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Roller Derby Thu Jul 15 2010
Two women stand along the sideboards in a medium-size gym, watching their daughters skate in circles. Suddenly, a girl hits the floor. Hard. Quickly, she picks herself back up and sprints to catch up with the rest of the pack. As their girls skate laps, the women chat, their words barely audible over the yelling, laughter, and the click 'n' screech sounds of wheels abruptly stopping. "We need a sticker that says 'Derby Mom,'" says one mom in a punky knitting shirt. "Better than 'soccer mom,'" says the other mom with a wink. "I don't fit soccer mom criteria."
Riots Over Chicago
Move over, volleyball. Scoot aside, lacrosse. Meet the Chicago Riots, a new junior roller derby league for teen girls ages 12 to 17. Since its inception in the fall of 2009, the league now roughly numbers 20 skaters, many of whom wear ripped tights and fishnets to their weekly practice. Black eye makeup and streaked hair complete the look. Sure, it's a little overdressed for two hours of hard skating, but it's also absolutely adorable.
Unlike many sports leagues and teams for minors, the Riots were actually started by the teens themselves. One fall day two 14-year-old girls went to a craft fair and saw roller girls advertising for an upcoming bout. At a sleepover that night, the girls had a flash of brilliance. "I can tell you exactly when it happened: It was September 3, between 6 to 8 p.m., in Humboldt Park," says Bubblegum Ferocious, aka Myra Heightchew.
"We thought it was the first time anyone had thought of it, so we thought we were pretty brilliant," she continues. "Yeah, but later we found out there's a bunch of junior roller derby leagues in the U.S.," says her co-instigator, Fistful O'Hare, aka Fiona Bradley. That night, the girls e-mailed one of the local (and adult) roller derby leagues, the Chicago Outfit, and asked for their help. The Outfit responded in about an hour.
Now, two teenagers giggling about starting a project isn't really notable. But the thing is, these two girls did it, they carried it off, which is notable. Particularly when, as any parent or teacher can attest, getting a number of teens to do something cohesively can be akin to herding cats. Hormonal, temperamental cats that need you to drive them to practice.
And They're Off!
Their first practice was at a decidedly unglamorous 5 a.m. at Orbit Skate Center in Palatine--a long haul for many of the girls, who live in the city and surrounding Chicagoland area. Because of the dearth of in-city skating rinks, the Riots shuffled from venue to venue, including the Fleetwood Skating Rink in Summit and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Park and Family Entertainment Center on Chicago's South Side. Finally, they settled at the Community Center in Oak Park. Since only one of the Riots is old enough to drive, the girls depend on public transportation and carpools.
Most of the girls had never roller skated before, much less tried to sprint, block, and score points while skating. "In the beginning they were taking just little baby steps. But the way they were progressing was unbelievable." says Chicago Outfit skater Mari Cone, aka Evelyn Puentes, who volunteer coaches the Riots along with other members of the Outfit.
"I can vividly recall them at the MLK rink, all wobbly," says Deborah Shaw-Staley, whose daughter, Violet Staley, 14, skates under the nom de derby Rushin' Roulette. "But about a month ago, I was watching them skate, and I got a little verklempt. Their progression has been so exciting to see."
I Got Worry
It can be a little disconcerting to think of a willowy 12 year old out there on the track, what with the pain and injuries derby players regularly incur, but most parents are supportive and don't regard roller derby as any more dangerous than other rough sports.
Mari says that she and the other coaches try to work with concerned parents, to show them that their daughters are in good hands. "We let them come to a practice and see how we run drills, and we explain that it's not a contact sport for them," she says. Unlike adult roller derby, the skaters in junior leagues generally aren't allowed to play full contact; instead, they learn to lean and booty block. There's actually more contact in, say, soccer, than in junior league roller derby.
The coaches often play an amalgam of coach, big sister, therapist, and referee. "It's usually outside influences--the girls have had a bad day, then they take a fall and just break down. Or sometimes they're just frustrated that they're not able to do some things that the other girls can do, or they've fought outside of derby and bring it into the rink," says Mari. "There are times I feel more like a counselor, but they need it."
The Riots Take on the Mini Skirtz
Currently, the league's plan is to have A and B teams like the Chicago Outfit and exclusively operate as a travel team. The Chicago Riots had their first bout on June 5 against the Skeetown Mini Skirtz from Muskegon, Mich. The bout was short (they played during the Outfit's half-time), and the Mini Skirtz beat the Riots 39-44. Even so, the girls don't seem to care much, gushing over the excitement of finally being able to show their stuff to friends and family. "The girls on the other team were so nice. We were all like best friends by the end," says Fistful. "I was surprised at how I wasn't phased at all by people watching. It was like your ears and eyes were covered except for the track."
"Frankly, we didn't know what to expect, but [the score] was way closer than we anticipated," Mari says of the bout. "Afterward, they all skated off with the biggest smiles on their faces. That was our proudest moment--to see how happy they were."
The parents and friends in attendance, of course, were equally thrilled. "Oh, I was totally overcome with tears of excitement," says Shaw-Stanley. "Afterward, one of my friends told Violet, "I was crying like I was at your wedding!"
Countdown to Cool
Talking to other adult derby skaters, there's an overwhelming feeling of support for the Riots--and envy. These girls are far cooler than we ever were at that age. While yours truly was rocking some pretty rad giant, peach-colored eyeglasses at age 12, some of the Riots knew each other previously from Girls Rock! Chicago rock camp. Fistful plays in an all-gal band called Circular Convention. "It's incredible, what these girls are already doing. It's like, 'I'm 13, I have my own band, and I play roller derby,'" says Mari, shaking her head. "I mean, where do you go from there?"
Fistful's mother, Kim Campbell, agrees. "It's a different world. There wasn't even an option to be in a band or something when I was their age, other than marching band. It's like the feminist ideal we wanted in the '70s--these girls are it. Anything they want to do, they can do it."
Campbell says she's also noticed a change in her daughter and the other girls since joining the Riots. "These girls are so fearless--of course, every teenager has their fears, but they seem to handle it better," she says. Both she and Shaw-Stanley have also noticed a change in their daughters' eating and off-the-track exercise habits.
As for the girls, Bubblegum and Fistful say that derby has changed their lives. They feel more confident and have learned about themselves in the process. "I've picked up a lot about teamwork, sportsmanship and just being athletic⎯very, very few of the us had done anything athletic before. And if this hadn't come along, we never would have," says Bubblegum.
Part of the appeal of roller derby is, admittedly, the coolness of roller derby. It's not uncommon for derby players--and fans--to put an inordinate amount of thought and time into picking out something as trivial as knee-high socks. "I mean, I really like the camaraderie and the atmosphere of derby," says Bubblegum, "and, not to sound vain, but the style, too⎯you can't wear fishnets playing basketball."
When it's pointed out that derby's an expensive sport--skates and gear aren't cheap, and the girls also pay $55 each in monthly dues. Both girls shrug.
"How I see it is," says Bubblegum, "I'd rather play derby for a thousand dollars than soccer for free."
The Derby Dame is Gapers Block contributor Kara Luger, who skated as Typhoid Mary with the Windy City Rollers and the Pikes Peak Derby Dames.
**The Chicago Riots are currently looking for gals ages 12-17 who are interested in playing roller derby. They're also looking for sponsors. If either interests you, contact them via their Facebook page or by e-mail: email@example.com.