By Krystal Hare
Point Park News Service
Ally McKill never skated a day in her life, but joined Pittsburgh’s roller derby league in search of camaraderie.
But Athena simply decided to move her aggression from the mosh pit to the rink.
And Loraxe skates for not only a change of pace from her day job, but also as exercise and meditation.
Over the years, these three derby girls found what they were looking for in roller derby racing and now look forward to the recruitment of “fresh meat” for the upcoming 2013 team.
The Steel City Roller Derby (SCRD) was founded in 2004 as a member league of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) becoming one of only 172 current members worldwide and Pittsburgh’s only all-female roller derby league.
SCRD is best described by student, public relations head and original member Pam “Wham Bam Pam” Ellis as a do-it-yourself sport and league “for the skaters, by the skaters.”
Though they have coaches and a committee for training and skills, league members virtually train themselves.
“We have coaches to fine tune the already learned skills and there is much input from the skaters in how the teams, strategies and plays are run,” explained Ellis.
The league is currently comprised of varsity team The Steel Hurtin’ and junior varsity teams Blitzburgh Bombers and B-Unit – which each compete against other city teams with similar skill levels – and home teams, like the Allegheny Avengers.
SCRD team members join for various reasons.
Lawyer by day and current Steel Hurtin’ captain and recruitment committee head by night, Jamie “Ally McKill” Fargo joined the league on a whim in 2006 during its earliest stages and created her skater name after TV lawyer Ally McBeal. She didn’t know much of anything about roller derby – let alone know how to skate – but some friends talked her into giving it a try.
“They encouraged me to check it out with them and I thought ‘why not,’” said Fargo. “It’s kind of amazing that I stuck with it after the first practice; I tottered around the rink on ill-fitting skates, wondering what I was doing there as I watched other women whiz by me, executing lap after lap with ease.”
“By the end of the session, I was exhausted, but determined to stick it out with my friends and see if I could get better,” she confessed. “Let me tell you, it took a while and that ‘what am I doing here’ feeling persisted for months; if you’d told me back in 2006, that I’d be a leader to some of the strongest, fiercest female athletes I know – I wouldn’t have believed it.”
But the friendly atmosphere kept her going back.
“I was surrounded by many excellent skaters and by a nearly equal number of girls like me – skaters who just needed a little more time and practice,” she said. “The camaraderie and flat-out fun kept me coming back to practices.”
Steel Hurtin’ blocker and Blitzburgh Bombers coach Athena is more commonly known as proletariat Athena Kazuhiro. She roller skated as a kid and became a roller derby fan after watching a show about banked track roller derby on the USA Channel and thought that it might just be a good outlet for pent-up aggression.
“I had previously gotten that aggression out in the mosh pits of punk rock shows,” revealed Kazuhiro. “But derby is more empowering and requires physical fitness. So, I decided to commit to it.”
After three years of playing, she decided to become a coach to help other players develop and embrace her love of creating drills.
“Coaching is sometimes better than playing; I feel it’s less pressure to perform, and positive reinforcement seems to come more quickly – plus I’m bossy,” she admitted.
Lora “Loraxe” Woodward is not only the public programs director for Venture Outdoors, but also a newer member of the Allegheny Avengers and SCRD board of directors. Like Fargo, she had to learn how to skate and attended a boot camp. She spent her time at open skate sessions trying to master the skills required to pass tryouts and become a member of the league.
“I just started skating around this time last year… I had a huge barrier to overcome because I didn’t have prior skating skills,” said Woodward. “Now that I’m on a team, I skate as exercise and it’s my time to do something very different from my day job – I almost see it as meditation; all I think of is the present and that’s a really good release for me.”
The Steel Hurtin’ practices as much as twice per week on its own and can also participate in league practices up to twice per week. They also have a special training routine that was developed by a local gym owner.
“Trainer Jhonphilipp Yonan – owner of MUV Integrated Fitness in Garfield-East Liberty – sponsors us and designed derby-specific training; it’s pretty intense,” said Kazuhiro.
Training is fun, but undoubtedly challenging and takes a lot of conditioning – it all depends on the part of the season.
“In the early season, when we are conditioning – well, that means a lot of endurance, intense suicide drills and interval training,” she explained. “Mid-Season, we really work on game play and team bonding type drills that basically work on trust and teamwork; end of season, the mental stuff really comes in and we try to work on problem areas that happened all season.”
“Just like with any other sport, it is highly mental and very, very strategic; you have to constantly pay attention to more than one thing and acclimate to changes in game play by the opposing team,” she continued.
“It’s a contact sport; it’s hard, because there’s learning skills and a physical-mental battle,” said Woodward. “So, there’s a lot of personal growth that happens with the sport.”
There are always some rough patches in derby, especially since rules change occasionally as the sport evolves in order to fix issues with the rules and the teams abiding by them – and to keep fans happy.
“In any sport, you have to deal with reffing and, as a player, you don’t approve of calls; it’s the way it always is – us versus them,” said Kazuhiro. “You also have to realize that the calls are right a lot of times, check your ego and get to the penalty box.”
“You’re getting knocked around – you’re hitting someone and they’re hitting you; you’re on the floor and trying to skate as fast as possible,” said Woodward. “It takes a lot of willpower in order to get back up each time and there are definitely injuries – you just have to give it your all and hope it’s not your day.”
But there are always highlights to make those rough patches worth it all. Kazuhiro stresses the highlight of watching hardworking teammates develop derby expertise, like making great offensive blocks or jumps past blockers who don’t expect it. “I remember someone flying past me through the air, and thinking ‘wow, that’s amazing’ while getting scored on,” she reminisced.
But a great derby teammate doesn’t just work hard. Devotion and focus from teammates of every walk of life are always important.
“Roller derby is a really diverse group of ladies; there is a stereotypical picture of a derby girl as a wild, tattooed and pierced chick,” said Fargo. “While we certainly have some of those, we have every other type under the sun as well… [but] we are all athletes and wildly devoted to this incredible sport.”
A teammate needs to be “a player who doesn’t make excuses for herself – just gets out on the track and works hard with her team and league,” said Kazuhiro. “I find that just focusing and ignoring the crowd and the opposing teams’ talking really helps me be successful; basically, blocking other things out.”
“You just need to sum up that it’s something you want to do and it’s almost like it’s something greater than that moment; you get into this mindset that all you want to do is get through and you get more determined as you go,” Woodward added.
“When there are six people in front of you and they have one goal to knock you down – to hit you as hard as possible, it does get frustrating,” she continued. “After a while it starts wearing on you and you certainly become more exhausted, everyone’s shouting to go faster and you’re completely out of breath – but you just have to do it because you’re part of a team sport and they’re relying on you just as much as you’re relying on them.”
The league has come a long way since Fargo joined in 2006, including the expansion of the team from its original 80-member limit.
“I still remember our first meeting held in the parking lot of Romp ‘n Roll where we excitedly discussed how we would admit new skaters into the league,” she said.
At that meeting they discussed evaluating a skater’s skills and interview questions about topics like their motivations for joining the league, leadership abilities, non-skating talents and teamwork. Recruiting originally started as a semiannual event, but was later changed to an annual event.
“We did this so we could really devote a streamlined training program to our new skaters that would turn the ‘fresh meat’ into competent rookies in just a matter of months,” explained Fargo. “Currently, there are only a handful of us original skaters left in the league; we’d be struggling without a robust recruitment program.”
The league offers several boot camps organized by the training committee for those interested in joining and women of 18 years or older only need to register online to attend. While most potential teammates attend boot camp with their own gear, skates and equipment are also offered on a loan basis. At boot camp, skaters will learn about proper form and stance, safe falling, stops and other skills.
Fargo describes the boot camps as “designed to teach the skills candidates need to be successful at tryouts… it’s a lot of fun to see a hesitant newbie confidently striding across the floor by the end of the session.”
After completing a boot camp, a recruit can register for a tryout – which includes the evaluation of skating skills and the interview – and then enter the Fresh Meat program after receiving an offer for league membership.
Successful recruits from Fresh Meat can be drafted into one of the league’s teams and expect to volunteer for participation in one of the league committees as new team members to help keep everything running well.
Anyone who’s interested in the league should visit steelcityderbydemons.com for more information, contact joinSCRD@gmail.com to register and prepare for the next boot camp on January 5, 2013. Good luck!