
Desired derby skills include multi-tasking, awareness, athleticism and strength. The latter is especially necessary when it comes to fending off and dishing out the bullish blocks that are a staple of the sport.
“We dish it out on the track pretty hard…then we go get a beer together. It’s fantastic. I love knocking people over,” she said. “It’s very satisfying.”
Skaters aim to stop opponents from making their way through the pack by hitting legal blocking zones – any part from the shoulder to mid-thigh is fair game.
Hip checks, shoulder checks and chest blocks are all legal hits.
“Hitting people is a very primal thing, and I am a very happy person in my life. I’ve never actually clocked someone ever – it’s a huge release. I love it,” Sue said. Bouts can get violent, but the tension ends on the court.
“Without a doubt, we are serious athletes. We dedicate 10 to 20, to sometimes 40 hours a week to the sport. We are not professional wrestlers, we are not lingerie models, we’re not screwing around. We are very, very serious about what we do,” Sue said.
Learning the Lingo
Calling off the Jam:
When the lead jammer ends a jam by repeatedly
tapping her hands on
Eat the baby:
When one jammer is absorbed by the pack.
When a jammer succeeds in lapping the opposing jammer, scoring an extra point for that pass.
The cover that goes over the pivot’s helmet (with a stripe) or the jammer’s helmet (with stars on each side).
When one skater uses another skater’s momentum to propel herself.
Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the sport’s governing body.
Source: The D.C. Rollergirls pamphlet