Whoosh … whoosh … whoosh. Members of the Belligerents and the Brawlers skate around the track, ducking, weaving and piercing through any slice of daylight they see, pushing to get ahead of the pack. Watching them in action at Chester County Sports Arena in Downingtown, you could argue that they’re the rough-and-tumble embodiment of female empowerment.
Both teams are part of Brandywine Roller Derby, the county’s first—and only—all-women’s flat-track league. Ranked 79th out of 430 teams worldwide, the Belligerents are BRD’s travel team. They compete against other internationally ranked, sanctioned charter teams from the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Brandywine’s B and C teams play against B and C teams from similar groups, or against lower-ranked charter rosters. Generally, the Belligerents play games within a six-hour one-way driving distance from Downingtown. But they will be travelling to Ontario, Canada, to compete in Tri-City Roller Derby’s “Put Up Your Toques” tournament in early May. The International WFTDA Championships will be held in Montreal Nov. 15-17.
All of BRD’s members are fully on board with the sport’s mission—that women, regardless of age, race, size, sexual orientation or athletic ability, can become role models and leaders. The sport promotes sisterhood and loyalty in a safe, encouraging environment. Even the term “roller derby” was conceived to be female specific. Male teams must include the “men’s” qualifier in their name.
Established in 2010, Brandywine Roller Derby has a membership that reflects the diversity the sport promotes. An accountant by trade, Teresa “Rolling Thunder” Johnson joined while experiencing a mid-life crisis at age 49. It turns out the exercise and the camaraderie was just what she needed. Marissa Berlin discovered roller derby in Boulder, Colo., where she was in graduate school. When she returned to Bryn Mawr, she continued with BRD. Ashlea “Valley Hurl” Knippenberg, who joined five years ago, is completing her doctorate in behavioral health psychology.
Brandywine Roller Derby members hammer it out in the rink at Chester County Sports Arena in Downingtown.
And then there’s head coach Kath “Hot Wheels” Poehler, who holds a master’s degree in education from Suffolk University in Boston. “As soon as I learned about roller derby, I knew it was a sport I had to play,” Poehler says. “It’s full contact, but it’s also very cerebral. There’s lots of strategy involved—playing offense and defense simultaneously.”
Several times a year, BRD holds informational meetings to attract “fresh meat.” At a recent event, current members were falling over themselves to explain the sport and convince potential recruits to join. “It will change your life,” says Randi “Kick Ash” Iacavino, “It’s a great confidence builder, and the nicknames are the best.”
An eight-year member, Iacavino owns a shop that sells all the equipment the women need, from roller skates, dental mouth guards and helmets to kneepads, elbow pads and wrist guards. Players extol the health benefits of roller derby. “I get exercise without feeling like I’m exercising,” says Berlin. “Skaters burn an estimated 1,500 calories per hour.”
They also downplay the risks. “Injuries are not common,” says BRD member Ashlea Knippenberg. “We’re taught how to fall ‘small.’ Any breaks or bruises are usually the result of something stupid we do to ourselves.”
As if to disprove the safety claim, Johnson walks into the recruitment meeting on crutches. A derby injury? Hardly. She slipped going down a flight of stairs.
BRD’s 10-week program for new skaters includes four hours of practice time each week at Chester County Sports Arena. For some, roller derby may be their first team sport—and that’s more than OK with coaches and skaters. “You can participate as much as you want to—travel to compete or not,” says a marketing and PR professional who goes only by the nickname “Poison Abbey.”
Roller derby began in the 1930s, when Leo Seltzer seized on the popularity of skating and the equally popular six-day bicycle races to invent a sport that combined elements of both. Roller derby went through several iterations before settling into the format that continues today, with two, five-person teams competing on the track.
In roller derby, there are four defensive blockers and a jammer who scores the points. Blockers defend against the opposing jammer while providing offensive help for their jammer. In the early days, to enhance entertainment value, the women would stage little tussles and exaggerate twists and falls. Now, what the audience sees is honest and real.
Roller derby first appeared on television in 1948, and as many as 15 million viewers watched each week during its peak in 1969. In 1973, Jerry Seltzer—who’d taken over for his father—shuttered his national roller-derby association due to high overhead and other factors. Several attempts to revive it in the following years were unsuccessful.
Then, in 2000, some women in Austin, Texas, spearheaded a grassroots revival, with an emphasis on athleticism and skating on a flat—rather than a banked—track. This version made it possible to compete just about anywhere.
The 2009 film Whip It had a profound influence on modern-day roller derby, inspiring many women to get in the rink. The film is based on the novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross and stars Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Marcia Gay Harden and Kristen Wiig. By movie’s end, Page has gone from a disparaged misfit to a woman with a firm grasp on her internal strength.
That sort of self-realization is something BRD skaters can relate to. This past Thanksgiving, they posted statements of inspiration on the locker room wall.
“I’m thankful for derby because, in it, I’ve found an outlet for my physical, social and creative energy—all in one place,” one member wrote. “I can show up and not take myself seriously while simultaneously working my ass off. And that’s pretty cool.”