Former COA development staffer Carla Ganiel, aka Surly Jackson, on the right, keeping the Chicago Outfit's jammer from scoring. Carla was playing in Chicago for the DC Rollergirls' traveling B-team, the National Maulers.Former COA development staffer Carla Ganiel, aka Surly Jackson, on the right, keeping the Chicago Outfit's jammer from scoring. Carla was playing in Chicago for the DC Rollergirls' traveling B-team, the National Maulers.Ten women stand tight in a pack on an indoor track, geared head to toe in helmets, mouth guards, elbow pads, wrist guards, knee pads, and roller skates. They are ready for battle. With a blow of the whistle, the pack shoves forward, a snarl of women pushing parallel around the oval track like a scrum on wheels.

This is roller derby, contact sport on skates.

The two teams of five, made up of four blockers and one jammer, follow the same direction around the track. The calculated tangle of blockers from both teams skate neck and neck, and are only a few beats ahead of the jammers who are trying to break through their human wall. A jammer is known by the star on her helmet—if it’s not apparent by how she’s using her body like a wrecking ball. Both teams’ jammers simultaneously try to push through the opposing four blockers in order to continue around the track. It’s not until a second pass through the rival pack that a jammer can score, winning a point for each blocker she passes.

In the thick of it is Beth (Boland) Beaulieu ’95, jostling to free herself from the group. She takes a hip check from an opposing blocker but stays steady on her skates. Moving toward an opening, Beth grabs a teammate’s jersey and whips herself forward. She flies along the inside track, then jumps the apex with masterful agility. She nails a perfect landing, scoring for her team.

Beth plays the jammer position for Bangor Roller Derby. As she plows through the thicket of the four opposing blockers, her teammates play defense and offense at the same time. They work to keep the rival jammer from scoring while also helping Beth penetrate the other pack.

Off the track, Beth works as a teaching assistant at a therapeutic school. The sport helps her to decompress from the stress of her job. A single mother, derby is the only free time she has away from her daughter, whom her ex watches while Beth is at practice.

On the track, she goes by Hammerdown, a colloquial expression well-known to downeasters as a certain manner for getting something done. Each woman self-designates her derby name, typically a play on words that represents a mix of personal style, skillset, and philosophy. For Beth, Hammerdown is a way of life both on and off the track. A jammer has to be fearless and aggressive. She has to take the hard hits and keep moving forward.

Radically inclusive contact sport

Environmental educator and jammer (known by the star on her helmet) Chrystal Seeley-Schreck ’02 is calling off the jam with her hands to prevent the other team's jammer from scoring.Environmental educator and jammer (known by the star on her helmet) Chrystal Seeley-Schreck ’02 is calling off the jam with her hands to prevent the other team's jammer from scoring.Roller Derby has been around since the early twentieth century, but not until the early 2000s did it evolve to include the traits that distinguish it from other sports: democratically principled, female-driven, and radically inclusive.

In 1935, sports promoter Leo Seltzer created the Transcontinental Roller Derby. Though skating had been growing in popularity since the 1880s, the epic proportion of the Transcontinental Roller Derby was something audiences hadn’t seen before. It was the first time men and women competed together and were subject to the same rules. Tens of thousands of spectators filled the stadiums.

What began as a coed race skating event gradually turned into small teams competing for points. Contact became integral to the game. The sport enjoyed a devoted fanbase until World War II depleted the derby of both player and audience.

In the early years of the new millennium the sport was revived and reinvented, this time with women at the helm. Men enjoyed a host of contact team sports, but few existed for women. Today, according to roller derby advocates, it is among the fastest-growing sports in the world, with more than a handful of human ecologists playing a role in its celebrated resurgence.

Testifying the derby

To the uninitiated, roller derby may look like a mess on wheels. But there is an evident reverence that players have for the sport. They don’t so much talk about roller derby as testify, such is the impact it has had on their lives.

Carla Ganiel worked in COA’s development office from 2005 to 2007, and is now a staff member at the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, DC. Surly Jackson is her derby name, after her favorite writer. Carla herself is a writer and her blog “Whip My Assets” details her derby adventures, among other topics. She had already begun a personal quest to improve her fitness when she saw her first derby bout. She wanted in.

“It’s amazing to be with all these women who are into fitness and exercise, not for beauty or appeal, but to be able to do amazing things. You focus on your body being able to do what it needs to do.”

Transformation on wheels

Beth (Boland) Beaulieu ’95, Bangor Roller Derby's jammer, playing against Prince Edward Island's Twisted Sisters.Beth (Boland) Beaulieu ’95, Bangor Roller Derby's jammer, playing against Prince Edward Island's Twisted Sisters.While a certain camaraderie is necessary for any team sport, community is integral to roller derby; leagues are skater-owned and operated. From logo designs to the creation of bylaws, players work together on all aspects of business, devoting a tremendous amount of time to their league.

Sarah Bockian ’05, aka Sugarbush, works as a nurse in Portland, Maine. She’s been playing with Maine Roller Derby for seven years and reflects on what’s at the heart of the sport: “We’re interdependent, we’re self-determining. We create every aspect of the derby. In the beginning it was necessary to be this way because everything was bootstrapped. But we’ve continued because the ethos of our self-governing community is highly valued. There are people who put in more than twenty hours a week. Every member fulfills some participatory requirement. Sometimes there’s passionate disagreement among people who are friends, but we work through it because we share a common goal.”

To hear Sarah attest to the transformative power of derby, one would think she was recalling College of the Atlantic. “I’ve had the privilege of watching some women start out timid and grow into strong, self-assured badasses. It’s one of the best things derby does for people.”

Environmental educator Chrystal Seeley-Schreck ’02, aka Swirly Burl, affirms Sarah’s testimony, “The community is rooted in this crazy physical sport, but the impact is strengthening individuals inside and out in a way that is strengthening the human and ecological communities we are embedded in,” she says. “Derby leagues are using their empowered enthusiasm to make the world around us better—human ecology at its finest.”

Roller derby is becoming international; many regard the sport’s presence in places like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates an auspicious nod towards social change. Carla underscores that thought: “There’s an awareness that we’re creating an inclusive, empowered community that can change people’s lives.”

From discomfort to discovery

Beth (Vickery) Heidemann ’91, aka Seven Deadly Spins, "jeering" for Maine's Rock Coast Rollers. Beth holds the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.Beth (Vickery) Heidemann ’91, aka Seven Deadly Spins, "jeering" for Maine's Rock Coast Rollers. Beth holds the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.Indeed every player has a story of transformation. To take part in roller derby is to commit to the hard work of running a team that functions as a self-sustaining business with a diverse group of women, as well as to take the physical risks that come with the sport itself. Conflict is inevitable. Business partners and teammates are one and the same. Clear communication is crucial to player safety on the track, as well as to the continued existence of the league.

It takes a lot more than balance to put on a pair of skates and race at high intensity intervals, having people hit you as hard as they can. The communities borne of roller derby are also the reason for the sport’s success. Without the strong relationships between teammates, their courage to be vulnerable and take risks wouldn’t be possible. To fall down repeatedly but get back up. To withstand bruises or worse. To speak up in a crowd. These skills are hard-won, built on the courage and confidence fueled by the unflaggingly supportive derby relationships. And the personal strength that each player discovers through derby permeates the rest of their lives.

Though kindergarten teacher and “jeerleader” Beth (Vickery) Heidemann ’91 hadn’t originally connected human ecology to derbying, she now sees many parallels. Like COA, she says, “roller derby is inclusive and equalizing—both create an environment that values individuality. Of course, being a human ecologist, I see the ripple effects that my derby involvement has had on other areas of my life. I am not particularly good at jeering, so it forces me to face public failure and turn it into an opportunity to create joy from chaos. That certainly carries over into my kindergarten work.”

Massage therapist Sara Levine ’04, aka Slayra, agrees. Reflecting on the sport’s instructional value, she offers this: “In life, there are times when you have to push through uncomfortable situations and not give up. Roller derby taught me to feel less afraid to try new things.”

Discomfort as a launchpad for discovery is a familiar concept for human ecologists given the oft-repeated quote of the late biology faculty member Bill Drury hardwired into our collective unconscious: Pay attention. You are about to learn something.*

Just don’t forget to wear your protective gear.

Additional COA women who have been involved in roller derbies include:

  • Tina Franco ’16, aka Spitfire
  • Annarose Madamma ’16, aka Annaphylactic Shock
  • Brynn Nelson ’05, aka Full Nelson

 

Having spent nearly two decades living on islands, first in Maine and then in Spain, Heather Candon ’99 is a writer living in New York.

*Bill Drury’s full quote is: “When your views on the world and your intellect are being challenged and you begin to feel uncomfortable because of a contradiction you’ve detected that is threatening your current model of the world, pay attention. You are about to learn something.”


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