There’s an ambulance parked out in front of the skating rink as I pull into the parking lot at Buhr Park for the A2 Derby Dimes season finale match against the Killamazoo Kill Stars. A promising sign for an entertaining evening of roller derby, if an ominous one for the wellbeing of the participants.
Inside is chaos. Women on roller skates fly around the rink, colliding at high speeds, in formations closer to a mosh pit than an organized sport. A skater – my program lists her nickname as Michelle O’BombYa – hip-checks a Kill Star, sending her flying to the concrete.
The action is difficult to follow, but my guide for the evening, nicknamed Susan B. Slamthony, is happy to give me a crash course.
Each team fields five players. Four of those players are “blockers.” Their job is to simultaneously free up space for their “jammer,” the fifth woman on the rink, and block the opposing squad’s jammer. Jammer’s score points by lapping opposing players.
“Who are these women?” I ask Slamthony. She points out specific women on the court – “She’s a doctor, there’s a nanny, she’s a masseuse. It’s really women from all walks of life that come together.”
The first match winds down, and the players circle the rink, high-fiving fans. The Derby Dimes have won, 220-124. The EMT’s, thank goodness, remain on the sidelines, checking their phones and looking bored.
The next morning I head to the Derby Dimes Boot Camp, where members of the team train recruits who are labelled Fresh Meat. The lead trainer, Skim Milf (real name Becky Weeks), takes about 14 girls through a series of drills – how to turn their hips to change direction quickly, how to jump and land, etc.
The skaters here are a far cry from what I saw the previous evening – timid, like newborn deer trying to rise. It’s hard to see them withstanding a bullrush from the women I saw the night before.
Their lack of experience is no problem, Weeks tells me. The goal of Boot Camp isn’t to become the best player around, but simply to be safe on skates. Around half of these women, Skim says, won’t be here at the end of the program anyway.
“What tends to happen is about halfway through Boot Camp we get into contact,” said Skim. “It’s a full-contact sport. Some people realize that this isn’t for them. You have to judge if your life can accommodate this sport. People fall in love with it, and they can’t imagine life without it.”
Sitting with us is a woman named Chelsea. She’s trying to decide whether or not to join up, despite having little experience on skates. I ask her why the sport caught her eye.
“I really like the culture around it and I like that it is empowering women and teaching women to be tough and be strong. Just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean that you only have to play a certain subset of sports.”
Weeks echoes those thoughts, and adds that the camaraderie is what makes the pain worth it.
“Your stressful job or your stressful kid or your financial problems – you can let go of all of that stuff and have fun. You meet so many different people that you would otherwise never become friends with. You probably wouldn’t meet them at all. But somehow you all come together and you just find your people.”
By the time I leave, Chelsea is hooked. She’s ready to join, but mentions that she doesn’t have any gear.
“That’s ok,” says Weeks. “We’ve got everything you need.”
The A2 Derby Dimes open their 2016 regular season next March and are always looking for Fresh Meat, as well as referees
Information on matches and how to join can be found on a2derbydimes.org
All home matches are located at Buhr Park