Roller derby coming to Grand ForksDozens of women from all walks of life are practicing hip checks and lacing up their skates as they get ready to bring roller derby to the Grand Forks area.
By: By Ryan Johnson , Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
Dozens of women from all walks of life are practicing hip checks and lacing up their skates as they get ready to bring roller derby to the Grand Forks area.
Karissa Morehard, a member of the newly formed Forx Roller Derby league, admitted the all-female sport probably wouldn’t be considered mainstream. But she said it’s isn’t really that far “out there,” either.
“I don’t think it’s any different than football,” she said. “It’s just a different type of sport, with chicks that like to hit and skate.”
The league so far has gathered 26 women to do something they said empowers them while they make new friends and exercise in a fun way.
It’s a sport that requires athletic skill and hard work, but it’s also a form of entertainment that isn’t afraid to embrace aggressive and strategic tactics as teams compete on the track.
“There’s this saying, ‘If you can’t play nice, play roller derby,’” said Kelly Gray, one of the league’s founders. “It’s kind of an empowerment thing.”
But that’s not the whole story of the full-contact sport that got its start in the 1930s when a promoter embraced elbowing and body checks to draw bigger crowds to the roller skating races of the day.
It went through a phase of relative obscurity, but roller derby today is gaining acceptance once again. There are now more than 500 women’s leagues in 16 countries, and the sport has become vastly different than the televised spectacles with scripted outcomes that were popular in the 1970s.
‘A long-lost dream’
Gray said the league got started in April with a Facebook message.
“I put something on there that said, ‘I want to be on a roller derby league,’” she said.
It soon got a comment from her friend, Cheryl Lawson.
“I called her and said, ‘I’m serious. Are you serious?’” Gray said. “And then we went from there.”
“I think at the time we kind of had the perfect combination because once it was said, she made up fliers and then I started picking dates,” Lawson said.
Training started just one week after an informational meeting to see if there was enough community interest.
More than 20 girls joined the league right away, Lawson said. The league is now up to 26 members, enough for two teams that can scrimmage until derby matches called bouts can begin.
Gray said she played roller derby in California, but hadn’t been on skates in almost 15 years when she started training a couple of months ago.
“That was the scary the first time,” she said. “I fell down the stairs.”
Lawson said the chance to try roller derby is like “a little girl’s dream” for her because she always wanted to try it and started roller skating when she was two.
“People grew up with roller rinks and they loved to skate,” she said. “Especially in Grand Forks, that has gone away with no roller rinks left in town. So it’s kind of a long-lost dream for some of us to get back on our skates and this is how to do it.”
Gray said bouts tend to be “very theatrical,” something that shows in the tough-sounding derby names that the girls go by on the track.
She picked Gray Madder because of her last name; Lawson chose Schmylee Rukus after her kids said it was OK.
“It’s kind of after my dogs,” Lawson said.
Skaters accessorize their outfits, adding things like rainbow striped knee-high socks or fishnet stockings to their tank tops and short shorts.
It’s a way of “expressing who you are outside of your 9-5 cubicle,” Gray said.
The league has members that range from 21 to almost 50, she said, including hairdressers, students, mothers and professionals.
April O’Brien, known on the track as Pepper Razzi, picked her name because she’s a photographer. She’s new to the sport, but said being a derby girl has been “very empowering.”
“You get to know all these awesome chicks,” O’Brien said. “I’ve never been athletic, but this is kind of a great way to get into something new.”
Practices were tough at first, she said, but it’s become more fun in the past six weeks as the skaters improved their skills.
Jackie Hoffarth chose her derby name, Rainbow Fight, as a reference to the popular Rainbow Brite character of the 1980s.
Like O’Brien, Hoffarth said she wasn’t an athletic person before joining the league.
“I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone because I was never on a team in high school,” she said. “I was never one to sweat. I’d rather go shopping.”
Being a skater has given her a chance to express a part of her personality that doesn’t come out in her social work job, Hoffarth said. But it’s also helped her deal with the death of her younger brother, James Freestone, who was killed in a car accident about a month ago.
“Instantly I got support off and on the track,” she said. “I think I needed that because I’m not the type of person that makes girlfriends easily.”
Forx Roller Derby skaters said they look at North Dakota’s first derby league as an example of what they could become after they get more established.
The Fargo-Moorhead Derby Girls league is now up to four teams and has regular exhibition matches with other teams in the area.
The Forx Roller Derby league is now working toward limited liability company status and becoming a nonprofit, self-supporting league that will hold fundraisers.
Skaters practice at the Jason Stadstad Arena in Manvel, N.D., and they’ll hold an exhibition scrimmage there on July 24 as part of Manvel Days.
Gray said they’re looking for a place they can use this winter for indoor practices and bouts, but that’s not an easy task in Grand Forks.
“It’s hard because everything gets iced over,” Gray said. “It’s a hockey town, soon to be a roller derby town.”
Their first bout is scheduled for January in Bemidji, and Gray said she hopes the league will be able to form a traveling team to compete in regional tournaments.
Several nearby cities started a league this year, including Bemidji and Fergus
Falls in Minnesota and Minot and Jamestown in North Dakota.
Gray admitted roller derby is a bit aggressive but said it’s not mean.
“If I have to hip check somebody, I’m going to hip check them to score a point,” Lawson said. “But I’m not going to purposely turn around and punch them in the face.”
Lawson said some people think she’s “absolutely nuts” for being on a derby team, but there’s a risk of getting hurt while doing almost anything.
“You only live once,” Gray said. “You might as well roller skate.”
Ryan Johnson is a reporter for the Grand Forks (N.D.)
Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.