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Northwest Arkansas Roller Girls bring new life to an old sport

By Jessie Schumann
Northwest Arkansas has a roller derby league—The NWA Rollergirls, which is composed of two teams, the Twisted Sisters and the Hardwood Harlots. The roller girls got together in April of 2006 to form the league and played their first in October with Twisted Sisters triumphing over the Hardwood Harlots.

“It formed through a grassroots effort of a handful of girls,” said Coy Soldier (aka Coy Fagras) No. “9 to 5″ for the team Twisted Sisters. “We started meeting at the Dart Room on College with homemade fliers to pass out. Today we have 50 plus skaters, volunteers, refs, coaches.”

Sin (aka Michelle Obana), number seven for the Hardwood Harlots, said at first she was hesitant to become involved.

“I joined initially because a group of friends of mine wanted to join,” Sin said. “It is something I seriously questioned at first, but after the first practice I attended, I walked away feeling so energized and excited that I was immediately addicted. I have since made so many friends through the league that I can’t imagine not seeing them every week. Though I was never in sports prior to roller derby, I have really enjoyed the challenge.”

Nixin, (aka Kristen Smith) number 14 for the Twisted Sisters, on the other hand is an athlete and jumped at the chance to become a roller girl.

“I joined because I saw roller derby as a great opportunity to play an organized sport as a female out of college,” Nixin said. “I love sports, I am an athlete, I am competitive, and I love a team dynamic.”

Roller derby rules vary from league to league, but in general, the sport is played as follows: Two teams of five skaters, wearing protective gear such as helmets, mouth guards and pads, take up positions alongside each other in a pack formation. Each team consists of one pivot, three blockers and one jammer. The pivot is in front of the pack to start, behind her the blockers, and behind them the jammers. A signal is given and the jam commences. All skating is performed counter-clockwise on a small, narrow track.

A few professional roller derby type leagues use a banked track, while most new leagues, and all leagues that are part of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association use a standard flat skating rink.

Physical prowess is required. Roller derby is a contact sport.

“I was looking for a body positive sport and liked the idea of fusing and asserting sexuality with athleticism,” Coy said. “Derby gives women an outlet to release their inner warriors. The spirit of he sport was contagious.”

Initially leading the pack are the special blockers known as the pivots, who set the pace and give the other blockers directions in order to strategize and keep the pack relatively tight. Blockers who stray too far from the pack may not be allowed to engage opposing players.

Blockers (including the pivots) start skating at the referee’s first signal. A second signal is given to launch the jammers, who must catch up to the rear of the pack. Jammers navigate through or around the pack, then lap around the track until reaching back of the pack again. The first jammer to get through the pack legally (without cutting the track, going out of bounds or acquiring any penalties) is dubbed lead jammer and may call off the jam at any time. The pivots wears a stripe helmet and the jammers have a star on both sides of their helmet.

Scoring commences when the jammers lap around the back of the pack and go through for a second time. One point is scored for each member of the opposing team passed by an inbound jammer.

Blockers try to stop the opposing jammer from passing, while defending their own jammer, whom they can assist by pushing or pulling (whipping) in an attempt to advance them through the pack. The jam concludes after a fixed period of time, usually two minutes, or when the lead jammer calls off the jam. Until then, jammers are free to lap the pack again and again.
Calling off the jam early is a strategic move to prevent the opposing team from having the opportunity to score. It can be helpful if the lead jammer’s team is at an unexpected disadvantage (due to good defense by the other team, or falling or penalized players on the jammer’s team), or it can be used to solidify a lead when the jammer’s team is doing exceptionally well.

Physical contact between players is frequent and sometimes violent.

“Hurting is part of the game, but as far as serious injuries we have girls who have broken collarbones and ribs and ankles,” Coy said. “So far I’ve been lucky with only some friction burns on my ankles that bore little holes into my flesh.”

Body-blocking is allowed and elbowing is allowed in some leagues, but players are not allowed to trip or punch other players. Roller derby players generally adopt stage names and gimmicks, evoking comparisons to professional wrestling. However, unlike professional wrestling, roller derby in its current revival does not involve fixed or scripted matches.

Penalties are given to skaters who block illegally, fight or behave in an unsportsmanlike manner. Penalties can be given after each jam or at the end of a period. Some penalties may result in additional points being scored. In some leagues, a jammer can score a point if a blocker commits a foul against the jammer. Some leagues require penalized players to temporarily stop playing and, or participate in a post-jam challenge that may result in more points being scored.

Roller Derby is not a new sport, but it is experienceing a rebound nationwide. In the early part of the 21st century, after two decades in relative obscurity, the sport began to experience a grassroots revival, particularly among women, with leagues forming in urban centers across North America. At the close of 2005, there were around 50 leagues, By February 2006, the number had grown to more than 80. By August 2006, there were more than 135 leagues according to wikipedia online.

The sudden growth in 2006 is attributed to the exposure the sport received from the Rollergirls reality television show, depicting portions of the lives of real skaters from an Austin-based banked-track league. The show began broadcasting in January 2006, but was not picked up for a second season.

Nearly all of these contemporary leagues are all-female league and are self-organized—formed in an indie spirit by relatively new roller derby enthusiasts. They all use traditional quad roller skates. Many are non-profit organizations and most leagues compete on flat tracks. Each league typically features two or more local teams that compete in public matches, called bouts, and have a rapidly growing fanbase. Members of fledgling leagues often practice and strategize together between bouts, regardless of team affiliation.

The bout structure is a game is composed of three periods played between two teams according to wftda website. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins. Two or more games may be combined in a single event. Games can either be staggered by periods or played in full depending on the agreement between the teams involved.

The NWARG are aiming high, hoping to compete on the national level.

“I want NWARG to be in the spotlight as much as possible,” Sin said. “I would like the local media to recognize it for the true sport that it is and have our bouts televised like any other sporting event. I would also like NWARG to eventually be ranked in the top 10 roller derby leagues in the nation. We have a lot of strong players and I think our travel team could do just that.”

Nixin echoed Sin’s goals.

“My goal is to help lead this league to the success that I know it can have,” Nixin said. “My goal is to accomplish more than anyone ever thought we could. My goal is to train hard and dedicate myself to being the best athlete I can be in this sport of roller derby.”

The girls have been practicing for nine months now and new girls have joined the original skaters.

“I enjoy the 15 pounds of muscle I’ve gained since I started,” Coy said. “I enjoy the community presence we have in NWA and how people positively respond to what we’re doing for women, sports and NWA. Most of all, I enjoy the 40 women I play with who have become the best friends I always hoped for. They can shove me around in scrimmages, bruise and batter me…but then afterwards we all go to Brewski’s and laugh about it.”

The impetus to become a roller girl is varied.

“Everyone enjoys derby for different reasons,” Sin said. “Many people just need a place to release the day’s tension and stress. Others enjoy seeing all their friends, while others love it for the sport aspect and many have even lost a lot of weight as a result.”

In a sport that looks like the players are tough women who are out for one another, quite the opposite is true.

“Some great things about being a part of the league include having a group of girls that have your back and encourage you when you need it,” Nixin said. “Getting a great workout and taking care of your body is always a plus. There is also something to be said about female friends and how good it is for self-esteem.”

What kind of advice do the roller girls offer to roller girl wannabes?

“I would say just give it a shot,” Sin said. “You can never assume whose going to be good at roller derby and who is not going to do well. I can say that everyone that trys it, loves it. The girls are really nice. We all have fun together even outside of derby.”

Nixin said that attitude is important.

“Come with confidence,” Nixin said. “My advice to a new girl would be, don’t be too intimidated…remember that we have been working our butts off to get to where we are. It is a process. Also, don’t come in thinking that you already know what being a roller girl is all about. Most girls come in with misconceptions. First and foremost, we are athletes who train hard.

Coy concurred.

“Roller derby isn’t about cute miniskirts and fishnet pantyhose,” Coy said. “The image is very removed from the actual physical demands it places on the body. It is foremost a full contact sport, not a punk rock fashion show. Secondly, you never know how capable you are of something. The body can push itself to limits you didn’t know existed. Third, you are going to get pushed down, hit, and fall. Get used to it! It’s part of the fun.”

Those interested in joining NWA Rollergirls can go to nwarollergirls.com, myspace.com/nwarollergirls or wftda.com (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) to find information on the minimum skill requirements and the official rules. You must be at least 18 years old to join. A limited number of pads and helmets are available, but you must bring your own quad speed skates. Practices are from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays at All-Star Arena and are open to the public.

The NWA Roller Girls 2007 season opens January 20 with a 7 p.m. bout at All Star Sports Arena, 1906 Cambridge St. in Springdale. Tickets are $10 advance at www.nwarollergirls.com or $12 at the door.

One Comment

Juidth Matthews January 12, 2007 at 5:35 am

Enjoyed the article on the roller derby. Good writing for a high school sophmore. Informative and clearly explained. Good for you, giving her such a great chance to show what she can do. I look forward to more from her and watching her writing skills develop.

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