The stands were packed Saturday night when the Bronx Gridlock and the Brooklyn Bombshells — competing teams in the aggressive skate-based world of roller derby — took to the rink at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Some fans wore foam Lady Liberty headgear, the symbol of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league. Some of the youngest fans carried graphic novels and event programs to collect their heroes’ signatures after the game.
“They’re great role models,” said attendee Heidi Van Horne, of the skaters. Her daughters Clementine, 9, and Violet, 7, take Gotham Juniors skate classes with the league in Brooklyn. “They’re very inclusive and my kids are better for it.”
Clementine and Violet, who go by roller derby names Cleopuntra and Lumberpain when in the rink, shyly asked Brooklyn Bombshells skater Miss Tea Maven — their favorite skater, according to their mom — to sign their copies of the graphic novel "Roller Girl." The girls are only a year into learning their skating fundamentals, but so far, “we’re a little bit obsessed,” said Van Horne.
In the world of female-dominated sports, roller derby is unique in that it is a rough contact sport, and so its skaters serve as unique role models for girls like Clementine and Violet. Indeed, Miss Tea Maven told amNewYork that was one of the things that drew her to the sport in the first place — it encouraged her to hone her toughness and build strength, not make herself smaller.
“I really like being physical,” said Maven, who goes by Jennifer Dean when not in skates. “This is one of the only sports in the world where it’s extremely positive for women to be physical and be stronger. I’ve put on like 25 pounds since joining this sport and everyone is super positive.”
Beyond providing an example of strength for young girls, though, Gotham Girls is an inclusive league open to nonbinary, transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming skaters. All that matters is you’re willing to walk away with a few new bruises.
Roller derby is a tough sport while also being strategy-based. The games are broken into two half-hour halves, and those half-hours are broken into roughly two-minute sessions called jams, in which each team tries to score as many points as possible. Watching a roller derby game can be a bit confusing to first-time viewers because each team is simultaneously playing offense and defense, both trying to speed through laps while aggressively shoving opposing players aside.
During the jams, five skaters from each team take to the track at once, and of those five one skater, called the jammer, is able to score points. Jammers score points by surpassing opposing players, so the other players, called blockers, try to stop opposing jammers with their bodies while helping their own jammer through. Jammers have to make a full lap before they’re able to score a point by surpassing the same player again, so it’s a game of speed as well as agility and strength. Throughout the match, expert jammers wiggle their way through a mass of blockers using all their strength to stop them. Predictably, there are a lot of tumbles, but that’s just part of the fun.
Maven, 30, said she fell in love with the sport eight years ago when she swung by a practice and a coach strapped her into a pair of oversized skates and made her play. She was unathletic and unskilled, she said, but she was hooked.
“I must have fallen a thousand and one times,” she recalled. “I had never skated before, learning on shoes that were way too big, but I’ve never had that much fun in my entire life.”
A year later she moved to New York and discovered Gotham Girls. She tried out and didn’t make the cut at first, but after a year of practicing and working out, Maven made the All-Stars — the Gotham Girls team that competes internationally.
Many players suit up for both regional teams and on All-Stars, so when the Bronx Gridlock went up against the Brooklyn Bombshells on Saturday, some skaters were competing against their All-Star teammates. The Bronx was ultimately victorious, and the team cemented its place in the home team championship (they were champs last year, so this was their chance to shine for the second consecutive time). They’ve come a long way, said Bronx captain Fast and Luce.
“We’re just trying to come to every game this season and do the job well, focus on our basics, and really have fun with each other — that’s how we got to where we are,” she said. “We were a team that was always losing and we just decided to work hard, but most importantly enjoy each other’s company as teammates and work on getting better, and that really paid off for us.”
And it’s paid off for fledgling fans who are inspired by the skaters’ tenacity. A pair of friends inspired by the 2009 roller derby movie "Whip It," starring Ellen Page, came to see a game for the first time and said it was everything they hoped it would be and more.
“It’s so amazing,” said Esi Bissah, 23. “The fact that it’s all female-led is very empowering.”