The clock was running out. The crowd was on its feet. A pixieish, saucer-eyed girl in a tattered black skirt and purple tights rubbed her hands together and crouched low. Elbows thrust back, poised on the nose of one skate, she waited. Listening intently for the screech of the whistle, intensity written on her face. Her name was Peg Legs.
It would be her task to skate up to the pack and maneuver through, jostling and feinting, while her teammates bumped and checked, trying to open a path for her. Once she cleared them, she would have to skate her heart out to make it around the track once more, lapping the pack and starting the process again. Only when she passed her opponents the second time would she score points, one for each opponent she passed.
The bout was nearly over. After having trailed all night – once by as much as 23 points – her team, The Double-Crossers, had managed to scratch and claw their way back and now, with less than a minute left, the bout was tied. All they needed was a single point to claim a miraculous come-from-behind victory. Could Peg Legs do it?
The whistle blew, a single sustained screech, the signal for the pack to begin moving, a clutch of eight girls, four from each team, jostling and maneuvering, casting furtive glances over their shoulders. And then a double screech, the signal for the “jammer” to come up.
In roller derby only the “jammer” is allowed to score. Normally there are two jammers, one from each team, and the initial competition is between the two jammers to see which one of them can clear the pack first. It’s an important determination because the first to clear is allowed to lead the race around the track to lap the pack and begin the scoring. But in this case the jammer for the other team, The Fury, had been sent to the penalty box for elbowing and Peg Legs was on her own. Her enemy was no longer the opposing jammer. It was the clock.
With the seconds ticking off, she raced up to the pack and awaited the good offices of her teammate Blossom Bruiso in delivering a hip check that sent Carnage Wilson of the Fury, slamming into the wall. Then she slipped past Ivana Riot on the inside of the curve and did a mincing double-step to dash between Pyscho Sis and Juanna Rumbel (who had won the honor of Dirtiest Player of the Year) Peg Legs had broken free and cleared the pack. The crowd went wild. There were 30 seconds left. And now she had to pour it on.
I was surprised by several things during my first experience with roller derby. The first was that in spite of the generous helping of hokum attending the event there was a genuine competition going on. These girls were real athletes and the competition they were engaged in called for strength, agility and stamina.
Weaned as I had been on the farcical roller derby of the 60’s, which had featured the kind of blood spurting mayhem associated with All Star Wrestling, I’d expected something a little more clownish. I would not have been disappointed if the outcome had been fixed. But that was not what was going on here. These girls were actually competing.
Another surprise was the appearance of the girls. I had been anticipating primarily mannish-types with perhaps here and there a stunner thrown in as a sop to the male fans. But in actuality the majority of the girls were moderately attractive twenty-somethings, not unlike the young women you might find shopping at an organic grocery store in a university town.
How they had gotten swept up in roller derby was a mystery but one thing was clear, they were having an awfully good time. I have rarely seen such easy, smiling camaraderie among teammates on a sports bench. And since many of the five hundred or so fans in attendance were friends or relatives of the girls, there was lots of waving and smiling and winking at the stands. Taken altogether, I had never seen such charming women who, in the next moment, would be slamming into each other, knocking each other down, falling over each other and sprawling face first into a row of folding chairs.
Make no mistake, roller derby is violent. There were no less than three injuries that required stoppage of play during the event, accompanied by at least one slap to the mouth, a hard fall on a tail bone and a near donnybrook that the refs broke up in the nick of time. None of this was faked. These girls were intensely competitive and in a sport where blocking, checking and otherwise thwarting your opponents is the main defense, tempers are bound to flare.
But roller derby also requires a certain athletic finesse and Peg Legs was demonstrating it now, holding hard down on her outside skate as she swung around the turn, fighting the centrifugal force, reverting quickly to cross-overs as soon as the laws of physics would allow, hustling through the straights. The clock was winding down. She was gaining… gaining. The PA announcer began to count down the final seconds. Peg Legs was closing in. The crowd was going out of its mind. She only needed to pass one last opponent to score the winning point and secure the victory. Naturally, that opponent would try to block her. The Fury would not surrender so easily to this humiliation.
Five… Peg Legs came up on the pack. The last girl in the pack slid over to block her. Four… One of Peg Leg’s teammates (I think it was Hoosier Mama) dropped back to interfere. Three… The curve of the turn caused the whole pack to swing wide. Two girls toppled over and went crashing into the corner. The main blocker slipped slightly out of position. Hoosier Mama lowered her shoulder and opened a gap. Peg Leg’s saw her chance. Two… She dashed up on the inside. One… She wedged past. And then the drone of the buzzer!
Peg Legs and The Double-Crossers had won! By one stinking point! After fighting back from a 23 point deficit!
Wild jubilation! The whole team in a delirious cluster in the middle of the floor, hugging and shouting and jumping on top of one another!
I am told this doesn’t always happen at the roller derby. As with any sporting event you always have the potential for a yawner. So I feel lucky to have witnessed such a great bout. But I know one thing for sure.
Roller derby is for real.
And it rocks!
The Windy City Rollers play at the UIC Pavilion. The 2011 season begins in March.