Roller derby becoming a hit in Iowa City

BY JED MILLER | MARCH 12, 2009 7:27 AM

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Before I see her, I can smell her. It’s an acrid mix — both flowery and sweaty. In the cacophony of swear words and rubber squeaks, I look up with a jolt from my notepad to see a hulking woman barreling toward me. The errant roller skater has flown off the track. But just before the point of impact, she expertly slides 45 degrees to my right and back into the game.

The elementary-school gymnasium is filled with tough-looking women able to take a hit, but most of the derby players also have a theatrical side to them. The look is Rainbow Brite gone bad: torn stockings, tattoos, and bright legwarmers.

It’s a game, but it’s also a show.

At the Old Capitol City Roller Girls’ scrimmage on Feb. 8, the game looks brutal. Players fall, and others skate over them. Bodies slam into each other with a loud thud echoing across the gym. One player shouts that another woman slapped her in the face. It’s a game of bruises and even broken bones, but all is forgotten — or at least overlooked — when the game is over. The skaters meet in the middle of the floor, many compliment each other’s game, and some talk about their kids. After roughly two hours of aggression, all tension seems to be released as the players munch on brownies one player made just for the bout.

The scrimmage was a good start for the 5-month-old team, and head coach Sarah Carter has big plans for the Old Capitol City Roller Girls. The group’s ultimate goal is to become Iowa’s first professional roller-derby team, she said. To achieve this , the group must go through a long application process and pass the standards of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. The national organization, which was founded in 2004, facilitates roughly 70 professional roller-derby teams across the country.

“It’s almost as complicated as buying a baseball team — but less expensive,” Carter said. “There’s lots of red tape.”

Despite the extensive procedure, she said, her team is enthusiastic about going professional. Seven Iowa City skaters have met the national association’s qualifications, and the rest of the team is working to catch up. The group is set to tour the Midwest this summer, Carter said, and she wants to add 10 to 20 members.

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Carter — known as “Huzzie Lecher” on the court — has called herself a roller-derby girl for roughly a year. Before she became Iowa City’s coach, the stay-at-home mother played with the Cedar Rapids Roller Girls. After nearly six months on that team, she decided to take a gamble to see if she could create an Iowa City derby scene, so she cast her net wide, with Facebook invitations and fliers put up in bars, gyms, and tattoo parlors. She wanted to get the word out to any place potential roller-skating women hang out.

Only one person showed up at the first Old Capitol City Roller Girls meeting, which, Carter admitted, worried her. Still believing Iowa City players were out there, she took out a $3,500 loan to rent out a practice space. Five women showed up at the first practice in November 2008, and today the team has grown to nearly 20 members. The roller-derby group counts college students, firefighters, and even stay-at-home moms among its members.

“I think it’s just that interest in doing something for yourself — outside of your career, outside of being a mom,” said 33-year-old Kimberly “Toxic Sugar” Hendricks, who stays at home with her children. “It’s a great way to get out aggression, a tension alleviator — that’s why it attracts all types of people.”

Roller derby, which started in the 1930s, has flowed and ebbed in and out of popularity since its inception. The sport/spectacle reached the peak of its popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, when it began to incorporate staged fights in the game. Roller derby then fell off of the cultural radar until the turn of the century, when it was revived with a retro punk twist. The national trend reached Iowa fewer than two years ago with the founding of the Mid-Iowa Rollers in Des Moines. Since then, roller-derby teams have sprung up across the state, mainly in larger towns.

And with the 2006 A&E reality show on roller girls and the derby-team movie Whip It — directed by Drew Barrymore — set to be released this year, roller derby looks as though it’s getting hotter than ever.

“As soon as I learned about roller derby, I knew it was something I wanted to do,” said UI senior Quinn Dreasler, one of the four college students on the local team. “And knocking bitches down is sweet. Even though I always apologize.”

At the Old Capitol City Roller Girls’ scrimmage, Dreasler — a.k.a. “Animal Mother” — sported her ruby-dyed hair, ripped fishnet stockings, a bear tattoo on her arm, and bright leg-warmers from her ballet days. She’s the kind of woman whom roller derby seems to have been made for.

“We’re looking cool,” she said. “How you do your makeup is important.”

Carter said she has found that there isn’t a specific type of woman who’s drawn to roller derby. Rough and tough women play alongside “Barbie-doll princesses” who spend as much time on their costumes as they do on their wheels, she said.

Tonya “Hitzy Blonde” Kehoe said she thinks of a roller-derby woman as an independent person who has a subversive streak.

“We’re the Betty Pages to the Marilyn Monroes,” she said. “It’s feminine, but it’s also really aggressive and assertive.”

Iowa City Fire Department Lt. Tina McDermott — alias “Tynamite” — said she loves the chance to dress up in clothes she would never wear outside the game. Derby allows the petite redhead to have fun with a different side of her personality.

“I’m more likely to be aggressive when I’m on my skates,” she said. “I’ve never been in a fight. Being aggressive and going after people, that’s not something I would normally do on a day-to-day basis.”

The Iowa City women picked up roller derby for a variety of reasons — it gives them a chance to exercise, meet interesting people, or stray away from their typical daily routines.

Hendricks, a soft-spoken woman, said she started playing the game to get outside off the house.
“It’s kind of just strictly for me,” she said. “I started staying at home when my kids were born, and, having four at home, there’s not a lot of mom time.”

One of the team’s smaller players, Joan “Killer Baker” Williams, beat breast cancer four years ago. While she joined the team simply for exercise and camaraderie, she ended up finding the team “inspirational.”

“When I was done with it, I was a survivor,” she said. “What do I do? It was finding something fun and different … [the team members] are all very supportive.”

All the members of the Old Capitol City Roller Girls said the group’s closeness is what makes it special. Emotion trickles into the players’ voices when they talk about their team, and the word “family” is often used.

Whether it’s play dates with the kids or post-practice drinks at a local pub, the team has created a closely knit and caring community that extends far beyond the practice gym. When the coach falls down during practice, players suddenly stop and skate to her side. Everyone is instantly there, making sure she’s OK until she gruffly shoos them away, assuring them that she’s fine.

Assistant coach Laura “Bat R Up” Claps, who has lived in Iowa City since September 2008, feels as if she has created a family through the team.

“I think it’s so amazing that I’ve only known my teammates four to five months, and to get along so well and create a really supportive community, it’s awesome,” she said. “It blows me off my feet when I think about all these women getting together.”

Anyone interested in the team is encouraged to check out practices on Wednesday at the Robert A. Lee Center, 220 S. Gilbert St., or on Sunday nights at Wood Elementary, 1930 Lakeside Drive. People can borrow a pair of skates and try rolling with the women or watch the group from the sidelines.

Kehoe said most people who come to practices are instantly drawn to the game.

“The first moment you watch it, you’re like ‘Oh my gosh — am I really going to do this?’ ” she said. “And then you’re like, ‘Hell, yeah, I’m going to do it.’ ”

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