The handwritten sign taped to the lamppost announces, “Roller Derby Today 7:00 p.m. Cass Park.” A line of cars turns into the parking lot at 701 Taughannock Boulevard in Ithaca, which is filled to capacity. It’s summer, and cottonwood dander drifts overhead.
Inside, the first whistle blows and skaters jockey for position. Bodies spill onto the floor. A woman, her arms a canvas of tattoos, emerges from the pack. Her helmet is adorned with a star, and as she circles the floor, the crowd erupts in cheers. Tonight’s contest pits the home team’s Blue Stockings against the Battery Brigade of Syracuse. Although Ithaca is down early, the ladies in blue are in the lead by the half and eventually trounce the visitors by a score of 258 to 98.
“What a fun thing to do on a Saturday night!” says Bud Rosevear, a new spectator to the sport. He applauds as Victoria Gonzalez, known to her teammates as “TacocaT,” is awarded MVP honors for her performance. A graduate of Rutgers University, Gonzalez relocated to Ithaca two years ago. “When I was looking for a place to live, derby was the first thing on my mind,” she says. “It’s like family.”
Contemporary roller derby has its origins in the banked-track events of the Depression-era Midwest. The growing popularity of roller skating combined with advances in women’s equality yielded a new, compelling form of sports entertainment.
Roller derby experienced a strong resurgence in the early part of the 21st century. Founded in 2004, The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) now governs international play for more than 250 member leagues. The Ithaca League of Women Rollers was founded in 2007 when interest in the sport blossomed in the Finger Lakes. The SufferJets emerging as the league’s flagship team. A second team, The Blue Stockings, followed three years later.
Today, the sport is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s under consideration for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games and even has its own board game. “It’s gone global,” says SufferJets’ team member Sue Dozoretz, who goes by the nickname “Sue Fresh.”
Roller derby is a potent marriage of female empowerment, histrionic bombast and athletic prowess. To the uninitiated, it appears woefully chaotic. Bouts are comprised of a series of brief matchups called “jams,” as skaters make their way around the track. Points are earned when a “jammer” laps members of the opposing team.
Another hallmark of the sport is the jocular alter egos. Dozoretz admits that roller derby’s theatrical elements sometimes threaten to rob the sport of its legitimacy. “It’s the condiment,” she says with a smile, “but it gets people in the door.”
For every ounce of kitsch there is a pound of sweat. Dozoretz, a finalist for the United States National Team, has been with the league almost since its inception. “Derby is the most physically and intellectually demanding sport I’ve ever played,” she says. It involves a level of commitment unparalleled in amateur athletics.
Away from the screaming crowds and flashing cameras, members of the Ithaca League of Women Rollers train relentlessly in an abandoned grocery store north of the city. Columns left by the original tenants are padded with foam and duct tape to prevent injury.
The two teams unpack their gear in a room furnished with Oriental rugs, folding chairs and a hand-painted mural. They banter back and forth as the topic of conversation turns to childhood pets.
“I had a hamster with three legs whose name was Yardstick,” says an affable SufferJet.
“Yardstick?” asks one of the Blue Stockings.
“Yeah, you know – three feet in a yard.”
On a dilapidated couch sits Anna Hammond, a SufferJet. Known as “Cold War,” she’s a native of the Ukraine who felt displaced from her homeland until she found derby. “It saved my life,” she says. Hammond suffered an ACL tear in the first bout of the year and is sidelined for the remainder of the season.
Injury is something that anyone who steps on the track must come to accept. Gonzalez has sustained two concussions, a separated shoulder, a sprained knee, a sprained ankle and countless abrasions. It’s all part of the game.
There is also a significant monetary investment. Each player invests thousands of dollars a year in the sport. “A good pair of skates can run you $700,” says Gonzalez. That doesn’t include pads, helmets, gas, hotel accommodations and monthly dues. “But the rewards are great,” she adds. Some involve giving back to a community that tirelessly supports their efforts. Since 2008 the league has donated more than $10,000 to local agencies including the Women’s Opportunity Center, Family Reading Partnership and Meals on Wheels. The league has also spearheaded a youth recreation program, the Ithaca League of Junior Rollers.
“They bring a gritty energy to the city’s West End and Waterfront districts,” says Erin Marteal, executive director of the Ithaca Children’s Garden. “Their commitment to supporting the larger community is impressive.” The Children’s Garden is both a place (3 acres on the Cayuga Waterfront trail, minutes from downtown) and a program designed to build stewardship of the natural environment.
Lace ’em up, girls
It’s a balmy summer evening at the Cass Park Rink on the banks of the Cayuga Inlet. Outside, the heat is stifling, but inside, the atmosphere is festive. The home team methodically skates around the oval-shaped track, sizing up the competition.
Syracuse’s Assault Squad is in town looking to avenge the early season loss to the Battery Brigade, but the night belongs to the SufferJets. They cruise to an overwhelming 239 to 93 victory.
Hammond, who is coaching the team for the first time since her injury, is adapting to life on the sidelines. “It’s a new role for me, but it’s temporary,” she says. “I’m looking forward to getting back on the track.”
Check out these other Finger Lakes Roller Derby teams
• Roc City Roller Derby (Rochester)
• Assault City Roller Derby (Syracuse)
• Finger Lakes Lunachicks (Geneva)
by Jon Ulrich