Roller Derby: A sport all its own
One roller derby competitor leaves her everyday persona at the door when she enters the track.
By Andy Wittry
As she steps onto the track for her second home bout of the season, Clouse is no longer a junior majoring in social work at IU. Standing nearly six feet tall in skates and a helmet, she is “Mersadist” — a roller girl name her boyfriend came up with.
As a blocker, it’s Mersadist’s job to deliver punishing hits on the track. She competes for Bleeding Heartlands Roller Derby’s A team, the Flatliners.
Brash, and not for the faint of heart, roller derby is unlike any other sport.
It's a giant game of cat and mouse on skates, like an hour-long episode of "Tom and Jerry," except with more violence. The catch is that each team gets to be the hunter and the hunted — at the same time.
Other than points scored, there are no stats recorded. There aren’t any rebounds, assists or steals.
Body checks and the resulting bruises are the currency of hard work and hustle in roller derby.
“When I first started playing roller derby, I fell all the time, and I just had the most beautifully rainbow-colored bruises,” Mersadist said. “They were gorgeous, and I was obsessed with getting new ones.”
Part of her uniform is for show, the rest is for her own protection. Wearing a helmet, pairs of wrist guards, elbow pads and knee pads, and the number 70 written in Sharpie on her biceps, she huddles with the rest of her team on the sideline.
Five players per team skate around the track, with each side recognizing one skater as the “jammer.” The jammer tallies a point each time she laps one of her opponents.
The rest of the players are blockers.
Teams utilize the depth of their benches, sending waves of players to the track for a series of fast-paced, minute-long shifts.
Roller derby is the equivalent of building a sand castle too close to the ocean. The ocean will always knock down the sand castle, and the jammer will always break through the blockers.
The key is how quickly blockers can get back in position and fortify a human wall for the next time the opposing jammer skates around the track.
They can’t completely stop the jammer. They can only hope to slow her down.
What separates the winning team from the losing team is its ability to play offense and defense at the same time.
Mersadist, or “Mercy” for short, often plays the role of the pivot. The pivot is a blocker who has the distinct ability to replace the jammer if the jammer gets tired or stuck behind opposing blockers.
Each team’s pivot wears the “pivot panty,” a special helmet covering to distinguish her role.
The beauty of roller derby is there isn’t a perfect recipe of players to win a bout.
Players of all types are welcomed with open arms to Bleeding Heartland Roller Derby, and each has a role on the team.
“We welcome all body types, all personalities, all people,” Mersadist said. “We don’t ever tell anyone they can’t play with us. It’s never like that.”
Small, agile players are typically jammers, with the lateral quickness to sidestep opposing blockers and to tiptoe along the out-of-bounds line.
Bigger players often make for great blockers as they are able to position their bodies to cut off possible escape routes for the other team’s jammer.
“Sometimes you might put a big jammer in there, because she can just smash through everybody on the track,” Flatlines Coach Duke Silver said. “Sometimes you want a little jammer. We obviously rely heavily on Nuck L. Sammie, who is tiny, but nobody can touch her. She’s so fast.”
Tall players have better visibility in packs. Small players can sneak unnoticed through openings between blockers.
Mersadist said roller derby is a welcoming sport, but it’s physically demanding.
There isn’t a ball to throw or kick from one player to the next — only bodies to skate through.
For Mersadist, a fifth-year roller derby player, blocking is both a physical and mental challenge.
“I love blocking, because I constantly have to be playing offense and defense,” she said. “It’s such a mind game to be playing.”
Mersadist practices 15 hours per week and coaches for another two hours during the week, she said, on top of being a full-time student, having an internship, volunteering at Martha’s House and working two jobs.
But playing in front of a few hundred passionate fans who aren’t shy to celebrate a big hit makes it all worth it.
“I eat that shit up,” she said. “I absolutely love it. There’s nothing more rewarding than working so hard at something and then having other people appreciate it or enjoy watching us do the crazy tricks that we do or the crazy awesome blocking that we do.”
The bottom line is that roller derby is unique.
From the lingo — a “panty pass” is when a pivot becomes a jammer — to the arena complete with disco balls and lights.
From the fans' indifference towards a player vomiting mid-bout — several sprinkles of sand and a few sweeps of a broom should do the trick — to the singing of ‘O Canada’ before the bout between the Flatlines and Ontario’s Hammer City Roller Girls.
From overhearing the arena’s in-game announcer say “Pants? I hate pants!” to the first row of seats on the floor being labeled as “Suicide Seating.”
Among the spectators and even the players, there is largely no dress code, aside from the matching jerseys the players wear.
“Derby’s kind of a land of misfits,” Coach Silver said. “It’s a very queer-friendly sport. There’s a lot of transgender skaters. Everybody can be open with their lifestyle. It’s very accepting.”
Silver said he felt out of place when he joined roller derby, until a skater pulled him aside and told him everybody there was a freak.
“That’s why we’re here,” the skater told him.
Show up as you are, and you’ll be welcomed.
Or think of a clever alter ego and show off a different side of yourself, just like Uh Huh Hurricane, Oxford Coma, Special Sass and the rest of the Bleeding Heartland Roller Derby skaters have.
“The best part is they get to make it up themselves,” Mersadist said. “You get to create your own persona. You get to be your own person.”
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