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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

April 25, 2014 at 11:29 AM

Roller derby: An ex-sportswriter falls hard, fast for sport

Jim Almy

Jim Almy


Forget the fish-net stockings and garish make-up. Sharpen, instead, your basic IQ for athletics and get ready to teach yourself a new game that’s pretty much like the old games, only faster and more complicated.

Didn’t know I was going to learn a new game last summer until chance, and one of my daughters, piqued my interest. At her request I took my 20 years in journalism as a writer, many of them covering sports at all levels, to my first roller-derby bout. It was both out of curiosity and courtesy.  And maybe a little skepticism.

The courtesy was to the daughter who had invited me to watch her fiancee skate for Grave Danger (more ominous, names to follow). The curiosity because I grew up watching roller derby on television. It was then a banked track version of world-wide wrestling. Not any more.

Roller derby has become chess on wheels. It has benefited from 40 years of young women playing a variety of sports from elementary school through the pros. These are athletes first, skaters second. Seattle is home to one of the 1,515 world-wide roller-derby leagues. Here it’s the four-team Rat City Rollergirls roller-derby league, whose players are also city engineers, architects, teachers, students, housewives, mothers and pursue about every other endeavor you can assign to women and men. One Saturday a month from January through August they fill KeyArena for bouts against each other and against teams from around the country and world.

It took me a few practices to begin understanding, though, like most popular sports, the basics come pretty quickly.

The locals practice in a place called the Rats Nest on Aurora at 192nd. It appears to be a converted rug or mattress outlet. There are some bleachers on one side of the open track space, a bathroom and a couple offices. It’s not heated in the winter but it doesn’t take long for the 80-odd skaters who make up the four teams in the league to warm things up.

I went to some Tuesday night practices beginning last fall. You’re 10 feet from the track. You can hear the blockers instructing each other, hear the thud of hips and shoulders trying to introduce an opposing player to the floor or trying to keep a scorer from passing. Practice over, the players walk off the track and will stop to answer your questions. In fact, they hope you’ll ask some questions. Most of  them consider themselves coaches at some level.

So my education began. A knowledge of football helped. If you’re on more than a first name basis with rugby and soccer, you’re all set.

Roller derby is a game where four blockers try to get their scorer, called the jammer, through the line. When that jammer clears the line ahead of the other team’s jammer, she becomes the “lead jammer.” After completely skating the track and coming up on the blockers again, there are also four blockers from the other team on the track (the moving group of players is known as the “pack”) and she will attempt to pass opposing blockers, scoring a point for every opponent she can pass. Of course the other team’s jammer is also attempting to get past the line, score points.

Pretty basic stuff until you realize that these skaters are playing both offense and defense at the same time, on wheels, up to 17 mph, over a hard, flat track. Now it gets dicey.

Eight blockers, two jammers. Each scoring period is called a jam and lasts two minutes. The complete game, called a bout, lasts an hour divided into two equal halves. Jams can be called off by the lead jammer before the two minutes pass. That usually happens as a strategy to keep the other team from scoring or just to upset everyone’s rhythm.

What you notice right away, probably because the jammers wear large stars on their helmets and are therefore more easily followed, is how agile they are. Jammers are usually the smaller and lighter players on the team, very fast and quick. The whistle blows starting the jam, both lines collide and two jammers enter the pack. Five seconds later you see one bust through and the only thing you can think of is, “How’d she do that?!” Fortunately, because the jams are usually shorter than the alloted two minutes, you’ll be able to see 20 to 25 in a half, 50 in a game. That’s plenty of opportunity to slow the action down.

Fast, agile jammers are fun to watch. There’s a little ballet, a little brutality, in their runs. Big, muscular jammers are also fun to watch. Remind you of a certain running back from a certain Super Bowl champion football team from Seattle. It’s Beast Mode on skates. If you’re a blocker, maybe a little unsteady coming out of a tight turn, and one of these brute-force jammers is headed your way, you’re going to get blown up. Flat tracks don’t allow for the speed the old, banked versions could produce, so most players sent sprawling will get immediately up and back into action. Still, in conversations with players, it’s not unusual to hear a litany of injuries – from torn ACLs to displaced jaws to broken shoulders – discussed as you or I might complain about bumping our head getting into the car. Just part of the game.

One of the four blockers on each team is called a pivot and spends most of each jam skating backward. Her job is to direct blocking schemes. Because the eight blockers are moving constantly, the point of attack for the oncoming jammer is changing constantly, as is the axis of defense to keep the opponent’s jammer from getting through. I began to see that the blocking patterns developing in the moving pack had to be fluid, but had to also follow a plan.

My respect for the athleticism I was watching grew with each bout. When Sockit Wenches blocker Sister Slaughter removed two Throttle Rockets blockers, Missile America and Deva StateHer, from the track with an explosive block, I thought about what a great combination of speed, force and leverage had been harnessed for that play. After a few of those demonstrations, my skepticism was gone.

It put a smile on my face to watch Nehi Nightmare – all of 4 feet 9, and maybe 85 pounds – round the turn and use the full width of the track to build up the necessary speed to make Ophelia Mellons – easily 9 inches taller and significantly heftier – disappear into the out of bounds cushions.

The names are for fun. They are probably the only holdover from the banked track version of the 1970s. There are plenty of tattoos, some piercings, wild hair colors. All of that is reflected by the audience but it’s no more garish than the green and blue fanatics visible at any Seahawks game.

I’m really enjoying this sport. It’s highly entertaining, easily accessible, reasonably priced. If you just go for the action, you won’t be disappointed. If you go because you want to be a student of the game, because your approach to sports includes understanding, analyzing, strategizing and all the other attributes we coaches in the stands think we have, well, you won’t be disappointed either.

Jim Almy is a former sports reporter covering pro, college and high-school sports for newspapers in Michigan. He moved to Washington in the mid-1970s, and owned and published the Eatonville Dispatch for 10 years. Now retired, he reports weekly on local roller derby where his kids say he is having way too much fun.

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