Six women in ass-baring skirts and fishnets glide by with a whoosh. A busty blonde slams into me and as I hit the ground, I feel my skirt fly up and I hear a familiar man’s laugh. “Get a good look, professor?” I ask. “Nice hit, Sugarpop,” he says to the blonde, who wears panties with two fists and “Fuck Off” in bold letters over her workout pants. Professor is what we call Justin Foust, a second-year Ph.D. biochemistry student at UC Davis by day; by night, here at the Davis Indoor Sports Center, he’s Professor Cyanide Clyde, my coach and referee for the Sac City Rollers all-women’s roller-derby league. Sugarpop is Lois Brunk, the co-founder of the league and an esthetician with a weakness for rock ’n’ roll. And who am I? They know me as Jezebel Jett, a 5’4” brunette with a sharp tongue and a love of red lipstick, babies and dogs that fight. Yeah, I’m a derby girl.
Here’s how it works. Five women from each team skate on an oval track. One of the five is a jammer—the only player who can score points—and the other four are blockers, helping their jammer through and trying to prevent the opposing jammer from passing them by. Each time a jammer passes someone on the opposing team is worth one point. These “jams” are done in two-minute intervals, for three 20-minute periods. Hitting women from the shoulder to above the knee is legal. Tripping, grabbing and pushing are strictly against the rules.
Initially considered as a jammer for my small size and speed, I eventually tested my skills as a blocker, discovering that the release of aggression is a thing of beauty. The ability to scream without sound, to relieve anger without malice, is a gift of liberation generally not offered to women.No, this isn’t the roller derby many of us grew up with. Formerly a mere pretext for theatrics, it’s now a real competitive sport. Forty years ago, roller derby not only drew tens of thousands of live fans, but also was televised; now it’s further underground, but the dramatic element remains. It’s in the costumes—fishnets, short skirts, elaborate makeup—and in a new facet, the skate name. Every derby girl gets to choose her own. That’s how Kimberly Trujillo, a preschool teacher, becomes Mad Katter, a fierce jammer, and how Andrea Lilly, a bookkeeper, becomes Hell-Louise, a blocker with a quiet nature and a mean competitive streak. And how Kim Mordecai becomes Jezebel Jett.
A year ago I was just a freelance journalist and a mother of two small boys. I would sit around watching reality TV and wondering what to make for dinner, like us stay-at-home domestic suburban mothers do. I flipped on A&E and came across a short-lived reality show called Rollergirls, which chronicled the lives of roller-derby skaters in Texas. I watched with envy as they skated and cursed and spent afternoons on their porches, smoking cigarettes and tossing crackers at their kids as if feeding feral cats. “That is totally for me,” I told no one in particular.
I bought my second pair of roller skates (the first had landed in the Salvation Army bin sometime in the mid ’80s). Then I found a flyer for the Sac City Rollers. Established in January of 2006, this group of 40-plus women practices three times a week and competes against other local and national leagues monthly. Shyly, I showed up for practice, hiding the fact that I’d been breastfeeding for four years and the deep-rooted fear that I’d end up wearing a corduroy jumper and knitting cozies for tissue boxes.I worked the anonymous angle. I revealed nothing about myself and asked few questions. The ploy worked; they accepted me. Even after they found out I was a boring mom. Even after they realized I have a mouth like a sailor. Even after it took me three months to not fall 50 times at every practice.
What I didn’t realize was that my ploy was pointless. I could’ve shown up in a yellow tutu, smoking a cigar, with a rabid monkey on my shoulder, and these women would’ve laughed with arms wide open. These women, whose ages range from 20 to 40 and whose day jobs vary from accountant to student to mother to truck driver. Their commonalities include a love of roller derby and all things relating to quad roller skates, a competitive nature and a willingness to accept any woman who defines herself as a derby girl—regardless of background, eccentricities or general human flaws. Derby is beyond a sport; it’s a subculture and a sisterhood, which allows women to be aggressive and loving and silly and dedicated and insane all at once. It allows them to be authentic.Take, for instance, Kinnison Start-Newton, a.k.a. Spankenstein. A charismatic, curly haired 24-year-old, known to most as Spanky, she’s also a blocker to be feared, with a list of injuries to her credit including a broken fibula. Her closest friends avoid her at practice, too aware that her hits regularly send people flying. By day she’s a student and photographic assistant who dons business attire and sets up lights for local celebrity headshots; by night Spankenstein comes out to play. With a wink she attributes her derby skills to a “love for brutality and daddy issues,” but in reality she tells me she loves the teamwork and sisterhood. Like all the women of the Sac City Rollers, she revels in the atmosphere that allows her to be who she is: “We get to be 100 percent ourselves, which doesn’t always mean you are the caretaking mother or the conscientious student. Sometimes it’s the beer-drinking, belching, ass-grabbing athletes. There’s no one there to put on airs for. That’s derby.”
Or how about Samantha Hill? By day she works as a nanny and an instructional aid with severely disabled children. “Life is always going to be a little bit harder for them,” she says. “It’s going to be tougher to fit in. I relate to that because I’ve never really fit into anything.” A 23-year-old student in a motorcycle-mechanics program, Hill left a soccer career after an injury and was recruited for the Sac City Rollers by a Midtown bartender in between shots of Jameson. She strapped on a pair of skates, took the name Son of Sam and decided there might be a place she fit in after all. Known for a wicked temper on the track and a tough exterior, Son of Sam personifies the derby-girl duality. Patience and empathy motivate Samantha Hill. Son of Sam? Not so much. “What really motivates me to a hit a girl on wheels?” she says. “There’s nothing like being able to hit a bitch and get back up and hit her again. It’s a release. It feels good and it makes me feel alive.”
And if you assumed we all have our faces pierced or spend weekends barhopping, Masumi Purdy, or Purdy Grrrl, will prove you wrong. She’s a straight-arrow, a cop’s wife, with a poster-sized portrait of George W. Bush framed in the entryway of her modern Vacaville home. A 28-year-old loss-prevention manager for Macy’s, Purdy’s one of our strongest jammers, a curvy beauty who’ll always volunteer to be designated driver and never forgets to have a good time. She’s got heart and dedication and spirit, and she’s living proof that we’re as diverse as we are tolerant. Spending her days apprehending shoplifters, Purdy uses her career skills to adapt to the life of a derby girl, never judging a book by its cover. “In my job we can’t judge off of appearance, we go off of behavior,” she says. “If I see someone dressed a certain way or all tatted-up, I can’t assume anything. In derby we have so many different backgrounds coming together. We don’t judge and we get to share our lives together. I love that.”
"Take that bitch out, Sam—bam!" I scream from the side of the track. There’s laughter because the jammer being pursued is La Lucha, a well-loved and sweet-tempered skater, known by day as Trinity Gleckler, who sprints for the outside of the track as Son of Sam ploughs into her and knocks her out of bounds. La Lucha hits the ground hard. She’s a little slow to get back up. There’s a moment of tension, hesitation. Son of Sam skates over and offers a hand. “Fuck, Lucha, you OK?” Lucha pops up on her skates, shakes her head and smiles wide. “Nice hit,” she finally says.
No, there are no airs here. No ostracism. No judgments. Sometimes we talk about our daily lives, but mostly we live in the moment. We skate and we skate hard, with heart. There’s no arguing that fact. Then we go party, or go home to our kids, or make plans for the future: be it getting ready for the next promotion, getting married or getting psyched for the next out-of-state bout. And we do it with energy and confidence, knowing we’ve found a place where we’re accepted—even, especially, if we’re a little bit wild, a little bit moody, a little bit off-beat.
I came into this sport a novice, afraid of my own destiny, in denial of my most precious possession—my motherhood. Now I’m surrounded by women who would break bones to get me through the pack. Now I’m a person who does not believe being a mom is synonymous with being a bore. And I learned this lesson from these valley girls who grew up going to Dairy Queen in the suburbs and playing softball and drinking beer by the river late Friday nights. These women aren’t burdened by their mothers’ expectations. They’re brash and benevolent, insane and brilliant. They’re ready to confound the expectations of anyone who might think Sactown could only yield a meek population of Capitol workers and real estate developers—anyone who might wonder just who these crazy women are.We’re the Sac City Rollers, motherfuckers, and don’t you forget it.
-- By Kim Mordecai