By day they are your average teachers, social workers, attorneys, bartenders, photographers, nurses, government workers, businesswomen, authors, or personal trainers, but when they put on their skates and don amusingly fierce names like Athena DeCrime and Hoosier Mama, they become the women of the roller derby.
I experienced the thrill of what this sport has to offer for the first time just a week and a half ago. It is fast and furious, while displaying the incredible agility and constant strategic athleticism of the players. You can watch roller derby in action on the silver screen in Drew Barrymore's film Whip It! coming out in early October, but you can also catch the real deal here in Chicago!
I got to chat with two of the Jewish members of Chicago’s roller derby teams—Donna Party, a member of the Windy City Rollers All-Stars, the number two ranked team in the country, and Tina Flay, (whose number 55 was inspired by her love for its Japanese translation, "go Jew go!") an up-and-coming player who has been training intensely to make her way onto a main team next season and is currently on the league's farm team, the Haymarket Rioters.
David Reinwald: How did you get involved with roller derby?
Donna Party: I met a hair stylist who was one of the original captains of the Double Crossers (home team) in early 2005. She told me she was part of a new group, the Windy City Rollers, and invited me to their first game at the Congress Theater. I walked into the theater and right as the game began, I knew I had to join and be a part of the roller derby resurgence. I volunteered at all the bouts, bought skates, practiced with some friends who also wanted to join, and tried out in February of 2006. That season so many girls wanted to join that there were tryouts, call backs, interviews, then finally at the beginning of March we were notified that we had made it onto the league as "Skater Tots" (what we used to call new members of the league).
Tina Flay: I found a flyer for an All-Star game last summer and decided to check it out. Within five minutes of watching I knew it was something I absolutely had to do. Two days later I was on skates for the first time in over a decade; and four months later, after training an average of three to four times a week, I tried out and made the league.
What do you like most about roller derby?
Donna: I have met some amazing women in Chicago and around the country, learned about teamwork in ways that I had never experienced before, gotten in the best physical and mental shape of my life, and I have grown into the self-confident woman that I am today.
Tina: The thing I like most is the confidence it's given me as far as fitness. Growing up I was never fond of sports or gym class, and I exercised, more out of vanity than anything else, but thought of it as a chore. Roller derby has given me a whole new perspective in terms of what my body is capable of doing. I'm more fit than I've ever been, and exercising is now a tool for me to get stronger so I can perform better on the track.
Can you share an offbeat or funny story or two?
Donna: I broke my leg during East Coast Regionals of 2007. We are fortunate enough to have our own medical staff (Mama Vendetta: a nurse, Papa Doc Vendetta: a doctor, and Roe: a physical therapist), so when I came off the track, Mama and Papa told me I had to go to the hospital for X-rays. At the hospital, two of my teammates came to check up on me. I told them things weren't so bad (ended up being broken only in three places) and I would be back on skates in no time. One of the girls handed me an ABC's of derby coloring book, and pointed to the page where a skater was pictured in a hospital room with a cast on her leg and the doctor had his hand on his face looking like "What is wrong with you?" and the caption was, "So, when can I skate?" It made me laugh, but the real answer for me was in six months.
Tina: I've had so many "It's a Small World"-type encounters since I've joined the league, it's uncanny. As soon as I mention WCR someone will say, "Oh, do you know so-and-so? She's my coworker/friend/stylist/cousin/etc!" I even had one of those myself - as it turns out, I met our league founder through my mom long before I even knew what roller derby was.
What type of training and conditioning do you do to keep yourself ready for the sport?
Donna: I am on the All-Stars and the Double Crossers, so I am required to attend at least three to four practices a week, and most of theAll-Stars skate five or six times a week. Each practice is two hours long and they vary from endurance, speed, agility, blocking, awareness, and scrimmage drills. I also train by riding my bicycle everywhere year round, and I do a lot of yoga for strength and flexibility training.
Tina: There's been an emphasis on cross-training this season, so in addition to regular skating practices I've been doing a lot of jogging, weight-lifting, and plyometrics. Recently a split swimming/yoga class was added to our league practice options, so I've been attending that as well.
What would you want to say to your fans and to those who haven't yet experienced roller derby?
Tina: To our fans, I'd like to say thank you for your support, and I hope to see you at our next bout! To those who haven't seen it, I'd like to say you love roller derby, you just don't know it yet! There are still a lot of misconceptions about roller derby out there, such as it's staged or it's just chicks in fishnets beating each other up. Some of our names may be fake, but the action on the track is real; and while it is a contact sport, there's a lot of strategy and skill involved beyond just knocking people over.
Donna: We are a competitive, nationally ranked, all-women sport. Gone are the days of fake fighting and a pre-determined outcome. I would encourage anyone who has not been to a game to check out our website and to come out to our game against Portland on October 17 at UIC Pavilion. The bouts are action packed and when you see an injury like a broken leg, knocked out tooth, or torn rotator cuff, it is all real. We belong to a national organization, the WFTDA (Women's Flat Track Derby Association), are owned and run by the skaters on the league, and rely on the support of members, volunteers, and generous sponsors to make it possible for us to do what we love: play roller derby.