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The Parthenon

Published: Sunday, November 17, 2013

Updated: Sunday, November 17, 2013 22:11


Andrea Steele | The Parthenon

Jewel City Rollergirls practice at Skateland in Altizer, W.Va.

What do a professional superhero, a Marshall University student, a police officer, a barista at Starbucks, a lawyer, a tattoo artist and an assistant professor have in common? They are among the ranks of the Jewel City Rollergirls, Huntington’s first flat-track roller derby team.

Roller derby has had several incarnations throughout the years, the most memorable of which was noted for its brutality. Skaters would routinely punch, elbow and trip each other in knockdown, drag-out brawls, like professional wrestlers on roller skates.

Skaters played on a banked circuit track similar to a NASCAR stadium, but indoors, and much smaller.

The current version of roller derby originated about a decade ago in Texas.

It places a greater emphasis on sportsmanship and accessibility of the sport. Hits are only permitted from the shoulder to the hip, or skaters risk being sent to the penalty box.

The official rules state the track can be set up on any flat surface good for skating.

“This greatly reduces the capital needed to start up a roller derby league, and allows small groups of people to get a fledgling league off the ground,” according to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association website.

Teams play against each other in bouts, a term borrowed from boxing, because roller derby is a fight, right to the end. Bouts are played in two 30-minute periods, in which any number of jams can occur. Jams are two-minute intervals in which points can be scored.

There are two basic positions in roller derby: blockers and jammers. The latter play offense, scoring points for every member of the opposing team they pass on the track. The former play both defense and offense, simultaneously helping their jammer score points, while trying to prevent the opposing jammer from scoring.

The Jewel City Rollergirls started Feb. 24, 2011 with an interest meeting about starting a team. From then on, it grew.

Sarah “Rat Race” Lane, a barista at the Pullman Square Starbucks, said the Jewel City Rollergirls first focused on building the team in numbers, brand recognition and skill, but there were some challenges.

“Being a new team, and being a team in a college town makes retention hard,” she said.

Many players are involved in the Marshall community and have to attend classes or meetings for other organizations. Some leave Huntington for the summer, and others work in a variety of fields with very different hours.  But Lane, called “Rat” by her teammates, said they cope with it well.

“Our girls make it work, and we work with them,” she said.

Roller derby is more than a sport to the Jewel City Rollergirls. Many of the skaters have learned valuable things about themselves, and about life.

“I always had a problem with people telling me I could be anything I wanted, because I didn’t believe they believed it,” Lane said. “But roller derby was proof that it was true.”

She said it changed her outlook on life, because despite not taking to roller derby like a duck to water, she kept trying, and got better.

Her transformation into a skilled, battle-worn rollergirl is marked by the name she goes by in roller derby.  Lane said she was bullied as a child, and “Rat Race” is a play on the names other kids called her.

“I decided I was going to take that name that was once used as something derogatory, and turn it into something awesome,” she said.

Hilary Brewster, an assistant professor in Marshall’s English department and a new player on the team, said something she heard at her first practice has stayed with her, on and off the track.

“If you’re not falling, you’re not learning,” Brewster said. “In terms of life, if you’re not messing up every now and then, that means you’re not doing enough to mess up. Maybe that’s not a good way to live.”

Cait “Artoo” Dalzell, a history undergraduate, said she feels empowered by roller derby.

“I always understood that I could be strong in some other ways,” Dalzell said. “I could be smart, be social, but I never understood that I could be physically strong before derby.”

She also said it is very hard for women to find physical activities that so readily embrace them as they are. Most women’s sports require them to be trained from a very young age, or have a very specific body type.

But roller derby welcomes women of all ages and body types in some way or another. There are both retirement and junior roller derby leagues, using positional blocking instead of hits and teaching the basics of the sport, respectively.  As of early 2012, WFTDA issued a rule clarification stating transgender women were also welcome.  
If some “fresh meat” (a new player on the team) is not so confident with her skills, all of the Jewel City Rollergirls are happy to help.

Lane said for her and her sisters in the derby community, it is very therapeutic. She summed it up with a quote from Bonnie D. Stroir, founder of the San Diego Derby Dolls:
“Most seem to find roller derby in transitional periods … We ruin our bodies to save our souls, and for some reason, that makes perfect sense.”

Charlie House can be contacted at

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