Surly Gurlies

Dethblok’s face is painted white; smeared rings of black and red encircle her mouth. She looks ghoulish — a twisted combination of the Joker from “Batman” and the masked kid from “The Orphanage.” She’s wearing black from head to toe: helmet, jersey, skirt, knee socks, skates. Yes, skates. Roller skates.

She drives her right shoulder, then her right hip, into the woman next to her. The woman stumbles and falls.

This isn’t an average day at the roller rink.

Dethblok is a member of the CoMo Derby Dames, Columbia’s roller derby team, and she’s about to get expelled from the game. “Everyone say goodbye to Dethblok!” the announcer roars with 12 minutes left on the clock. “She’s gotta go.” By “go,” the emcee means physically leave the building, as per Women’s Flat Track Derby Association rules.

The Dames are new to WFTDA this year, and so far, following the rules has been easy part. It’s finding a legal venue that’s been difficult. The Derby Dames, though based in Columbia, currently bout at Sk8Zone in Jefferson City. “We love Sk8Zone, but we lose spectators because a lot of people think Jefferson City is too far to travel,” says team member HAM Slamwich. “If we had our own practice and bouting space in Columbia we could make a lot more money, train more, and be more competitive.”

From 2008 to 2011, the team competed at the Boone County Fairgrounds — the girls would arrive early to clean horse manure off the floor and duct tape mattresses around the poles in the middle of the rink. Not surprisingly, when the team applied to be part of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, WFTDA said “yes” to the Derby Dames and “no thanks” to the fairgrounds, deemed an illegal venue.

So now the team bouts and holds Sunday practices in Jefferson City. On Mondays, beginners practice at Empire Roller Rink, and on Thursday evenings, the team practices in the basement of a local church. “While it’s good space, it’s not what we compete on,” HAM says. “It’s much better to practice where you compete.”

The team would even consider purchasing its own sport court floor to use if a local person or organization offered up the right space (at least 35,000 square feet for a track, benches and bathrooms, plus air conditioning and a sound system). “If I ever won the lottery, the first thing I would do is build a place in CoMo,” says Nox, a bright-eyed blonde with electric blue streaks in her hair. “We’re a nonprofit, so we’re tax deductible!”

“It’s more than just financial — it’s a spirit thing,” adds Gram Smacker, who, at 61, is the oldest gal on the squad. “The team has evolved to where it needs a Columbia venue to survive; we need a home and an identity within the community.”

Now meet five of the women who are looking for that home. These ladies aren’t as scary looking as Dethblok (who, off the track, is an adjunct instructor in nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri), but they’re equally tough, confident and brutally honest. They share their thoughts on the sport — from its healing power to its hot pants.

Heather Morgan, aka HAM Slamwich, 28
Roller derby girl since 2010
Position: Blocker, pivot

My first bout — as a spectator — was in April 2010. I sat in the “danger zone” (the floor by the track) because all the seats were taken. As I saw all the girls fly by, I fell in love with how feminine they were — but tough and strong, too. People cheered for these female athletes like people cheered for professional male athletes. I was enamored with the female empowerment. When the announcer said the team would teach women to play, my friend asked if I wanted to learn. My hula dance instructor had just moved to Alaska, and I wanted to continue a group fitness activity. So I said, “Sure!”

I hadn’t skated in more than 20 years when I went to my first beginner’s practice. I held the wall and Hot Cross Buns’ hand the entire time. At the end, I told Ninja Skwidd I was 80 percent sure I wouldn’t come back because I was so physically exhausted. Then I came back.

The positive environment was the home I had been seeking. At the time, I was petitioning for a marriage annulment in the Catholic Church that was more emotionally draining than my civil divorce. The friendships I formed helped build my confidence back after all the emotional abuse I suffered in my marriage (and it was very cathartic to have more than 30 lovely volunteers to hit when I was frustrated).

I never thought I could skate as well as I do. I never thought I could hit Blondie Knocks hard enough to knock her to the floor, but I did. I started to believe in myself in ways I hadn’t previously. I began to learn not to be afraid so much. Dethblok told me one time: “Let go of the fear, HAM.” I started to; I’m not as afraid to fall when I’m on my skates now because I began to trust my protective equipment and my ability to fall in a way that is safe.

We wear kneepads, elbow pads and wrist guards to protect us when falling forward. If you fall back, you just bruise your butt, which hurts. It takes longer to get up again. When you fall forward, you can use your momentum to get back up. It’s a great metaphor for life: You will fall down. Just don’t fall backward because you’ll hurt yourself. If you fall forward, you can lift your head, get up, and get to where you’re going.

Jane Hian, aka Olive Smashum, 32
Roller derby girl since 2009
Position: blocker, jammer

After I gave birth to my son, I was a stay-at-home mom. When he was about 6 or 7 months old, I started going to a mom’s group. Brick James, my friend there, said, “You look like a roller derby girl — would you be interested?” I’ve always been a huge exerciser — a gym rat, a Pilates instructor — so it really appealed to me, even though I didn’t skate. I think there are benefits to not having skated. I see a lot of people who do figure skating or speedskating, and they don’t necessarily know how to play derby. I learned how to skate derby.

Our game in April was the first time I was used as a travel-team jammer and blocker. It was a huge game for me — I’m more multipurpose than I thought. That’s such an honor for me, feeling valuable.

I’m also a coach. I make up workouts for skate training. I study different plays, different cardio. Weeks that I’m leading practice, I put in a lot of time — upward of 10 to 15 hours.

My husband, actually, probably knows the rules better than I do. He knows all the players and their strengths. After a game, it’s interesting to get his perspective. My son, who is 4 now, couldn’t care less. One day I was really excited because he had been to a bout. He was excited because he got to play pinball.

When you’re a stay-at-home mom, you don’t get a lot of “you” time. When you’re with a kid, they squeeze every ounce of everything they can get out of you; you’re constantly giving and never doing things for yourself. I wake up in the mornings, and some days I don’t have time to shower or do my hair! Now that he’s older, it’s not as bad, but when my son was little, I couldn’t do stuff for myself because he was always needing me. I think derby has made me a better mom because it has helped me become my own person.

Whenever I meet my opponents I smile, I say “hi.” We’re supposed to have this façade. It works for a lot of people — it just doesn’t work for me. I’m pretty happy-go-lucky, and I see myself playing for a really long time. I have no plans to leave; I’ll always be involved. But I’m not invincible — I always smell like Biofreeze.

Barbara Giles, aka Gram Smacker, 61
Roller derby girl since September 2010
Position: defender

My mom grew up in Chicago, and she ice-skated as a child. She moved to Missouri just after she got married — my dad was a physicist at the university. Since there was no ice in Missouri, she and I would go roller-skating on campus. They built these ramps for the handicapped, and that was the greatest thing of all time because you could roller-skate anywhere.

That was 50 years ago. Now I’m a grandmother. My grandson’s name is Graham; he’s 2½ and just now realizing that “Grandma skate.” My roller derby name is a fun pun on his name and being a grandmother.

No one else will claim being the oldest person on the team. Some girls probably look up to me; some of them probably think, What the hell? I’m three times as old as some of them; I’m older than their mothers. I don’t think they necessarily knew quite how to relate to me. It took a while for them to figure out that I was just there to skate and get exercise and interaction. Once they realized I wasn’t too fuddy-duddy, they could relate better. Most of them accept me as one of the pack.

It’s not my goal to be a role model, but for young women it doesn’t hurt to see someone who’s older out doing the best they can. Turning 60 really bothered me. It’s not a morbid thing, but it’s a reality check — my life is now finite. I might as well do and enjoy what I think I might like to do.

The Derby Dames are self-run, self-organized and self-supported. They don’t have a paid coach; everything is by committee — sometimes it’s like herding cats. The same people on the track do the dirty work. They deal with different styles and backgrounds of the team members. It forces everybody to deal with people as they are, not as you want them to be.

There’s a lot of diversity in age and size and shape and physical ability and sexual orientation. Whatever sort of relationship you’re involved in is acceptable; nobody’s judging. There’s total tolerance. It’s good for some young women sorting that out. As society is trying to cope and evolve, derby is right in there, allowing girls to evolve to where they’re comfortable, and to find where they want to be, without judgment.

Kelsey Johnson, aka Cyclops, 19
Roller derby girl since February 2011
Position: Jammer, training to be a blocker

My very first job was at a skating rink in Springfield. I applied a week before my 16th birthday, and my first day of work was the day after my birthday. I worked with three or four other derby girls there. I started working the concession stand during their bouts, and I just fell in love with the sport.

At the roller rink, there was a Kelsey (me) and a Chelsea, and we were always getting confused. Back then I had — even more drastically than now — a swoop bang that covered one of my eyes. My boss started calling me Cyclops. One day I was like, “Did you know, Ted, that I actually can’t see out of that eye?”

When I was 9 months old, I went in for a well-baby checkup, and the doctor saw an abnormality in my left eye. I went to a specialist at the children’s hospital in St. Louis, where I was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, which is a tumor on the retina — and the most common childhood ocular cancer. The researching doctors there had been working on new treatments. I had 21 rounds of chemo and three laser surgeries between 9 months and 3 years. It was the first time in the state the treatments had been used, and the third time in the country. I was cancer-free by the time I was 3 years old. Because I was so young, it hasn’t left me with any blind spots in my vision — my brain fills it all in. But the doctors said I would have bad balance, be bad at sports, and have problems reading. Obviously, I’m not awful at sports. And although I wasn’t top of my class, I was fairly high.

When I started derby, I was thinking of names, but I decided to stick with Cyclops. It was completely a joke at first, but it does fit.

Derby is a hard sport on your body. Five years is about the length of a derby career. But, five years from now, I won’t even be 30. Once I can’t do derby, I’ll stick around and coach. I love my coaching position right now; I’m the head beginners coach. I’ve definitely tweaked the program to make it more inclusive. Instead of calling the newbies “fresh meat,” now they’re our “future dames.” I’m not into being a drill sergeant; I’m really working with the girls. We have an eight-week program that I developed; each lesson corresponds with the skills test they’ll take at the end of the eight weeks. It’s awesome getting to know and shape the next generation of dames that comes up. For me, it was hard coming from the Springfield team to the Columbia team unknown — not having someone to latch onto, so I like being that connection between our future dames and the CoMo Derby Dames.

We have a lot of really great women on our team: we have professors, we have super feminists, we have religious studies TAs. I learn so much about life and random knowledge from these ladies. It’s really awesome. I’m like a sponge.

Wendy Walden, aka Nox, 21
Roller derby girl since September 2009
Position: blocker, pivot

Nox is a Harry Potter reference — it’s the countercharm to lumos, which creates light. Harry Potter was a big part of my growing up; my mom read the first four books to me — that’s been our bonding thing. My mom’s really awesome; she’s totally supportive. She understands roller derby is a big deal to me, and I think she’s really happy that I’m being physically active and having a sport for the first time. The rest of my family’s a little confused by it, which I think is funny. I’m like, “Really? I was the kid who had black nail polish all during high school — how did you not see something like this happening?” My grandparents are coming to a game this summer for the first time — I’m kind of nervous — you know, because of the hot pants and fishnets.

I don’t paint my face, but I do put on a little more makeup on than normal. My look has been evolving. The more athletic and competitive I’ve become, the more I’m into the game play, the sport, rather than the image. I’m one of the few people on our team who follows scores of other teams and stats and derby outside of Columbia. I see derby as a sport, as most people see football or basketball. I actually made a bracket for March Madness based on derby teams. I ended up losing very badly — apparently derby doesn’t correspond to basketball.

I was the baby on the team for quite some time; now I’m the second youngest. Most of the people in the league — and in the derby community in general — are older. They treat me like a baby sister. I’ve never had a negative experience due to my age except not being able to get into after-parties. But now I’m 21! Actually, my 21st birthday was on a bout day. I would say it was a night to remember — but I can’t!

When I came to college, I didn’t drink and I’d never done anything illegal. I was a fairly good, clean kid. Being surrounded by a group of adult women gave me the opportunity to experiment with these things in a safe environment as opposed to partying with college kids and having something terrible happen. I came to Columbia, and I knew it was going to be a big change, that I was going to evolve here. Coming into derby really gave me a whole new perspective on everything, and I’m really, really happy with the person I’ve become, and that’s because of derby and because of the family of strong, independent women who taught me what it means to be an adult, a woman.

Bout Basics

Two teams of five women simultaneously skate counterclockwise around a track. Each team has a scoring player, the jammer, who wears a helmet cover with two stars. The other four players are blockers. The blocker with a striped helmet cover is a pivot — a blocker allowed to become a jammer during the course of play.

A bout is two 30-minute periods. Points are scored during jams, when a jammer passes through the pack and laps members of the opposing team. Blockers assist their jammer to score while hindering the opponent’s jammer. A jam can last up to 2 minutes. Referees determine if blocks are legal or violate the rules — in which case, violators spend time in the penalty box.

Check ‘Em Out

4:30 p.m., Sk8Zone in Jefferson City 
June 30: vs. Southern Illinois Roller Girls
Sept. 1: vs. Tulsa Derby Brigade
Sept. 22: vs. Kansas City Roller Warriors Plan B

November TBA: Intraleague bout