This ain't no disco

New roller derby authentic, hard-nose sport

Photo with no caption
By Stefan Cooper

Sports Editor
Blount Today

Michelle Fisher pauses for a moment when asked about the hitting. She smiles.

The University of Tennessee graduate student has been apprenticing with the Hard Knox Roller Girls for about a month. She’s taken the league’s four-page, 95-question qualifying exam. The nursing masters candidate and mother of 2-year-old
daughter Zoe hopes to be assigned to one of the league’s three teams in the coming weeks.

As Fisher ponders her answer, league veteran Becky Kinnard, lacing her skates for the day’s practice at a nearby bench, volunteers a chilling reply.

"She hasn’t been hit by me yet," Kinnard says, "so she doesn’t know."

Welcome to the new roller derby. Everything, from its organization, to its instruction and, yes, even its hitting, is as real as it gets.

"When you’re a newbie, they don’t hit you too hard because they want you to come back," Fisher says.

In only its second season, Hard Knox is part of an explosive growth in amateur roller derby the last decade. On-line encyclopedia Wikipedia lists 140 domestic leagues currently in operation, with another 17 located around the globe.

Hard Knox, largely the brainchild of league president Jennifer Browning, has a combined 32 players competing on its three league teams. A travel team, comprised of the league’s elite players, will visit Indianapolis, Louisville, Ky., and Huntsville, Ala., for bouts during the current season.

Browning, a producer for a local television station, said she first took notice of the sport when it was the subject of a cable network special. The rough-and-tumble nature of derby fit perfectly with her athletic background, she said. In high school, she studied ballet.

"The ballet will come out in my skating sometimes," she said. "They’ll say, ‘Oh, you fall so gracefully.’"

Teasing from her peers withstanding, Browning has marshaled a varied group of moms, college students, former high school athletes and working women into an impressive organizational mix.

There’s someone to handle merchandising, someone in charge of instruction, someone charged with securing venues and bout production and someone to maintain the league’s Web site, coordinate advertising and schedule fund-raisers.

Many tasks are assigned according to what select members do in their professional lives.

"Our backgrounds are so diverse," Browning said.

The league was launched with Browning first placing an inquiry on her myspace.com page to gauge area interest. Seventy-five women arrived for the league’s first tryouts a year ago, many of whom had seen the same Arts & Entertainment feature as Browning. The A&E special, in part, paid homage to the sport’s professional heyday during the disco era of the 1970s, and the Knoxville league, as have many amateur clubs around the country, would borrow much of its predecessor’s showmanship.

Several of the league’s players are known only by their competition nicknames — i.e. the aforementioned Kinnard, who skates under the ominous handle of "Lady Paine." The soft-spoken Browning morphs into "Beverly Killbilly" for bouts. "Karma Krash" (Andrea Hogan), "Madame Mayhem" (Jennifer Murray), "Jamie Skull" (Jamie Hull), "Napalm Blownaparte" (Becky Vaden) and "Miss Murder" (Sandra Bowman) have become some of the league’s most celebrated players.

Facing painting is the norm for bouts, with Hull’s meticulously applied Skull persona a full-on venture over to the dark side.
"My kids say, ‘Mom’s going to play roller derby,’" the wife and mother of two said. "It’s like sport combined with dress up."
While the nicknames and garish uniforms are a tribute to the sport’s theatrical past, the physical nature and risk of injury of the modern game is all too real. The league has seen five players lost to broken bones in the last year. Alicia Bersin, a.k.a. "Alecha 4 Breakfast," suffered one of the worst, a complete break to her ankle and fibula requiring an ambulance to be summoned to the rink.

"It put a knot in your stomach," Murray said.

"There were a couple of people that got grossed out," Bersin said. "The ambulance driver took the longest way to the hospital. He went over two or three railroad tracks."

By the time she reached the hospital, Bersin said her mood had altered considerably.

"I saw it on the x-ray," she said. "It was pretty lookin’."

The risk of injury is always there.

"It’s never fun to see someone get hurt," Browning said.

It’s why the role Christie Cunningham, a.k.a. "Black-n-Blue," fulfills for the league is of the utmost importance.

Practicing three times a week on non-bout weekends, the league drills repeatedly on how to fall and how rise without using
your hands. The risk of severed fingers from a passing skater is not to be taken lightly.

"The simplest thing, and there goes your finger," Cunningham said. "It only takes four pounds (of pressure) to break your
fingers."

There’s also the reality many newcomers haven’t been on skates or taken part in athletics for some time.

"Getting knocked down and getting back up is exhausting," Browning said.

Everything from conditioning to basic bout tactics falls within Cunningham’s purview. It’s a stressful role, she said, one she takes seriously. The dangers of sending an unprepared skater into a bout are too great.

"I’ve had to call a few girls before the bout and tell them, ‘You’re not ready yet,’" Cunningham said. "It sucks to have to do that."

The rewards of being assigned to a team, though, are well worth the wait and effort.

"It’s really like a family now," Cunningham said. "It’s a second family, but we know when we have to turn it on. When it’s game time, there are no friends in derby. It takes pushing yourself and pushing the other girls."

Few have pushed themselves farther in the past year than jammer Valerie Spence, one of the league’s smallest players.

The 1997 William Blount High School graduate, who competes under the name "Val Yumm," had never been on skates before trying her hand at derby. To ease the learning curve and hasten being assigned to a team, the high school cross country standout began wearing her skates during her working day at the coffee bar she manages at Southland Books.

Work in the weight room soon added noticeable muscle.

After practice last week, Browning and the league’s board told Spence to stick around for a minute; they had some news. Spence was being promoted to the league’s all-star squad and would skate in that weekend’s upcoming bout with the Tragic City Rollers at Smoky Mountain Skate Center. The Birmingham, Ala., club, Knoxville’s first-ever opponent a year ago, is one of the region’s most dominant teams.

"They called me over to the travel team meeting and told me together," Spence said.

"I felt a new seriousness about it. If these people wanted me to skate with them, I had to live up to that."

Birmingham is one of the South’s most dominant clubs. They’re pretty tough, too.

When their rink was being remodeled earlier this year, the Rollers held practice on the street outside a Birmingham housing project.

Rollers star Katie DeMouy, a nurse at a Birmingham children’s hospital who goes by the moniker of "Acute Pain," lists as her
motto on the team Web page: "This will only hurt a second."

"Arsenic," the site says, "cracked some ribs and decided to become one of our coaches."

Perhaps most menacing of all, a skater aptly dubbed "Psycho B" states: "Skate fast. Die young."

It’s the aggressive nature of derby that is its appeal, Spence said.

"It’s women out there doing this physical, really dangerous thing," she said.

Sometimes even the track itself can get in on the act. Modern roller derby, more often than not, is contested on a flat,
hardwood oval as opposed the banked, railed track of its ’70s predecessor. Taking a spill on a hardwood floor is never good, but there are worse things, Murray said.

The first oval the team competed on this season was at an outdoor, concrete skate park.

"It’s all about the pads," Cunningham said. "You have to learn to use your pads. If you go down on concrete, that’s not
going to be much fun if you’re using your skin."

Speed and teamwork are essential elements of roller derby. In each of a bout’s three 20-minute periods, or jams, each team is assigned a pivot out front to pace the pack. Behind them are two blockers per team, followed by one power blocker each.

Beginning each jam 20 feet behind the pack come the jammers, a speedster from each squad whose job it is to negotiate the fast-moving, elbow-wielding mob and overtake the pivot to score.

Ashley Lane, alias "Boom Shockalocka," and the crowd-favorite Hull handle much of the jamming for Knoxville. Hull, a sushi
bar chef by profession, often knifes deftly through the pack on her way to the front. Lane, who holds the league record for 16 laps around the skate center track in two minutes, will often simply blow right by them.

It’s no accident.

"I always wanted to be a speed skater because they had the coolest skates," Lane said, "and they were fast."

Sometimes, though, as when blockers like Murray or Kinnard get locked on, all the speed in the world doesn’t do any good, she said.

"Those two can hit me and really make me hurt," Lane said.

The modern game owes much to the stars of the past, she said. The league recognizes the contributions of ’70s super teams like the Kansas City Bombers and acknowledges them in its game programs. They just don’t want to be those teams.

"I’d like to see (the modern game) get bigger and not be thought of like it was in the ’70s when we were growing up," Lane said. "You know, the hair pulling."

Evidence the sport is headed in the direction Lane hopes surfaced recently. When Knoxville defeated the Nashville Roller Girls for its first-ever home win at the skate center in late May, results of the bout made the agate section of a local
newspaper. It wasn’t much, Lane said, but it was there.

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