Queens of the roller derby
Rough and tumble sport skates into the Tri-Valley
What's got eight wheels and flies? Any of the 26 or so women now part of Pleasanton's newest professional sports team, the Golden State Roller Girls.
The team is the brainchild of Jennifer Banks, who's also president of the newly formed business.
"I moved back to the Bay Area last year and I lost my Mom on Aug. 26. I needed an outlet," Banks said at a recent practice. "I knew I wasn't qualified to make it on the established teams because I wasn't at the skill level at that time."
While she may not have had the skill -- then, anyway -- she had the desire and the motivation to start a team from scratch, inviting any woman interested in joining, whether they had experience or not.
What Banks -- whose roller derby name is Jennifer Love Screw-IT -- came up with is a team that's owned and operated by the skaters themselves. They rent a rink at Val Vista Park in Pleasanton three times a week for practice, and the women pay $45 monthly dues that go for rink rental and for liability insurance. All the executives are skaters themselves.
The first goal of the team is to be ready for the 2012 season, which begins in January, but Banks and the other team members have bigger dreams in sight: the national championships in three years.
Team members come from as far away as Tracy and Moraga for the practices. Most of the members haven't been on skates since they were in their teens. And with the exception of Banks and a few others, none has been involved in roller derby before, although most say they've been fans.
"There are skills we have to have," said Renee Henderson, whose roller derby name is Tuthy Max.
The team skates under Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) rules -- although it hopes to move to a banked track in the future -- and Henderson said required skills include doing single-footed glides for the length of the straightaway, 35 feet, and being able to do 25 laps around the track, which has an outside circumference of 238 feet, in five minutes.
This is not the '60s- and '70s-era roller derby with alligator pits and wrestling-style theatrics. This is a sport, with 40 pages of rules; players have to pass a verbal test as well as three physical assessment tests, and these women either are or are on their way to becoming athletes. That's part of the draw.
"I always played competitive sports in high school," said Samantha Christy of Danville, a relatively new skater who's yet to pick a derby name. "I tried softball and kickball. They were just a little too lax for me. I wanted something that's more competitive."
Banks, like other team members, wasn't happy about going to the gym to stay in shape. She said she's lost 30 pounds since starting the team. Kristy Blackstock, also known as Mystic Blaze, said joining the team has given her discipline.
"It's such an extreme sport, we're constantly exercising, three days a week," Blackstock said. "At least I'm not sitting on my couch."
Members warm up before practice and the team as a whole goes through a stretching routine before and after. Practice itself is enough to leave the members' legs, thighs, ankles and backs sore, as they move through drills that focus on developing core strength and endurance. Banks, who's watched other teams fade because they weren't strong enough, said at this point she's less concerned about the finer points of the game than she is in making sure everyone can last the fast-paced hour-long bouts.
The phrase "rough and tumble" may have been coined with roller derby in mind. Players use their upper arms, hips, torsos and thighs to block opponents. Falling is part of the game.
"You have to be fully protected to get out there, even for practice," Henderson said. That means helmets, wrist protectors and elbow and knee pads. Members point to their bruises and scrapes as badges of honor.
It's unlikely that many of the women involved would have met had it not been for the team. They range in age from those barely old enough to play -- the minimum age is 21 -- to women in their 40s; one joked she was worried about breaking a hip. Members include teachers, a veterinarian, a Web designer and a cosmetologist, to name a few; many, if not most, are mothers.
"I needed an outlet," said Krissa Nelson of San Ramon, who pointed to the other aspects of her life as a mother, spouse and worker. "I felt like I lost my identity. This is me."
Being on the team means becoming a member of an extended family, regardless of skating ability. That's another attraction for some of the women involved.
"I think it's women empowering each other. We encourage each other," said Lorraine Vegas of Dublin, also known as Lo-Lo Down-Dirty. "There's a cool factor to it. When I talk to people, they say, 'You're doing roller derby? That's so awesome.'"
There are aspects of punk and burlesque to roller derby that allow the women involved to wear clothing, adopt attitudes and express themselves in ways they might not be able to in their non-derby lives. Tattoos and fishnet stockings are as common as elbow pads, and derby names like Trixie Coldblood, Mollytov Cocktail and Mercy Me are ways the players can adopt a personality on the track that might not be acceptable to an employer or a room full of students.
The Tri-Valley team is not just about thrills and spills. Banks has been working with the San Ramon based National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse and hopes to set up a junior league for girls 12 to 18 within the next couple of months to steer them away from drugs and into a healthier, if slightly more risqué, lifestyle.
Banks said she hopes to have a business license in the next couple of weeks and for the team to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit by the end of the year. The team is looking for an indoor track for practices when it gets too hot or cold for outdoor play, and for sponsors, too. Tri-Valley Roller Girls is still recruiting members, and women interested are invited to attend one of the three weekly practices, from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays
The biggest draw of all may be that it's a socially acceptable way of channeling aggressions.
"I like the roughness," said Jackie Nefdt -- Invader Jax -- of Moraga. "I like that we're allowed to 'beat each other up.' It's not ballet class."