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Roller Derby Roughs Up South Bend

Troy Mathew | Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Roller derby features competitors with nicknames such as T.N.Tina, Thrashanova, Captain Beefstock and Schmitt Talker. They navigate a narrow track on roller skates, all while wearing “helmets, elbow pads, knee pads, wrist guards, mouthpieces and not much else.” Intrigued yet? Hundreds of people in the South Bend area are.

The South Bend Roller Girls, South Bend’s first and only women’s roller derby league, held an inaugural exhibition game last Thursday at the USA Skate Center in Mishawaka. My friends and I arrived to a packed house and made our way to the “suicide seating,” the ominously named trackside seats. The lack of barrier between us and the track, and the minimum age requirement of 18 for entry made us somewhat cautious, but we ended up leaving the match unscathed. The anticipation culminated in a visually arresting, highly entertaining match, in which the Smooth Criminals handily defeated the Pretty Young Things in an interleague match.

Enthusiastic announcers, a well-displayed scoreboard, disco balls and pregame Michael Jackson tunes made for a hugely enjoyable experience. Competitors with lively attire and cleverly intimidating nicknames were also the source of much spectacle. However, it was the lively, high scoring gameplay and shows of athleticism that were truly the main show. Cringe-inducing falls coupled with close proximity to the court equaled two or so hours of pure enthrallment.

About the Sport

Having never been exposed to roller derby before, my friends and I prepared to be utterly confused while watching the league’s first official event. The majority of the crowd was new to the sport as well, so the South Bend Roller Girls were thoroughly prepared for our demographic.

After explanations on the back of the program, along with a slow-mo demonstration round with the players, we felt prepared to enjoy the match. For the unacquainted reader, here’s a rundown of the rules and game play:

Each of the two teams plays five players at a time. These teams are comprised of four blockers and a jammer. The eight total blockers form what is called a pack, and start moving along the track when the first whistle blows. Following behind the pack is each team’s jammer. The jammer’s responsibility is to make it through the pack successfully, without committing any penalties. The first jammer through the pack becomes the “lead jammer.” Once the lead jammer has made it through the pack, the scoring laps begin. The jammer earns one point for each opposing player she laps. The lead jammer can call off the round whenever she wants, or let the round run for the full two minutes. After the round runs out of time or is stopped, the players make any substitutions and line up for another round. The game is composed of two 30-minute halves.

The track gets chaotic, as each team is trying to simultaneously block for their jammer and stop the opposing jammer from passing them.

Illegal conduct includes elbowing, tripping, clothes lining and basically any move seen in the popular movie “Whip It,” as a roller derby referee pointed out.

About the League

Started in March 2010, the South Bend Roller Girls are a non-profit organization. Most roller derby leagues are philanthropically involved, and co-founder Shannon Hoyt plans to move in the same direction.

“The proceeds from the first event are going to our organization, so that soon we’ll be at the level where we will be able to give back to charities that are important to us,” Hoyt said in an interview with the Observer.

Hoyt mentioned possessing an early interest in the sport and arousing local interest for the league on Facebook.

“One day I posted about starting a roller derby league in my Facebook status, and the response was overwhelming,” Hoyt remembers.

Hoyt’s networking certainly paid off, as tickets for the South Bend Roller Girls’ first official event were in high demand. Spectators for the exhibition match filled the USA Skate Center’s parking lot and spilled into several neighboring lots. Generating such fervor and enthusiasm in a new organization means a lot to Hoyt.

“I read in Newsweek that South Bend was a dying city, and that really bothered me,” said Hoyt.

The event’s turnout speaks to the contrary, however, as dozens of people were lined outside the facility, waiting in line for tickets to last Thursday’s events.

Hoyt and her co-founders’ love for the sport propels them to keep promoting it. When asked about the appeal of roller derby, Hoyt highlighted the theatrical nature of the sport, which dates back to the sport’s invention in the 1960s.

“It definitely serves as a type of escapism. The costumes and nicknames sort of represent our alter-egos,” Hoyt said.

Hoyt, known also as Smooth Criminals team member “Hoytie Toity,” can attest to the serious dedication roller derby players possess for their sport. They practice two to three times per week, for around two hours each session. Conditioning on skates, as well as various other exercises, comprise the league’s average workout.

“Even though we like to have fun with our clothes and names, we want people to take us seriously as athletes and competitors,” Hoyt said.

As serious athletes, the roller derby participants face the constant threat of injury. Tailbones and knees are the most commonly affected, as competitors often face heavy impact with the wooden track surface. Although several officials, both on and off skates, regulate game play, rough play still ensues. Size differences in players can be a definite cause for concern.

“One of our players is 6-foot-2, and her normal elbow position is right in my face,” Hoyt mentioned.

Despite the players’ imposing physical presence and gear emblazoned with slogans such as “I Hit Girls,” they are an incredibly welcoming group, and really enjoy having a lively crowd present.

When attending a future event of the South Bend Roller Girls, be sure to keep your eyes open for familiar faces amongst the competitors. Known as “Aris-throttle,” a certain Notre Dame philosophy professor has been known to don the skates and pads.

To learn more about the South Bend Roller Girls and their upcoming events, find them on Facebook or visit southbendrollergirls.com