Queens of the Quads: Competition and camaraderie define local derby dolls

By on July 16, 2013

 

Jackson Hole Juggernauts

Jackson Hole Juggernauts

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – “I’m in love with this,” Babe Ruthless (Ellen Page) confesses to her parents during a pivotal scene in Whip It, the 2009 movie about roller derby’s rebirth in Texas during the early aughts. What Page’s character found at the rink is what derby girls everywhere – from Paris, Texas to Paris, France – are also finding: themselves.

Born during the depression, the sport was once quite popular in major American cities. Both men and women participated and bouts were well attended throughout the ’30s and ’40s. By the 1960s, the sport’s popularity was waning. A revival effort brought the game to television where events were often scripted and filled with staged animosity. It corrupted the game and viewers lost interest.

71713coversm5The sport resurfaced in 2001, this time as an exclusively female game attracting punk rockers and retro Betty Boops. Revived by a counter-culture scene in Austin, Texas, derby clawed its way back into rundown arenas and underutilized warehouses. Wherever a banked track could be built, crowds came to watch high-flying girls dish it out on Friday night.

When the worldwide recession took hold, roller derby flourished. Born in bad times, the game seems to feed on economic strife. Banked tracks were replaced with cheaper and easier flat tracks, and with the help of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, a governing body that oversees leagues internationally, the sport is still blossoming with an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 women participating in the United States alone.

To thoroughly understand the fast-growing game, which brings equal parts thunder and lightning to rinks around the world, one has to look deeper than the tattoos and fishnet stockings. Americans are not yet up-to-speed enough to follow the game’s intricacies. And the daunting 176-page rulebook threatens to crush the resurgent sport under its weight before it ever gets rolling.

Understanding the derby subculture is just as elusive.

Who are these vixens of violence who find themselves drawn to a tightly knit sisterhood they never dreamed existed? They come from backgrounds as disparate as the punked-out costumes each player dons to show off their alter ego. Yet once blood and bruises are shared on the track, a bond is cemented, and they never go back. They will forever be derby girls.

Find your tribe

71713coversm6Jackson Hole Juggernaut Roller Derby league debuted in 2011. Enough women signed up that the league divided into two local teams, the Valley Vixens and the Grizzly Belles. The two units combine forces to become the Juggernauts when bouting teams from outside the area.

What the Jackson Hole derby league shares with similar leagues across the nation and, indeed, around the globe, is a sense of belonging. All walks of life are drawn to the game – from daddy’s girls and debutantes to butch bitches and stay-at-home moms. However, upon uniting at newbie practice sessions called “fresh meat” skates, solidarity is forged.

Discontented and disenfranchised women with a hole in their heart say they feel lucky to have found the sport that provides fulfillment in its physicality. Others didn’t know what they were missing until they dyed their hair and donned the fishnets for their virginal bout. These soul sirens form a fellowship, an esprit de corps, whose code is, “You mess with one, you mess with all.” It’s rugby mentality on wheels.

Tammy Gunn #1200 (Erin Landry) and SweetAsh MacPhearsome #39 (Ashleigh Walker)

Tammy Gunn #1200 (Erin Landry) and SweetAsh MacPhearsome #39 (Ashleigh Walker)

“I love the camaraderie,” Tammy Gunn (#1200) says. Gunn’s pedestrian name is Erin Landry. The 31-year-old signed up with friend Rhonda Gauntlet at a Moose hockey game after a few beers. “And what makes us even tighter is the fact that we all learned the game together. We all came in with the same skill set, which was “no one had skill at all.” That brought us together more as a team.”

Gunn works shifts at Knit on Pearl and Local. She came to Jackson in 2011 from Maine. “I was sick of my job and Kingfield is a very, very small town,” she said. Gunn competed in telemark racing events and played some soccer in high school and college. The only thing she knew about roller derby before signing up was, in her words, “You get to skate around and hit people.” And does she.

Gunn’s teammate, Ashleigh Walker (SweetAsh MacPhearsome, #39), is the regional comptroller for a group of heavy construction companies that includes Evans Construction. The 33-year-old mother of two heard about the new derby league from her husband, Dan. MacPhearsome ran track and played field hockey in high school.

“I knew it was a sport with a movie and that’s about it,” MacPhearsome says, referring to Whip It. “I thought it may parallel field hockey with a lot of contact and physicality and roughness, and it does. But I was surprised by how welcoming the group was. I expected these tough women that wouldn’t be so welcoming. But there is a total lack of judgment here. It’s a fantastic team.”

MacPhearsome’s biggest fan, her son, gives the derby star some love.

MacPhearsome’s biggest fan, her son, gives the derby star some love.

Women like Gunn and MacPhearsome religiously refer to derby as being a place where they can be themselves. The sport provides a sanctuary where women can be girls again by dressing not to impress the opposite sex but to express their own, and by playing a brutal game beautifully. When these dames show high thigh it’s merely to boast about a badge of courage known affectionately as “rink rash.”

 Be your own hero

As closely bonded as teams become, derby is also a sport that embraces individuality, and there is nothing “uniform” about the uniforms.

“You are allowed to be outrageous, there’s no uniform code to follow. No one wears the same helmets or the same shorts. We each have our own flair,” Gunn says. “You are free to create your alter ego. It’s aggressive dress up. The best part about derby is I get to dress the way I wanted to when I was 10, but was told not to.”

Gunn says her parents will be flying out to watch her play for the first time this Saturday night. If they loathe her taste in clothing they’re certain to be appalled by her hawkish game. One of the more combative members of the Juggernauts, Gunn cuts ruts to the “chair of detention” on such a frequent basis she’s referred to by team organizer Julie Borshell as “our penalty princess.”

Gunn was ejected from this season’s first bout on April 27 – an interleague contest between the Vixens and Belles where Gunn put one teammate (MacPhearsome) out of commission with a ride aboard her patented “pain train.”

Gunn (center) pivots for MacPhearsome (right).

Gunn (center) pivots for MacPhearsome (right).

“Gunn hit me,” MacPhearsome remembers. “It wasn’t her fault. It was a really minor fall. It shouldn’t have happened.”

MacPhearsome is just about healed from the second-degree tear of her PCL. She downplays the incident and violence in general, which some wrongly identify with the game thanks to its shameless days of self-aggrandizing mockery that marred the sport during its ill-fated television days of the 1970s.

“There’s never been an all-out brawl in our league,” MacPhearsome says. “We are all individuals with our days where we are feeling grumpy, and we are all pretty good at taking ourselves out or getting off our skates when our fuse gets lit. Rule number one in derby is, ‘Don’t be a douche bag.’”

Both Gunn and MacPhearsome seemed destined to find derby sooner or later, though neither skated previously. In fact, few on the current Juggernaut roster had ever been on quads. A common thread tugs skaters toward the fabric of the estrogenous hippodrome – the 88-foot oval of awe where ladies tap their inner she-wolf – and once there, skaters recognize it as a place they’ve always, and never, known.

“Most of my friends and family back home were not surprised to find out I’m playing derby,” Gunn says. “In fact, they are surprised I didn’t find it earlier.” One of Gunn’s Facebook friends posted recently, “Looks like you found your niche.”

Even MacPhearsome, mild-mannered accountant by day, says her friends back home in Davis, Calif., aren’t as shocked to see #39 throw a hip check.

“I think the people who have known me all my life were less surprised. They’ve always known me as a little rough and tumble,” MacPhearsome says. “But people I work with in Jackson know me as this quiet accountant who is always dressed professionally. When they find out I play roller derby they can’t seem to put it together. But for me, it seems such a natural fit, and I’m friends with a lot of my teammates outside of derby. I’ve been living in Jackson since 2005, and finally, when I joined the Juggernauts, I thought, ‘Where have these women been?’”

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NOTES FROM PRACTICE

71713coversm3In preparation for last weekend’s bout with the Prairie Fire Roller Girls of Cheyenne – which the Juggernauts won 247 to 87 – the gals of grind assembled at Snow King for a ruckus of a practice session. After a few warm-up drills, two dozen skaters were divided into two teams, (black and white) and a scrimmage followed.

Before the scrimmage ever got underway, however, during a drill known as “homewrecker,” Sigourney Reaver (#307) hit the concrete with a thud. Tammy Gunn (#1200) helped her up and stammered out a standard apology. It was a clean hip check. Reaver never saw it coming.

Gunn would continue the session hell-bent on destruction. As a blocker, Gunn is one of the team’s best. She would be singled out as such by the opposition after last Saturday’s bout with the team from Cheyenne.

“I wish I was bigger,” Gunn said during an interview days after the practice. The 31-year-old is narrow at the waist and hips – hardly the desired derby build – but she is broad-shouldered and menacing. During one break at last week’s practice, every skater on the floor huffed and puffed, down on a knee or sitting. Gunn paced nervously like a caged animal, whirling, twirling, standing on her stoppers. This girl was on fire.

71713coversm7The group talked about slowing the game down. “There’s no need for the pack to be skating so fast,” Polly Pushy Pants offered. The Juggernauts like to skate a fast jam. They are young and athletic and impatient.

Gunn chimed in, “Lemme just say if you are standing still or skating backwards you are a target to be destroyed. Just be wary, you are availing yourself of a hit. And there were a couple of times where if I didn’t know you … ” Gunn never finished the sentence, shaking her head slowly thinking of the mayhem she could have wrought.

Tammy Gunn sits out another penalty minute.

Tammy Gunn sits out another penalty minute.

Minutes later, the Maine mauler would be whistled off for an infraction. On her way to the penalty chair she pleaded her case with the official, “All I did was come in behind her.”

“I can give you more if you want,” referee Pat McGroin shot back.

Still, the practice was polite until the midway mark. Then a polar shift occurred. It couldn’t be anticipated. There was really no way to predict it or explain why it happened. But when two of the Juggernauts more talented jammers lined up opposite each other, a tension filled the air. The building suddenly got hot and stuffy. The place was about to blow.

 71713coversm1Derby deeds done dirt cheap

Punkalicious was squared off against rising star Rhonda Gauntlet. When they shot out of their stance at the whistle, it was immediately obvious neither would give an inch. Not a single previous jam had reached the two-minute whistle. A jam is a two-minute session that can be halted by the lead jammer at any time she feels uncertain about her ability to outpoint her rival.

Neither Gauntlet nor Punk was about to call this one early. Punkalicious started the fray with a vicious hit on a blocker who stepped in to close her off. Gauntlet dished out her own punishment, sending one of Punk’s blockers reeling. Both teams sensed an escalation and responded. Bodies hit the ground. Jammers jumped the pileups. It was the most glorious two minutes of derby no one will ever see.

After the jam, Beast Lightning skated over to Gauntlet. “It might be OK for you to sit for a minute,” she warned Gauntlet with derby-speak for “go cool off.”

“You don’t want to hurt any of your teammates,” Lightning added.

71713coversm2Gauntlet didn’t take it well, but put herself in a “timeout.” When her coach called her in to jam on the next round, a teammate stepped up and suggested Gauntlet “needed a break from jamming for a while for her mental state.” She was put in as a blocker instead.

Bad blood continued to boil over, however. The team’s smallest player, Bat Chick Crazy (#5150) was knocked to the floor five times in the next jam and five times she got back up and back to it. Gauntlet took an elbow to the jaw and skated to the locker room in disgust without returning. The black team prevailed with an impenetrable wall of the team’s better blockers comprised of Merciless Momacita, Frieda Prowl, Pushy Pants, and Randi Wheels.

The practice ended with Dramatic Pyrony – a long-legged, fluid skater with an easy stride that belies her speed – suggested blockers wait until the jammer has lapped the pack before they begin battling with each other. “Conserve your energy. Stop fighting to get to the front. As a jammer, I like it when you start jostling and creating chaos as I arrive. That’s where I find the holes.”

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About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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