If you attend a Sonoma County Roller Derby (SCRD) match and you’re lucky enough to sit in the VIP section—a long oval of folding chairs close to the action—there are a few rules, and the announcer is happy to clue you in on a very important one:
If a girl comes along and skates out of bounds and hits you, throw your beer behind you so we don’t get any on the track.
With that irreverent but practical introduction, roller derby begins to steal your heart. The scene feels a bit like a family gathering, if your family is made up of strong women who are, well… badass.
In fact, one of SCRD’s veteran skaters is named badass—She-Ra Badass, to be specific. “I was there before it was a league,” said Roxanne Nedritch (aka She-Ra). “I had a friend who played on the Bay Area team and I skated with people who started this league here in 2007.”
A derby match is a combination of fast, fluid skating and the grunting impacts of a rugby scrimmage. The constant sound of the whirring skate wheels is punctuated by thumps and splats of collisions.
She-Ra, whose boyfriend is a skater and who coaches women’s derby, owns her own business and considers herself a quiet person in the rest of her life. “I’m kind of shy and have a reserved demeanor—until I get on the court, where I’m loud and a leader. When we put on skates we become different people.”
A trio of Home Wreckers sets up to stop a North Bay Bruiser jammer, but another Bruiser slams into them and bumps them out of position. The jammer caroms off two more Home Wreckers as she slips around the pile. Her war paint sparkles and she smiles broadly while the crowd cheers.
SCRD hosts three teams—the Wine Country Home Wreckers, the North Bay Bruisers and the All-Stars, that play each other and teams from up and down the West Coast.
Skaters are large and small, lean and bulky, young and not-so-young. They all skate smoothly and quickly, often giving each other a reassuring pat as they pass on the track.
What’s fun about being part of derby? “Everything,” said She-Ra. “I love how complicated it is. There’s a giant rule book and there’s a lot of strategy in the game. You have to remember all the rules while skating at high speed, people bumping into you… it’s like playing speed chess with bricks thrown at you.”
Those “bricks” are the other skaters, and one of the important aspects of derby is that grit matters as much as natural talent. “I’ve skated with girls who are 4’-11” and I’ve skated with girls who are 6’-11” and they can both skate full force and be successful for their team. Every shape and size person can get out there and be themselves.”
As each jam begins, skaters line up in a knot of helmets, pads, jerseys, fishnet stockings and concentration. Rock music blares from the speakers and audience members holler encouragement.
The fans are loyal and are often connected by family or work. “I used to watch roller derby on TV years ago,” said Dawn, who attended a match in April. My boss is one of the girls (KT-Wrecks) so I thought I’d come and watch her. I really enjoyed it, everybody gets involved and they’re not hurting each other, they’re just having a good time.”
Amy Lopez has been a fan since last season. “One of my friends is a skater,” she said. “I like that it (a match) is like a lifetime event. It’s local and it’s entertaining. It’s like watching hockey; it’s never boring at all. My favorite part is when the games are close and someone can come around and score and go ahead.”
And, that’s how it works. With a nod to its skate marathon origins, each team fields blockers and jammers that try to get around each other, or stop the other team from getting around.
At a match, jammers from each team pull a star-emblazoned cover onto their helmets and attempt to pass (lap) the opposite team. Blockers work singly and in groups to make way for their own jammers, block the other team’s jammers, and in She-Ra’s case, act as a “pivot” player who can transition from blocker to jammer.
Each jam starts slow as the skaters push off from a standing start. They seem to move as one for a quarter turn, then a few break out. By the end of the first lap, they are skating fast, whizzing by, the blockers forming groups that expand and contract to confront the jammers.
Skaters—who call each other girls regardless of age—train three days a week, on and off skates, and whirl around the track before each match, stretching, twisting and working on their moves at high speeds. “I work out at home and try to eat healthy all the time,” She-Ra said. “I do weights, one-legged squats, core exercises.”
How does derby impact your life? “It’s a total family, not just here in this league,” She-Ra said. “You can go anywhere in the roller derby world and people will offer you a place to stay; they’re like my sisters—and a few brothers too.”
Before and between matches, skaters check their helmet straps, reposition their knee and elbow pads and might tug on their fishnet stockings, fluff up their feathers or freshen the war paint on arms and faces.
She-Ra doesn’t wear face paint or fishnet stockings like some skaters, but she appreciates that “…people just want to be more playful, sometimes it’s fun to dress up and let something out.” However, she points out: “Then you fall and realize that it’s not so fun to fall in fishnets.”
The skaters know that their physical charms are part of the tradition of the sport. As a fundraiser for the nonprofit league, the skaters put together a 2016 pinup calendar, with cute, not-that-naughty photos of skaters in costume. The SCRD website describes the calendar thusly: “While we might sport wild tights and booty shorts at game time, most of our derby days are spent in worn-out workout clothes and sweaty, stinky skate pads. And frankly, we are most comfortable that way. But the desire to find a place to practice skating and showcase our more—feminine side—came the idea for a pin-up calendar.” Calendar sales’ proceeds are set aside to fund a permanent home for SCRD, whose members currently skate at the Sonoma County fairgrounds or the county veteran’s memorial building.
At the beginning of a match, two youngsters, Mishayla and Fiona, skate around the track with a U.S. flag while the crowd quiets in respect.
With so many families involved, it seems inevitable that a junior league would form. She-Ra has coached the juniors—known as the Ego Breakers—and while that group is on hiatus at press time, it is becoming more active again. Mishayla Horton, the 11-year-old daughter of KT-Wrecks, and 10-year-old Fiona Bowman, the daughter of Lucille Balls, were at the April match. Both are involved with the junior league and want to skate like their moms. Mishayla, when asked what she likes about derby, replied: “I like that you can skate fast, make new friends and hit people.” Fiona nodded in agreement.
She-Ra says the junior league is good for girls. “Being around a lot of strong women is powerful and you can learn to be proud of who you are.”
As the match progresses, even the best-conditioned skaters tire. They trade off with fresh skaters, but sooner or later, fatigue and speed combine and someone falls. In fact, everyone falls. Jammers fall. Blockers fall. Even the referees fall once in a while. Everyone helps everyone else up.
More information about SCRD is at sonomacountyrollerderby.com or facebook.com/sonomacountyrollerderby. The league plays away-games this summer and the next home match is November 19 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. SD