- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Rachel Harris is your average Southern Maryland woman. The 35-year-old Waldorf resident juggles a home life that includes a husband and two sons, along with a career as a professor of digital media publishing and communication at the College of Southern Maryland and graduate studies at Gonzaga University.
But that’s where the “average” part ends.
On this particular night, Harris is dressed in a black tank top, black tights, satin purple shorts and knee-high, purple-and-gray socks. She laces up roller skates and pulls on a helmet and gloves. She’s headed to the track to bang heads with other women.
Welcome to the world of roller derby.
“I’m the only female in the house, so I needed a little aggression, something to get me out of the house and back to civilization,” said Harris, who joined the Southern Maryland Roller Derby league in 2012 after watching a friend skate for Baltimore’s Charm City Rollergirls. “I fell in love with it, but at the time I had kids or was just about to have a baby, so I said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to drive to Baltimore or D.C. to do this, but if I ever find one in Southern Maryland I’m doing it.’ I went to an all-women’s college, so I kind of missed that female bonding that wasn’t like a super-snotty kind of thing. And I love it. It’s been the biggest self-esteem and confidence and friendship booster I’ve ever had in my life. But the first night, I was clinging to the walls. I was terrified.”
Four women, including current skater Letitia S. Clem-McClanahan, decided to start a team in 2011, and a year later, the SMRD league was formed.
“I was really bored just going to the gym,” said a 31-year-old St. Mary’s County resident who goes by the track name Sara-Cidal. She hadn’t skated in 15 years before she attended a league boot camp in 2013. “It sounded like a good idea, so I gave it a try, and it just really stuck. It seemed like something different, something to get in shape, something to meet new people.”
The team currently has 12 skaters — including eight from Southern Maryland — ranging in age from 18 to 47 and nine volunteers, who do everything from photography to maintaining the team’s website to fundraising.
The skaters each have their own personalities and styles — and their helmets reflect that. Harris’ headgear is plastered with decals of “8JZY” (her late brother’s initials), Indiana Jones, Hello Kitty, Captain America, Whalebone (where her family vacations in the Outer Banks), a puzzle piece (to support autism) and a Gonzaga Bulldog.
Jacki Taylor, a 2008 Huntingtown High School graduate, celebrated her 21st birthday watching a Charm City bout with her fiancee, Justin Duvall. She even sat in the “suicide seats” — so named because players often tumble into the section.
“It was a lot of fun, but [what’s best is] the camaraderie and just the bad-assness of it,” said Taylor, 24, who joined the team in June. “Justin was completely supportive of it because I was out of the house and doing something fun. My mom was more like, ‘You’re going to hurt yourself,’ and I said, ‘I want to hurt myself.’”
Players, who pay $60 a month and $20 a year in dues, also put in countless hours performing charity work. The team is coached by Christopher “Ice” Romero.
“I technically did not decide [to coach], I was kind of volunteered, coerced,” said Romero, who is married to team member Angella Winn, who goes by the track name Brooklyn. “Initially I had no clue as to what roller derby was. I used to come to practice and watch and support, and somebody decided to tell somebody that I had [football and baseball] coaching experience, so they plotted for a couple practices, and I gave in.”
SMRD is a league that skates as a team until it grows enough to break into smaller, separate teams. It is working toward becoming an apprentice league within the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the governing body for the flat-track version of the sport. Though the team has not yet played a bout — its first action is set for May 17 in Fredericksburg, Va., against the Five-40 Rollergirls — many players have participated in scrimmages.
Practice makes perfect
It’s pitch dark at the Charles County Fairgrounds on a cold February night, and the place is deserted, all but for a small sliver of light trying to escape from the sheep and livestock barn.
The barn is cold enough to make breath plume, but a loudspeaker blares hard-core music as women lace up and suit up. Two other skaters use a tape measure and masking tape to lay down an outline for a track.
Players warm up — both literally and for the practice — by stretching and racing around the track before Romero takes over to go over situational play.
“I didn’t consider it a sport in my mind because I didn’t know” how tough it is, he said. “But after, [I realized] it was one of the toughest sports that I’ve seen in terms of learning the techniques and the amount of work you need to put into it. You’re on wheels, and your body’s not accustomed to being on wheels. It’s unnatural. On your feet you’re in full control, you learn a lot quicker, the learning curve is a lot smaller. But in roller derby you have to balance all the time, learn your center of gravity.”
Though safety is the No. 1 priority, injuries occur.
“They’re trophy bruises. You show them off,” said Harris, who ironically struck her head on a metal beam moments after being asked if the sport was dangerous. “You name [the bruise] after the person who gave it to you. There were a lot of bruises on the tailbone the first night.”
“There’s bruises,” admitted 39-year-old Waldorf resident and mother of four Christina Simpson, who goes by the moniker Princess Sleia. “And both my shoulders have popped out. You just fall down and roll over, and it pops back in.”
Some people “think it’s for the rougher crowd — and it is,” Taylor said, “but at the same time we have mothers and grandmothers on the team, so it can’t be that rough because we come home at the end of the night.”
Taylor said the sport has a tough image and that, “When we say roller derby everyone thinks fishnets, tattoos, booze and party and stuff like that, but we’re trying to keep it more like it’s an organized sport with professional athletes.”
It’s a meat market sometimes
A few times a year the league goes in search of new players by putting on “fresh meat” boot camps, during which newcomers are encouraged to try the sport.
She wanted “to have opportunities for community service and fundraising, meet other women with similar interests and for physical exercise,” said 35-year-old Angela Ross of Waldorf. “It has been very fun. I’m enjoying it. I have only shared that I am doing this with my husband, and he is supportive, [but] if I make the team I’ll tell everyone.”
“My husband is deployed, and I really wanted something I could get excited about and help pass the time,” said Morgan Smith, 24, a help desk technician from St. Mary’s County. “It has also given me the opportunity to meet some awesome ladies and make new friends.”
“When I got home after my first boot camp,” said Michelle Ryan of Prince George’s County, “I said, [it’s] ‘totally worth the hour drive,’ and I stick to it.”
One thing all new skaters agreed on was the willingness of the veterans to help. Sarah Kelly said she was left with a sour taste after playing a different sport, but roller derby has been her mouthwash.
“Boot camp has been fun, informative, and the instructors are amazing at teaching us how, when and why we do things,” said Kelly, a dental assistant from Prince Frederick, who said her boss will sometimes “threaten to body-check me, to keep me in line and get me ready for contact in derby.” “It’s been a huge confidence boost to be skating again, I finally feel alive again. I love derby, and especially all the women in the current sisterhood. No newbie ever feels pressured, or stupid, for falling, asking questions or skating like a 4-year-old.”
Skating is key on the flat track, and so is balance. Jammers try to score as many points as possible, while blockers try to seal them off.
“It’s a lot of endurance, a lot of being able to keep going,” Sara-Cidal said. “Even when you’re really tired [you need] to get through the pack because it’s [between] you and four people against you that are trying to stop you.”
“It’s a good, all-over workout,” Simpson said. “Even though it’s mostly a leg sport, we want to make our lower body strong in case we do fall. You have to [be in] control. A lot of people when they first play will flail, but you really have to be controlled. Jammers don’t get past individual blockers. They get past the wall, so you’re only as strong as the team that’s out there.”
“Everyone’s coming at you from all points, and you think you have all your ground covered, but really you get tunnel vision, and you get adrenaline pumping from everyone hitting you,” said Taylor, who is a blocker. “It was better than I could have imagined.”
Romero said the wall is much like an offensive line in football.
“It’s similar in terms of the running back going through the line,” he said. “In roller derby, your jammer would technically be your running back and your blockers the offensive line. The difference is in football you make it through the line and you get tackled and you’re down. In derby, you keep going.”
For every action ...
The feedback the skaters have received on their athletic pursuit has been as varied as their helmets.
“I’ve told my mom about my venture into derby, but I don’t think she fully understands what derby is ... so the reaction I’ve encountered has been ambiguous at best,” said 34-year-old Beth Smith, an Air Force auditor from Waldorf.
Someone asked, “‘Aren’t you too old for that?’” Simpson said. “My husband was like, ‘Yes, that’s cool,’ but the kids wish I wasn’t gone so long. They’re like, ‘You have derby again? You should take a break, Mom, and rest.”
“Oddly enough, everyone I told had the exact same reaction [which was], ‘I can totally see you doing that,’” said new skater Heather Matthews, 39, of Indian Head.
Fellow newbie Ashley Sellner said she’s skating for two. “I have a friend at work who loves when I come in and tell her about what we did at practice,” said Sellner of Hollywood, a junior analyst who said her skating experience is minimal. “She says she lives vicariously through me because she’s too afraid of getting hurt to try it out.”
Contract administrator Kelly Rinaldi, 39, of Charles County said most of her friends and family can’t believe she’s doing roller derby, while others have said it’s the perfect sport for her.
“Most of my friends think it is pretty awesome that I am doing roller derby. I always get asked how practice was,” Morgan Smith said. “My mom, on the other hand … said that she hopes they don’t pick me to join the league. I told her she was squashin’ my dreams. She thinks the sport is really dangerous and is worried about me getting hurt, says I am too little to play a sport like roller derby.”
Romero said the sport has made a believer out of him.
“I have a newfound respect for the women who compete, for the sport itself ... and I’m a football guy,” he said. “There’s nothing tougher than a football player, but not when it comes to roller derby. I challenge any football player to get on skates and get with these girls.”
And then, Romero turned and barked orders to his team as they sped around the makeshift track in the cold, frigid night.