Roller derby skaters: Serious athletes and a 'beautiful band of misfits'

June 22, 2015

Rayna Fisher, center, a member of the Crooked River Roller Girls roller derby team from Brunswick, Ohio, tries to break away from members of the Indianapolis Junior Roller Derby team during their game in the Great Lakes region of the Junior Roller Derby Association at the Akron Sports Complex on Saturday, May 23, 2015, in Akron, Ohio.

AKRON, Ohio: The words scrawled on the windows of the Dodge SUV with Indiana plates were a message for the competition: "Great Day to Kick Your Butt."

As I stood in the Akron parking lot staring at the vehicle, a woman with a curious expression approached. "Is it a tough game?"

It was an innocent enough question.

"Is this the first time youíve attended a roller derby bout?" I asked.

Priscilla Sendelbach nodded, adding that her granddaughter was playing and a grandson was a referee.

"Hmm, well, as a grandmother, you might need to cover your eyes now and then," I advised, chuckling.

The Crooked River Roller Girls, a youth squad whose members range from 9 to 18 years old, have skated together on other teams. The event that Sendelbach attended recently was the first home bout for the team, which formed in October.

Inside the Akron Sports Center, Sendelbach sat in the front row of the bleachers. Her family, some 20 strong, and good pal Sue Reigle were seated nearby.

When her granddaughter, Olivia Sendelbach, whose skater name is Slug Bug, came to her side, Grandma enveloped the 15-year-old in her arms.

"Please be careful, Bug," she whispered in the teenís ear.

"Iíll be fine," she was assured.

On a bench at the side of the flat track were the girls who make up the local varsity team. Reilly Spencer-Trueman of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, aka Pluto, was excited as she watched the competition warming up. Devious, who goes by Dylaina Campbell when sheís not on the track, was nervous.

Chewing on her mouth guard, the high school student watched skaters Bustiní Stitches, Audry Hipburn and Caught ní Kandi from Indianapolis. Around and around they went, shooting a warm, sticky breeze toward the girls.

Skater names are important. Some are sinister, others as sweet as a first kiss.

"I was called Diva since I was little because I got what I wanted. I mean, not in a sappy way, but Iím persuasive," admitted the 15-year-old Dylaina, "so Devious seemed to fit."

The 9-year-old spitfire Cassandra Evanich, a member of the junior varsity, was given the name Pocket Monster by her mother, Angela.

Other names have very sentimental meanings.

Spencerís Michaela Sisson, aka Moe Jammer, was given her name by her late father.

"He was murdered five years ago," she said, "and I donít have the heart to give it up."

It takes guts to be a roller derby gal. You need to be quick-thinking and athletic. Decisions are made in split seconds and strength is important. Thereís also something else about being a roller derby girl: Itís cool.

"Itís a really diverse and underground," explained Devious, who is an artist and plays the viola. "When you go to school, you say, "Yeah, I play roller derby. Not soccer. Not softball. Roller derby."

For some, skating has been a godsend.

"The derby saved her life," explained the mother of one of the skaters. "She was borderline suicidal. She fits in. Derby is family."

Another mom said she likes to refer to some of the girls who skate as a "beautiful band of misfits."

Jeff Hallís daughter, Saige, aka Megan U. Fall, is a current skater. Another child, Kit, is retired from the team.

"My daughters went from shy, quiet girls to interactive girls, girls positively challenged by the physical and intellectual demand of roller derby," he said. "We have every type of personality on our team, yet the sport of roller derby demands give and take, expression and cooperation in order to gain an ounce of success. It has made a positive and noticeable difference in their lives."

Volunteer coach Nick Kubik, whose daughter Natalie, aka Gnat, is on the varsity team, said itís important to understand that todayís roller derby is not staged. "Itís a real sport with real athletes," he said..

Todayís bouts are nothing like the laughable, televised game of the í60s and 70s in which actors performed outlandish antics for the camera. No one is pulling hair or slinging an opponent over waist-high railings.

During the halftime break of the Indy vs. Akron bout, I asked the girls if there was trash-talking on the track. Several of the girls said there was not. Instead, they praised their opponents for maintaining "clean" bouts, free of profanity and dirty shenanigans, such as jabs with elbows.

When girls fell during the recent bout, a chorus of "fall small" wafted from the bleachers. Thatís because those who know the sport want the girls to avoid sprawling on the floor. That can lead to injuries from other skaters or a penalty.

Safety is paramount. Before the girls can advance to a more difficult level of play, they must pass both a written and skills test.

"We spend a lot of time on safety," Hall said. "The better you know how to fall, the safer you are going to be."

Still there are occasional minor injuries. After all, while todayís bouts arenít violent, they are aggressive. Which brings us back to Grandma Sendelbach.

It was less than 30 seconds into the first bout with Indy when Sendelbach witnessed a spill. Skates made a crashing noise as the girls hit the floor, becoming tangled in each otherís legs. Grandma cringed.

"My God," she said quietly. "When you get knocked down in football, you are down. Here, you just keep getting back up."

Theyíre girls with guts.



Associated Press