Local roller derby is as exciting to watch as it is to play
The Valkyries’ and Roughnecks’ roller derby practice at SKATES in Sand Springs
While it’s not quite as brutal as popular culture would have you believe, women’s roller derby is an intense, complex sport that requires a significant investment of time and energy. It’s also a lot of fun, both to participate in and to watch. With over 500 different certified groups in the United States—and two in Tulsa—the sport is growing, too.
The Tulsa County Roller Derby Valkyries play out of SKATES Roller Skating Entertainment and Event Center in Sand Springs (401 E. Broadway Ct. B), and the Roughneck Roller Derby is headquartered at the Ninowski Recreation Center on the Rhema Bible Church campus in Broken Arrow (1367 E. 71st St. S.). Both have new seasons starting this month, with the Valkyries at home on Saturday, Mar. 3, against the Salina Sirens, and a Roughnecks road match in Norman against the Oklahoma City Victory Dolls on Mar. 4.
A couple of things about roller derby: It has a long list of rules. It’s not as gratuitously violent as the old 1970s reputation suggests, and the games create family-friendly, fun environments. It’s a great athletic outlet for the participants, and while they definitely look cool, they’re not necessarily all punk rock or alternative. And yes, there are occasional injuries, as in any fast-paced contact sport.
There’s a lot of strategy involved, and players have to pass a basic skill test on the track as well as a written test before they’re allowed to officially compete. There are lots of rules to follow, and six different referees police the action. There are penalties, and, like in hockey, there is a penalty box. Like in basketball, players “foul out” if they receive up to seven penalties in a game.
“10 girls go out on the track; you have five from each team,” said Emily from Tulsa County Roller Derby, who is recovering from a broken ankle. “You’re going to have a girl that has a helmet cover on with a star on it—she’s our jammer. She’s the only one that can score points. Each team will have a jammer and four blockers. Your jammer wants to make it through the pack of blockers, all the way around the track, and however many of the opposing team members she passes is how many points she scores. Each team can be scoring points at the same time, and you want to strategize how to not let the other jammer through while getting yours through. It’s the only sport where you’re playing offense and defense at the same time.”
“People think it’s a bunch of badass, hard-hitting chicks like the 1970s—it’s okay, it makes them interested, but sometimes they’re disappointed,” said the Valkyries’ president, Teresa (aka “Evil”), who is skating again after ACL surgery last October. “It’s a real sport. I’m a mom, I got kids and a full-time job, but this is my thing. I just love it. I did not realize how much I loved that competitiveness with a team.”
The skaters are a mix of former athletes and people who saw a game and, as they say, were “bitten by the derby bug.” Most players range in age from mid-20s to mid-30s, and many have been doing it for years.
“For me, the appeal is the camaraderie and the sisterhood that you get,” said Roughneck Roller Derby’s Lauren Washburn, also known as “Squashburn.”
“I’m 30, and making friends as an adult is hard, so it’s a fun way to meet new people and have a support system. And on top of that, you’re kicking your own butt for two hours, but you’re having fun and roller skating, so it’s a good way to get in shape, stay in shape, and really push yourself.”
“I am terrible at forcing myself to work out if I don’t have something that I’m doing it for,” added Ashley Gabriel, aka “Bad News Booty” of the Roughnecks. “If I know I have this commitment to this team, I’m going to cross-train. I don’t want to be the one that’s holding the team back because I’m out of shape or whatever. It’s a lot of really high endurance. There’s a lot of things that we have to be able to do.”
Being in good shape is not only crucial to performing well but also to preventing injury.
“Learning how to skate is important, and strengthening outside of derby is important,” said TCRD’s President Evil. “You think you can just show up and skate and go home, but it is something that you need to be working on as often as you can, building those muscles, building your balance, working on your center of gravity, working on your core strength. It will work your entire body.”
While it is a contact sport, players say it’s not excessively rough.
“Back in the day, it was set up like WWE. They had everything worked out,” said Jessica Coleman (“Juggernaut Jess” or “Juggs” to her teammates), head coach and captain of the Valkyries. “People say, ‘I used to watch that on TV. I loved seeing girls clothesline each other,’ and I’m like, ‘We don’t do that.’ I don’t consider it super-violent. It gets aggressive. It’s one sport where women are allowed to hit each other, but it’s not the nature of the sport to hit people and want to hurt them. It’s like, ‘That girl is going to knock you down if you’re not ready for it.’”
As for the skaters, many have tattoos and wear thick eyeliner for games, but they’re not necessarily the biker chick types that pop culture would suggest.
“Roller derby is outside the norm, and I’d had in my brain that they’d be like punk rock stars or something,” said Ginger of the Valkyries. “I did meet a lot of cool people, but they were just normal.”
The two local organizations are actually in the process of merging in 2019 in order to better consolidate the groups’ resources. They already share players and have started a combined “Elite Team” under the Roughneck name that will compete this season in away games against teams from places like Lubbock, Texas, Lawton, Okla., and Little Rock and Fayetteville, Ark.
Tickets to home games in Broken Arrow, Sand Springs, or the occasional Valkyries match at Skateland Tulsa (1150 S. Sheridan Rd.) are typically $8 ahead of time and $10 at the door.
“It’s fun to have people that come from your work or something and have signs. We get people that bring in cowbells, and it gets loud,” Juggernaut Jess said. “It’s fun, it’s an event. We try to do a halftime event, and we always have an area for kids if they get tired of watching.”