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That's how they roll: Derby women play it fast and physical

Jun. 9, 2011 - 02:14PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 9, 2011 - 02:14PM  |  
Capital Offender team member Spank Erin, aka Erin Sanchez, acknowledges the crowd before an exhibition bout between the Cherry Blossom Bombshells and the Capital Offenders at the National Guard Armory in Washington.
Capital Offender team member Spank Erin, aka Erin Sanchez, acknowledges the crowd before an exhibition bout between the Cherry Blossom Bombshells and the Capital Offenders at the National Guard Armory in Washington. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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A roster of roller derby teams in military communities, with links to their Web pages:
U.S.
• Barksdale Air Force Base, La.: Twin City Knockers.
• Camp Lejeune, N.C.: Cape Fear Roller Girls and Kill Devil Derby Brigade.
• Camp Pendleton, Calif.: Rollin’ Roulettes Roller Derby.
• Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska: Fairbanks Rollergirls.
• Fort Benning, Ga.: Atlanta Rollergirls.
• Fort Bliss, Texas: El Paso Roller Derby and Sun City Roller Girls.
• Fort Bragg, N.C.: Rogue Rollergirls.
• Fort Campbell, Ky.: Derby City Rollergirls.
• Fort Carson, Colo.: Pikes Peak Derby Dames.
• Fort Drum, N.Y.: Black River Roller Derby.
• Fort Irwin and Twentynine Palms, Calif.: Fort Irwin Rollergirls.
• Fort Knox, Ky.: Vette City Roller Derby.
• Fort Polk, La.: Cenla Derby Dames.
• Fort Sill, Okla.: 580 Rollergirls.
• Honolulu: Pacific Roller Derby.
• Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska: Rage City Rollergirls.
• Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.: Bettie Brigade.
• Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.: Jerzey Derby Brigade.
• MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.: Tampa Bay Derby Darlins.
• Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla.: Jacksonville Rollergirls.
• Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla.: Pensacola Roller Gurlz.
• Naval Base San Diego, Calif.: Hidden City Derby Girls.
• Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.: Fabulous Sin City Rollergirls.
• Norfolk, Va.: Dominion Derby Girls.
• Washington: DC Rollergirls.
OVERSEAS
• Frankfurt, Germany: Bembel Town Rollergirls.
• Okinawa, Japan: Devil Dog Derby Dames and Kokeshi Roller Dolls.
• Seoul, South Korea: Republic of Korea Derby.
Sources: www.derbyroster.com and Military Roller Derby Wives.

The ladies of the two competing roller derby teams whizzed around the track at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C.

As opponents from the Capitol Offenders and the Cherry Blossom Bombshells jostled for position, Offender "Grilled Cheesus" struggled to break through the pack.

Under roller derby rules, Cheesus, as her team's "jammer," was trying to earn a point for each opposing team member she skated past. But "Ivana Tripabitch," a Bombshell, was skating directly in front of Cheesus, blocking her every move, keeping her behind the pack and stopping her from earning points.

That is until "Gun'Her Down," aka Melissa Mitravich, skated over and hip-checked Ivana to Cheesus' right, opening a gap. Cheesus skated through and grabbed the outstretched arm of teammate "Frankendoll," who whipped Cheesus toward the front of the pack.

"If you don't play as a team, you're going to lose," said Mitravich, an Army Reserve major and a family nurse practitioner at Dewitt Army Community Hospital at Fort Belvior, Va. "It's very much like the Army."

Roller derby is funky, fast-paced and fiercely competitive, a high-contact amateur sport that's played on roller skates and dominated by women. It requires the ability to skate well, take hard hits and work as a team.

Roller derby's heyday was in the 1970s — epitomized by the 1972 Raquel Welch cult classic, "Kansas City Bomber" — but it has experienced a resurgence in recent years, spreading across the U.S. and into 30 countries.

Military spouses and servicewomen who get in on the act say they're drawn to the sport's rough edges and sense of community. They have joined, or started, their own leagues from Fort Sill, Okla., to Okinawa, Japan.

A booming sport

"All walks of life, all body types play this sport," says Diana Dawa, aka "Hooah Girl," a 45-year-old Army civilian and public affairs specialist at the Pentagon. "If you know how to skate, you can do this — if you have the speed, the commitment and the endurance."

Erika Durochia, whose husband is an artilleryman at Fort Sill, launched the Military Roller Derby Wives Facebook page in early May, and its popularity skyrocketed to more than 200 "likes" in three weeks.

The Lawton, Okla.-area league she helped found, 580 Rollergirls, recently sold out its first bout and has attracted a roster of more than 60 women, most of them Army wives.

"For some people, it's making new friends outside of the military community, and for me, I like the rough-and-tumble image, the competition and the camaraderie," says Durochia, a 24-year-old stay-at-home mom who skates as "Cyanide Couture." "And it's something to do; Lawton is two Walmarts and a mall."

The object of the game is for each team to get its "jammer," its designated scoring player, past as many players of the opposing team — called "blockers" — as possible during a series of 2-minute sessions, each called a "jam." Passing all four opponents is called a "grand slam," worth five points.

The game is rough, and people get knocked down. Players can check opponents with their hips, rears or shoulders, but grabbing, tripping, elbowing and other foul play will earn a player a temporary trip to the penalty box.

Keeping the roots

Though the era of staged fights and shouting matches is past, roller derby retains some of its campy roots. Players pick sassy or mock-violent "derby names" and wear colorful uniforms, but they're serious about winning, and they can get seriously hurt. Bruises are a badge of honor, and ankle injuries are common.

The risk of getting hurt can make it hard for service members to get permission from their commanders to participate, and not everyone bothers to ask. But Dawa, who skates with approval from her supervisors at the Pentagon, said the sport is no riskier than football is for men.

Dawa says that when she sought permission, "My bosses and commanders were so stoked." Her boss, an Army lieutenant colonel, even attended her latest match at the armory on his day off.

Athleticism required

If you're looking for a full-impact team sport and have the commitment to practice at least six hours per week, roller derby is for you, Dawa says.

"I knew I had to do it because it was very physical, a physically challenging sport," she says. "There's nothing like this unless you go to professional women's football or rugby. Since I've got a background in figure skating, it brought my two loves together, contact and skating."

It's an amateur sport, but that doesn't mean these derby queens are inexperienced athletes. Karen Weishampel, aka "Ridin' Dirty," of the Bombshells, played volleyball and ran cross-country track.

"The hardest thing is keeping your balance and keeping your center of gravity low," says Weishampel, a 31-year-old Coast Guard storekeeper with a nasty bruise peeking out from sequined hot pants. "It's also about strategy. You always have to be aware of what's going on around you."

Coast Guard wife Erin Sanchez, a 32-year-old rookie who skated as "Spank Erin" for the Capitol Offenders, says she was looking for a challenge and was attracted to the sport's action and intensity. She says roller derby's camaraderie is perfect for spouses such as her, who have time on their hands when their husbands are deployed for months.

"From a spouse's point of view — knowing when I've been alone when he's had duty — it gives them an outlet, something to do when their husbands are overseas, on duty, away from home," says Sanchez, 32, of Ocean Springs, Miss.

Guys in on the action

Roller derby has roles for men, too, as volunteer officials, coaches and managers, or as statistics keepers. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mike Spute, aka "Major Minor," said he found roller derby while looking for a way to stay active after he was promoted from an oft-deployed dive team to a desk job. He became a referee a year ago.

"It's a great workout," says Spute, who has 21 years in the Coast Guard. "I mean, you have a rough day at work, you come here to do a scrimmage, you skate for two to three hours straight, wring your shirt out when you're done, and you feel pretty good."

At halftime during a championship match at the armory between the defending DC DemonCats and challengers Scare Force One, the challengers trailed 52-40. On the sidelines, Mitravich, who also coaches Scare Force One, rallied her team. If they could get one jammer to score a series of grand slams — a difficult task — they could close the gap and take home the trophy. Soon after play resumed, "Chinese Cheker," a speedy wisp of a jammer, managed to round the track once, twice, three times, four times for 20 points. An electrified crowd chanted, "Scare Force One! Scare Force One!"

The DemonCats never regained the lead.

"It's an awesome feeling," Mitravich says later. "We're truly a team of family, and it's all about putting in everything you can and doing your best."

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