Roller Derby Mamas

By Rebecca Esposito, NW ’09 and Siblings

At first glance, the three women at the table seem just like any other group of moms hanging out at Starbucks.  You wouldn’t believe that they are all part of one of the toughest sports there is—roller derby.

When you hear roller derby you might think of girls in fishnets and outrageous outfits brawling while wearing roller skates.  Or maybe you picture scenes from Drew Barrymore’s Whipit.  Or perhaps you have no idea what to think when it comes to roller derby.  But you probably aren’t picturing derby girls with kids in tow.  But that’s the life for these three moms.  Jill Henrickson, who goes by the derby alias Jilimanjaro, has two daughters and a son.  Theresa Carino, aka Juana Chingaso, has a 17 year old son and 11 year old twins.  And when Brandy Holden, aka My Way Highway, is not referring derby bouts, she is raising her 13 year old daughter and a 16 month old son.  I was recently given a chance to sit down with these three moms to find out more about their lives and the sport they love. 

But first, what is roller derby?  The box to the — has a more detailed explanation of the game but in a nutshell, the two jammers are trying to skate around the track as fast and as much as they can scoring points while the blockers, everyone else on the track, try to stop them.  Sounds easy, right?  Not quite.  Roller derby is fast-paced, intense, and very physical.  It’s also the only sport where all the players are both offense and defense the entire time.

Some of you might remember the crazy coed roller derby games on TV in the 1960s and early ‘70s.  While those were staged, roller derby today is very much a real sport.  The modern version of flat track derby started in Austin in 2002 and quickly spread.  The creation of WFTDA, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, in 2005 allowed the sport to become nationally recognized and regulated.  Now there are derby leagues in 47 states as well as teams in the United Kingdom, Canada, Switzerland, Brazil, and France.  With over 450 derby leagues worldwide, there is even talk of derby one day making it to the Olympics.

Our own Tucson actually has an illustrious derby history.  We were the third city, after Austin and Phoenix, to start a roller derby team.  We were also one of the first to join WFTDA when it was formed.  And we hosted the first interleague tournament, the Dust Devil, six years ago.  Currently Tucson has three local teams—the Furious Truckstop Waitresses (Theresa’s team), Vice Squad (Jill’s team), and the Copper Queens.  We also have one all-star, traveling team, the Saddletramps, which represents Tucson Roller Derby in WFTDA bouts.

As regulated and organized as it is, roller derby is still a dangerous sport.  There is a reason why derby girls are required to wear helmets, elbow pads, wrist guards, knee pads, and mouth guards.  This sport is not for the faint of heart.  So how did these three moms find themselves joining roller derby?  Jill was, quite frankly, tired of being a stay-at-home mom and wanted something more.  Brandy said that she had to postpone joining when she found out she was pregnant.  When she turned 30 she realized it was “now or never.”  And Theresa had played sports throughout high school and was drawn to the competition, camaraderie, athleticism, and girl power that derby offers. 

As much as they wanted to participate, Brandy, Jill, and Theresa couldn’t just walk in off of the street and roll out onto the track.  After attending an informational meeting and buying gear, future derby players start attending practices.  When they feel ready and have attended at least 70% of practices offered in a month, they take a Skills Assessment Test where they are tested on over 30 skills such as speed, endurance, gliding, agility, and general play.  After passing the test, they are part of a draft, identical to the NFL.  Once on a team, members get a name and number, which is registered with WFTDA.

Roller derby is extremely physically demanding, to put it mildly.  When Brandy started she thought her “legs would fall off the next day” and felt as though she had been “ran over by an 18 wheeler.”  Theresa, a lifelong athlete, said that no other sport compares to the endurance and skill derby requires.  But Jill did point out that there is a huge payoff to all that work—for the first time in her life she thought her legs were hot and wore shorts all summer. 

In addition to the physical stress on your body, roller derby requires many sacrifices.  Derby takes up a great deal of time with practice at least three times a week.  And everyone has to serve on at least one committee as the league is entirely by volunteers.  Players also have to pay for their own gear, uniforms, and the monthly $30 fee.  Participating in such a dangerous sport also means that players need to have medical insurance and be prepared for injuries at some point in their career. 

Lots of women don’t stay because it is so demanding.  All three women interviewed point out that without a supportive partner they wouldn’t be able to do roller derby.  And they found that making it a family affair really helped.  Theresa said her oldest son was really scared for her when he heard she was joining roller derby.  After he saw her first bout, however, he fell in love with the sport and became her biggest fan.  And Brandy said that it actually brought her family closer together.  Her daughter is part of the “Derby Brats” the junior league and her husband is the Vice President of the Brats.  They are truly a derby family.

But what about those who think roller derby is too violent or inappropriate for young ones?  The ladies were quick to point out that it is no more so than football for boys.  The sport is more about strategy than aggression; it is “a mental game, a skills game.”  Players are limited to legal blocking zones from the shoulder to the hip and those who break the rules are sent to the penalty box or kicked out of the game.  And after each bout the opposing teams can be seen hugging and congratulating one another.

These mothers say that the empowerment the sport offers far exceeds any roughness.  This is a sport started by women, run by women, and played by women.  Their daughters and sons see strength and sportsmanship.  Brandy has experienced this first hand with her 13 year old.  Her daughter had not been involved in other sports before joining the Derby Brats, who do have rules requiring less contact and less aggression than the adult version.  After starting derby Brandy’s daughter “opened up, really blossomed, and felt more empowered.”  She has even traveled with the team, gaining new experiences and even more confidence.

Many envision roller derby bouts to be some sort of raucous, risqué adult entertainment, but really they are a sporting event.  Derby really is a family sport; children 10 and under get in free.  Intermissions include a fun, half-time show with entertainment such as a high school drumline, a senior tap dancing troupe, or exhibition jump rope.  Every bout also sponsors a charity; recent ones include Tour de Cookie, Toys for Tots, and the Humane Society. 

While roller derby can be time-consuming, costly, strenuous, and even dangerous, to Brandy, Jill, and Theresa it is all totally worth it.  They say that beyond the sport, it is the friendships they have made that are so important.  So many people see the roller derby image, the dyed hair, tattoos, piercings, skate names, fishnets, and they miss the fact that derby is made up of “supportive, true people,” or as Theresa says “salt of the earth.”  While so many think you have to be totally wild and crazy to do roller derby, they point out that there are women in their fifties with grandchildren playing.  Their advice to everyone?  Try it! 

Want more information about Tucson Roller Derby, including upcoming bouts so you can see it for yourself?  Check out their website at http://www.tucsonrollerderby.com/ or friend them on facebook.  You can also catch crazy derby action at the Dust Devil on April 2 and 3 when 12 teams from across the country and even Canada compete to win the tournament.

How the game is played:

Roller derby is an all-female sport where two teams try to score the most points skating around the track.  A bout (game) is made up of two 30 minute periods.  Each team has five players on the track—one jammer and four blockers.  At the first whistle blow, the eight blockers, known as the pack, start skating.  At the second whistle, the jammers take off around the track.  The jammers are trying to get all the way around the track and through the pack once while staying in bounds.  After they’ve done that then every time they pass a member of the opposing team they score a point.  They continue scoring points as they continue trying to lap the group.  The first jammer around the track the first time becomes the lead jammer and can end the jam at any time.  If they don’t end it, then the jam ends after two minutes and another begins.

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