Caitlin Donohue isn't a sports writer. But she sure likes to win. Check out the last installment of "Game Theory" here . Oh, and give us a shout if you've got a big game coming up in the Bay.
I expected a lot from my first roller derby. Clotheslining, fishnets, snarling. Beer. I had high hopes. And I found all that -- and believe me, I found it good, you don’t get $3 Pyramid Ales at just any sporting event. But I also stumbled unwittingly into a world of highly unorthodox female empowerment, a world where ladies have serious thigh muscles and sweat blithely through their heavy makeup. It’s a place that reclaims sports for the XX chromosones of today. And I liked it.
Clearly, the closer a sporting arena’s vibe is to that of the Thunderdome, the better your spectator experience. At Fort Mason Center’s Herbst Pavilion, where the ShEvil Dead was set to take on the Oakland Outlaws (both teams in the Bay Area Derby Girls’ League ), there was little room for the genteel derby onlooker -- if such a thing does indeed exist.
The chaos and din of the standing room only bleachers and the rows upon rows of fans sitting on the concrete floor went far to blur the lines between the audience and the women tearing circles around the pink tape demarcated oval track in the middle of the Pavilion. The energy was super hyped, channeled completely towards the female gladiators on the floor. Handmade signs were held up lauding individual players, and cheap tamales and booze vendors (Maker’s Mark is a sponsor) confirmed that derby lacks much of the pretense, and ego that mar other sporting events. The arena had completely sold out and the crowd of 1,600 set a new record for league attendance.
A ShEvil Dead skater beats the drum for the derby bout against the Oakland Outlaws to start
The bout began with some enthusiastic theatrics from both sides-- glory laps taken by each ShEvil Dead team member as her name was announced by a commentator that was barely audible over the reverberating boos and cheers from the crowd. Derby games only come every once in awhile -- the next match for the Outlaws isn’t until May -- so every one counts. Particularly this one.
“Last year, we lost a coach and a lot of players,” says Dead captain/coach Windigo Jones , whose online player bio explains she grew up in Northern Ontario, “chasing ever larger prey through the northern boreal forests.” This bout was an opportunity for the squad (which had been down to “eight or nine players, when a normal team has something like 22,” according to Jones) to show the world how far they’d come.
It’s all a touching story for Jane Hammer , captain/coach of the Outlaws -- but not touching enough that she wanted the other team to win. “We were a little nervous for this one,” Hammer tells me.
The ShEvil Dead do indeed make the game interesting. Watching the game from the safety of the sidelines, I didn’t see as much, oh I don’t know, animosity as I had expected in the player-on-player collisions, but there’s no doubt that these women are playing to win. Each play, or “jam” is a long, grinding affair where the elected “jammer” must slip through the pack of players from both teams, lapping everyone to get points before she is inevitably shoved careening from the marked track.
Oh yeah, we're jammin'. I wanna jam it with you
There’s a lot of hip throwing, and grunting -- sights and sounds that fit into what I expected of a derby bout. But there was also an unexpected element. These ladies were elite athletes. Skating quick circles around a track barely larger than a basketball court is no joke -- and they were doing it while being buffeted and beaten by a bevy of butch beauties (sorry, I got catch up). They had the healthy stink of women un self consciously immersed in sport, despite their boy shorts and red lipstick.
The climax comes in a pivotal play towards the end of the second period. Hammer, jamming for the Outlaws, goes to the penalty box, and the Dead’s jammer, Knock Knock, gets knock-knocked off her feet, hard. So hard, in fact, that the starred spandex helmet panty that marks her as the jammer flies off her head.
The jammer hat is what officially defines the jammer in the derby rule book. Whoever has that stretchy diaper on their head is the motor behind their team’s game. And without a designated jammer, your team is totally ass backwards . But just a week ago the Dead had practiced plays involving passing that jammer panty, and veteran Mexican Jumping Mean recalled the lesson instantly during the bout. She swooped in for the star, replacing it on her own helmet, and racked up some vital points for the Dead before the Outlaws had time to react.
“Only a real veteran would have thought to do that,” says her captain/coach Windigo Jones. “I was so proud of her.” The Outlaws ended up winning the bout, but only barely. “It came down to the last jam,” says Hammer.
Later on, I chatted with both coach/captains about the match, and what derby has meant to them. “This is a kind of empowerment you just can’t find anywhere else,” says three year veteran Hammer. She started skating while growing up in Las Vegas, where “you hung out at the rink, because that was the thing to do.” She quickly got into the scene upon her arrival in the Bay Area.
Nowadays, she’s a legend. “Oh, everyone knows who Miss Jane is!” says aspiring roller derb-ette exclaims as she guides me to the locker rooms at half time.
Half time in a close game brings a chance for the Outlaws to rehydrate, refocus, and reamp for battle
The league’s set up seems to encourage a culture of respect and camaraderie between players of all levels. It takes a shape similar to that of Manchester United; teams like the Outlaws and ShEvil Dead compete against each other in the regular season, but often have league wide practices together and combine their best players to represent them on the Bay Area Derby All Stars. That’s the travel team which rolls hard for the Bay against Women’s Flat Track Derby Association  squads from all over the nation. The All Stars, of which Jones and Hammer are both members, are currently ranked 20th in the country, down from a standing in the top ten not too long ago. “We have a lot of work to do,” admits Hammer.
“The crowd we had Saturday was totally unexpected for me. It’s amazing how much this league has grown over the past few years,” says Jones, who entered the league around the same time as Hammer. It was a time when, Jones says “the league would take on pretty much anyone who was willing to learn the skills -- they were pretty desperate for players.”
That’s not the case anymore. Hammer hesitantly attributes the soaring popularity of derby in part to movies like last year’s Whip It, whose sexy depiction of the sport might have contributed to the sell out crowd at Saturday’s bout (the attendance of 1,600 was a league record). Still, the movie seemed to “Hollywood” the derby scene a little. “Underage skaters? That’s not really what we’re about,” Hammer tells me. This fledgling sport has a lot to deal with when it comes to how it will be represented in mainstream consciousness.
But there’s no doubt that more and more ladies will be getting their kicks in heavy eyeliner and elbow pads. BAD has announced that it’s putting its new West Oakland practice space to use this summer with a rec league, designed not only for retired league veterans but also “girls who might not have the most advanced skate skills. We’re going to have an introductory course to teach people the basic rules,” says Hammer.
Like all the derby stars I talked to, the coach of the Outlaws was invested in the contributions that rookies make to her league’s future. The rec league seems like a great opportunity to evangelicize the uplift (and rock hard leg muscles) that come from a life in the derby. Just get your game face on, ladies. Hammer’s insistent that the rec league be no “walk in yoga class.” “We’re going to evaluate people’s skills like the system we use for who makes the [competitive] league. We have to add everybody onto our [practice space’s] insurance, so we’ve got to have some discretion when it comes to who plays. It’s a safety thing.”
Bay Area Derby Girls’ next league game:
Oakland Outlaws vs. TBA
May 1 doors @ 6:30 p.m., game @ 8:30 p.m., $10-12
Fort Mason Center, SF