Girls on wheels: Members of the Cape Girardeau Roller Girls find fun, camaraderie in sport of roller derby
Two evenings a week, the Cape Girardeau Roller Girls exchange their work attire for colorful tights, mouthguards and roller skates. Before practice begins at 6 p.m., they gather along a wall inside the Arena Building, visiting about their days, snacking on homemade cookies and stretching.
Julie Ann Moser Strickland, better known as Bobbie Soxxx, applies her signature red lipstick, secures her helmet and surveys the team, making sure everyone has arrived.
"Once you are involved, roller derby completely takes over your life. I was told this at the beginning and I didn't believe it," says Strickland, who founded the league with Sylvia Smash and Revenjamin after attending a February 2010 bout in Marion, Ill. They set up a Facebook group for people interested in roller derby, then met with the Southern Illinois Roller Girls to learn more about the sport and try on their skates.
Strickland had never played a team sport before, not even for fun, but soon found herself practicing for hours, recruiting new members, and planning her wedding so that it wouldn't conflict with any derby events.
"Once you are involved, the sport and your team are all that matter. You want to improve and you want your team to win and you plan your life around the sport," she says.
Practices last three hours and include everything from strength and endurance exercises to scrimmage games and practice falling, jamming and blocking. Head of training Marquishia Winters, known in derby as Laryn Kill, gets things started.
As the girls skate around the track, Winters blows a whistle and calls out things for them to do, like change their pace, skate backward, do a single-knee fall, then a double-knee fall.
"Get up using your core, not your knees," she yells. "Keep going! Pain is temporary. Think about how good you're going to feel after this. ... Now do the same thing on the other side."
The Roller Girls -- and some guy coaches and referees -- have attracted a significant following in Southeast Missouri. What started as an unfamiliar sport now brings sold-out crowds to their bouts at the Arena Building.
"I start by asking if people have seen the movie 'Whip It' or remember derby when it was on TV, and go from there," says Ron Ruppel, a head referee known as Jolly Dodge-Her. "Usually, the next sentence is, 'Well, it's like that but a little different.' I ask people if they like strong women on roller skates who hit each other. Then, I point out that we have beer and food at the event." Once people come to a bout, says Ruppel, they're hooked -- that's how Stacey Chicora joined the league last spring.
"They made it look so easy! I came home and told my husband that night that I wanted to play," says Chicora, a mom of three who's known in derby as the Wicked Witch of the Midwest. "I often joke that the Cape Girardeau Roller Girls recruited me off my couch. I had not skated since I was a child. I am far from mastering the skills needed for this sport, but I learn more and my skills improve every time I go to practice. Learning the rules and nuances of roller derby could be a full-time job."
Coming to a bout also blows away any stereotypes that roller derby is violent or unfriendly. In fact, the Roller Girls are a tight and friendly group.
"What the crowd sees at first is a bunch of girls on skates knocking each other around. However, when you look a little closer they will see that the hits are not supposed to be random. There is a strategy," says Chicora. "I love that derby is a physically demanding sport played by strong women all across the world. What I love about my team is that we all come from different walks of life to play this game. We all lead very different lives, yet this sport draws us all together."
The Roller Girls abide by all rules and regulations set by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, says Strickland, and they hope to become a member league someday soon. All guidelines set by the WFTDA are designed to keep the players safe, and they're enforced by, on average, seven skating referees and 12 non-skating officials. There are legal and illegal "hits," and players spend time in the penalty box when they don't abide by the rules.
"The biggest misconception is that in order to be 'tough' you have to be mean and unfriendly. That is not the case at all," says Winters. "Some of the nicest people I know play roller derby. In fact, mainly because I have to run practices, roller derby has taught me to be nicer."
The Roller Girls occasionally hold "Fresh Meat Nights" to recruit new members. Skaters who decide to join enter a 90-day class in which they go through physical training and learn all about the game. At the end of that time, says Strickland, they must pass a written and physical test in order to become full-fledged members of the league.
"Clearly being physically fit, able to skate and having knowledge of the game are vital. But these are all things that can (and will) be taught to a new skater," says Strickland. "More than anything, a good roller derby player must have drive to improve herself, commitment to her team, and a positive attitude. A good roller derby player is not scared of hard work, pushes herself farther than she thought possible and would do anything to help out her teammates, both on and off the track."
Strickland describes the league as a "DIY sport." The skaters and sponsors pay for and manage all aspects of the league, from buying jerseys to marketing their events to organizing bouts and after-parties. You'll often hear the girls talking about derby on the radio or find them supporting charities like the Special Olympics Polar Plunge and the Kenny Rogers Children's Center telethon. It's hours and hours of time and energy spent, in addition to members' full-time jobs, families and other obligations.
Winters skates for the teams in Cape Girardeau and Marion, practicing two to four times a week. Even outside of practice, Winters is doing off-skate conditioning, eating a healthy diet and drinking lots of water in order to stay fit for derby.
"I'd have to say the hardest part about roller derby is finding a balance between this and other activities I like to do," she says. "But I love roller derby, so it's not that hard. So far roller derby has brought me nothing but happiness. If had to pick a downside, I'd say the risk of serious injury."
It takes determination, adds Ruppel, and he often finds himself wishing for another day in the week. "It's not a sport for looking cute and skating in a circle. People get injured. Bruises, broken bones, you name it," he says. "I already knew how to roller skate. The hard part was learning to fall correctly."
May 19: Fantastic 5 on 5, CGRG vs. CGRG
June 9: The Greatest Show on Earth, CGRG vs. CGRG
July 14: CGRG vs. Southern Illinois Roller Girls (away)
Aug. 18: Double Header, CGRG vs. Vette City Roller Derby and CGRG vs. VCRD
Oct. 20: CGRG vs. Red River Sirens (away)
Oct. 26: Third Annual CGRG Halloween Party
Nov. 10: Capetown Smackdown Part III: CGRG vs. CGRG