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Story from July 2011 High Country Magazine
Appalachian Rollergirls Bring Roller Derby to Boone
By Anna Oakes
The sound? Oh, it’s not pleasant. Like fingernails slowly, agonizingly scratching a chalkboard, the sound of skin and plastic grinding against concrete in a hard, screeching skid elicits uncomfortable cringes and shudders. Not to worry, though. She’s okay.
It’s a Thursday night in June at the National Guard Armory in Boone, where the Appalachian Rollergirls are practicing. Hitting—and falling—is a major part of flat track roller derby, which has grown exponentially since a group of women in Texas reinvented the sport 10 years ago. In a roller derby bout, each team fields four blockers and one jammer skating counterclockwise around an oval track. The jammer, whose helmet has a star on it, tries to skate through the “pack”—everyone on the other team—and then scores one point for each opponent passed in the two-minute window after the initial pass through the pack. The blockers work to protect their jammer, who is the only one who can score points, while also attempting to knock down the opponent’s jammer.
It’s fierce, feminine, strong and sexy, and no—none of these traits are mutually exclusive. Roller derby embraces womanhood while encouraging female athleticism and empowerment.
She had roller skated since she was 4. And the first time she witnessed the hard-hitting, swift-skating women on eight wheels of the Rogue Rollergirls of Fayetteville, near her hometown of Dunn, Jordyn Coats “immediately fell in love with it.”
Jordyn left the Sandhills for higher altitude and higher education at Appalachian State University, and, as a sophomore English major, started looking for a team sport or activity in Boone in which to take part outside of class and other responsibilities. “There’s quite a bit to do, but nothing like I really wanted to do,” said Jordyn. “I decided, you know what, I really want to play roller derby.” She was going to try out in Fayetteville the next summer, but—“I just couldn’t wait that long.” In early 2010, to gauge interest in starting up a team in Boone, she posted a few vague notices here and there, created a Facebook page and then waited, hoping for a response. She got many.
“I really didn’t take it was going to take off like it did,” she admitted. Jordyn and five other women—including Megan Carmody and Mason Herman, current skaters on the team—strapped on skates at Skate World in Vilas and talked derby. And they decided, as Jordyn recalled, “You know what, let’s start this.” Another, more-publicized meeting was held, and this time 80 women showed up, much enamored with the prospects of roller derby in the High Country. They soon learned, however, that derby requires much more than rolling up a pair of stockings and applying a couple of coats of mascara. Of the original 80, only about 20 were able to stick with it.
“But the ones who stick with it, they’re so dedicated,” said Jordyn. “What I’m really surprised at is the type of women that it interests,” explaining that she assumed the new team—the Appalachian Rollergirls Boone Shiners—would be mostly college students. “I’m the only college student who’s actually skating in the bouts right now,” noted Jordyn, age 20 and now a senior at ASU.
The others? A bartender. A restaurateur. A massage therapist. Mothers. A boutique owner. An occupational therapist. Owner of a grading company. A banker. A pharmacy technician. The oldest skater is in her mid-40s, and most are in their late 20s and early 30s.
“Almost all of them have very solid careers. It’s an array of people, and we’ve all come together not knowing anyone beforehand,” said Jordyn.
Megan Carmody, who owns Black Cat Burrito in downtown Boone and is an avid cyclist, said it’s a competitive nature that drives all of these different types of women to roller derby. “Once women get through high school and college, who were athletic, there really isn’t any thing team-wise for women to do,” said Megan. “This is something that women are drawn to as a team competitive sport.” Megan had talked with others in the past about how cool it would be to have a roller derby team in Boone. “I definitely wasn’t aware at that time of the commitment,” she said. “I’m good with the commitment, but it’s definitely a lot.”
Jordyn agreed. Roller derby demands a hefty chunk of time.
“There are many people who see it as a spectator and think, ‘My goodness, I really want to do that,’ but they see the show. Most people don’t realize how difficult it is,” Jordyn said. “Most of the time, people drop out before they get dedicated to the team.”
June 18, 2011. It’s halftime at the Holmes Convocation Center in Boone, and the Appalachian Rollergirls aren’t used to this. They’re getting stomped.
Just 15 months after organizing, the Appalachian Rollergirls were 4-0 heading into this bout, surprisingly undefeated thus far in their official season. It’s an evening of firsts: the Shiners’ very first home bout in Boone, hosting their first meeting with the Blue Ridge Rollergirls French Broads of Asheville, which, no doubt, will mark the beginning of a perennial Western North Carolina rivalry.
And there’s something else to which the Appalachian Rollergirls aren’t accustomed. More than 1,300 fans, curious and intrigued, screaming and waving homemade signs—for them. Families with kids. Middle-aged men in ballcaps and overalls. A young woman with pink hair and orange-rimmed glasses. Business and community leaders. Said one man to his friend seated next to him in the eighth row, “I’d say this is about the best $10 ticket around.”
“I think we were all a bit overwhelmed,” said Appalachian Rollergirls President Jennifer Pillow after the bout. “We were not used to that big a crowd that was for us.” Due to some stage fright and the size advantage and aggressive hitting of the French Broads, the Shiners were stomaching their first bitter taste of roller derby defeat. But thanks to its speed and months of conditioning, the home team came back in the second period to keep the score respectable, 165-86.
“The French Broads took control of the pack quickly, and they out-sized and out-played us,” Jennifer said. “In the second half we were able to re-group and re-focus, gain control and attempt a comeback. It was a great learning experience.”
The Appalachian Rollergirls practice two or three times per week at the Armory, and their coach, Scott Herman, is the husband of skater Mason Herman and a former speedskater who has taken it upon himself to learn the sport of roller derby, seeking out advice and strategy from other coaches in the region.
“He’s really helped us out a whole lot,” said Jordyn. “Not only are we skaters getting better…he’s had to learn derby. We have a coach who’s putting in probably more time than us. He’s only a volunteer. Truthfully, I don’t know what we’d do without him.”
At practice, the team builds endurance by skating uninterrupted for long periods of time, and the skaters do drills to improve footwork. They practice hitting, as well as taking hits. “The sport itself is extremely physical. You’re constantly making contact with other people,” Megan explained. “We encourage all the girls to work out on their own.” Though both have their advantages, skaters don’t necessarily have to be big or fast—roller derby is also about strategy. “We’re a much smaller team than the majority of teams that we’ve played, but we use our speed to our advantage,” said Megan.
For those looking to try derby for the first time, there’s Fresh Meat, a gradual training regimen of at least 12 weeks. “We don’t throw somebody on the track—we have a training program,” Jordyn explained. And in this tough sport, the first thing new skaters must learn is safety techniques—for example, how to “fall small,” which is falling with arms and legs controlled and tucked in so that other skaters can avoid you. Despite legitimate measures taken for safety, including elbow and knee pads, helmets and mouthguards, roller derby is no pillow fight. In only a year of bouts of scrimmages, Jordyn has seen broken wrists and ankles, a broken rib, concussions—“I’ve had a few myself,” she said—and worst, a broken femur. “Some of these girls hit very hard,” she said. “I think we all kind of come off with some nicks and bumps and bruises.”
Making a Wave in Derby
Practice? Well, that’s only part of it. Building a roller derby team from the ground up has been an enterprising, do-it-yourself effort by the skaters themselves—an all-women owned and operated organization. There’s a whole host of activities involved, not least of which is fundraising. In addition to equipment, facility rental and insurance, the Rollergirls are still raising funds to pay off the debt on their $50,000 roller derby track, and they have to pay for its storage. There’s marketing, community appearances and service projects: the Rollergirls have donated proceeds from their events to OASIS, a women’s shelter in Boone, and donated a handicapped-accessible van for a child in need.
“We are half of a derby team and half of a nonprofit organization,” said Jordyn. “We spend almost every bit of our free time together doing something for the Appalachian Rollergirls. I see these women almost every other day, if not more than that.”
As the Shiners gain more experience on the track, they’ll advance to higher levels of competition. Established derby teams such as the Blue Ridge Rollergirls have both A (most advanced) and B teams. The Appalachian Rollergirls have been competing with teams at the B level and—at least until the recent bout with the French Broads—have had such success that some teams have remarked that the Shiners should be competing at a higher level.
“We’re a new team in a small town making a wave in derby,” said Jennifer. It is notable that the Boone squad has competed so well, added Jordyn, given that most teams come from larger, more populated cities with larger pools of talent. “A smaller city is not the most popular place for roller derby,” she said. “I am surprised that we’ve had the successes that we’ve had.” Ultimately, the Appalachian Rollergirls want to become a member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (“the be-all-end-all of roller derby,” Jennifer said), which will allow them to compete in regional and national tournaments. “We’re looking to really grow and expand and be a 40-plus woman team,” said Jennifer. “That would be fantastic.”
Until then, the Appalachian Rollergirls are enjoying their new-found network of support, which Jordyn described as a family, and enthusiastic interest from the High Country community. “It was really great that the community came out and supported us. There was an amazing level of support,” said Megan. “I think, in the future, our plan is to definitely do more with the community and just be involved.”
And Jordyn, well, she didn’t know when she decided to attend ASU that she’d be bringing roller derby to Boone. “All I thought I was going to do when I got up here was go to school, go to class, go to work. I never thought I’d be doing this. I’m dreading the day I need to decide whether I need to go back home or if I should stay up here,” she said. “These girls have become my family, and it’s really going to be difficult to leave them.
“Derby girls take care of their own.”
A Brief History of Roller Derby
From the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association
The term “roller derby” dates to the 1920s, originally used to describe roller skate races. In the late 1930s, Leo Seltzer’s touring competition, Transcontinental Roller Derby, began to evolve from a marathon skating race on a raised track to a more physical competition emphasizing skater collisions and falls. This became the foundation of the team sport that still exists today: two teams of five skaters who score points by passing members of the opposing team. Both men and women competed in roller derby from its inception.
Seltzer’s roller derby events drew increasingly large audiences once the sport began to be televised in the late 1940s. In the early 1960s, after Leo Seltzer transferred his business to his son, Jerry, competing roller derby franchises emerged, some of which emphasized theatrics more than sport. As popularity dwindled, Jerry Seltzer shut down his Roller Derby organization in 1973.
There were several short‐lived attempts to revive versions of the old sport in the 1980s and 1990s, including RollerGames, which featured a figure‐8 shaped banked track and stunts like alligator pits. Some versions of roller derby, including RollerGames, included staged action and storylines, similar to professional wrestling leagues.
In the early 2000s, modern women’s roller derby got its start in Austin, Texas. Starting with the Texas Rollergirls, these new leagues formed as businesses run by the athletes themselves. The flat track version of the sport spread like wildfire in subsequent years, as the ability to mark track boundaries on a skating rink floor or other venues, rather than building and storing a large banked track, made it possible to play the game just about anywhere. By 2011, there were nearly 500 flat track roller derby leagues worldwide.