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Roller derby skaters are dedicated athletes who take sport seriously

Sunday, February 24, 2013
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Hellions of Troy, from left, Suzanne Beczak, Katlyn Prescott, Becca Lundy and Roshi Shivalila roll and rock during a recent practice at Rollarama in Rotterdam. The women’s roller derby league opens its season Saturday at the Hamburg Street skating center.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Hellions of Troy, from left, Suzanne Beczak, Katlyn Prescott, Becca Lundy and Roshi Shivalila roll and rock during a recent practice at Rollarama in Rotterdam. The women’s roller derby league opens its season Saturday at the Hamburg Street skating center.

Marcie Pry needed safe passage.

She moved left and right, searching for a weakness in the rolling blockade just ahead. Four other women — pushing rumps, swinging hips and dropping shoulders — would not let the small blonde complete her mission.

Pry found a way. She forced her way through arm-locked comrades, and scored a practice point for the Hellions of Troy female roller derby team.

The Hellions have been stepping up training sessions. The roller skaters begin their 2013 season on Saturday at Rollarama in Rotterdam when jammers and blockers match speed and strategy against Vermont’s Green Mountain Derby Dames. First whistle is at 8 p.m.

People who don’t know the sport will quickly figure it out. Each team will send out five skaters — four blockers and one jammer — during two 30-minute halves. Only jammers can score points, and they’ve got to roll fast and smart to put their respective teams on the board.

Hellions of Troy

WHERE: Rollarama, 2710 Hamburg St., Rotterdam

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday (season opener)

HOW MUCH: $10 advance, $12 at door, $3 kids 12 and under

MORE INFO: www.hellionsoftroyrollerderby.com

“Jammers begin behind the pack,” said Pry, 27, who lives in Albany and as team president is head Hellion. “They’ve got to get through the pack. Once they get through, their next pass is a scoring pass, so every blocker you pass after that on the opposing team you get a point.”

Those were the rules when Leo Seltzer introduced the sport in Chicago in 1935. Seltzer was a promoter and needed events that would attract fans of sport and spectacle to the Chicago Coliseum. The sport’s popularity grew with television. According to reference books, TV coverage during the 1940s into the 1950s gave roller derby national exposure.

Dedicated to their sport

The Hellions — named for ancient warriors and for a 2008 beginning in Frear Park in Troy — say participation means commitment. The 30 active skaters in the league — the roller derby term for team — spend more time in gyms and on wooden skating floors than they do in movie theaters and restaurants. They also spend their own money. Monthly dues are $40, and that’s year-round. They also pay $60 for annual insurance.

“Roller derby just has a knack of consuming your life,” said Roshi Shivalila, 23, of Albany, a Hellion since 2010 and the team’s marketing manager. “I was told that when I joined, and I was like, ‘No-oo.’ And now everything is roller derby. I think one of the favorite quotes of the sport is, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t, I have roller derby.’ But you join the team and you instantly have 30 new friends.”

Nobody seems to be complaining. The Hellions practice three nights a week at Rollarama, the longtime skate center on Hamburg Street. The Thursday workout begins at 9, when the floor closes to recreational skaters, and ends at 11. Hellions break loose on Sundays, too, after the rink’s 4 p.m. closing. The Monday evening workout takes place when Rollarama is closed for the day.

Sue Newberry, whose husband’s family has owned Rollarama since it opened in 1957, is happy for the extra business and attention roller derby brings.

“They get a big crowd,” Newberry said. “When they first started, we weren’t sure what to expect, so we had security at the first one. But that was it. They get families in here because the girls who skate have their own fans. Our customers who come here love the derby girls.”

The Hellions’ junior team — the Herculadies — also skate at Rollarama. The leagues are in action about once a month through late fall, and this year the Hellions will visit Rochester and Philadelphia. Admission for home events is $12 at the door ($10 in advance) and $3 for kids 12 and under. “Guests can bring their own chairs, as long as they have rubber bottoms,” Newberry said, adding as many as 300 have watched the matches.

Valentine’s workout

Right now, Shivalila is more concerned about getting ready for the visitors from Vermont.

“These practices include endurance drills, strategy drills and scrimmages,” she said. “Our skaters also put in their own time, at least three times a week in the gym, strength training, burst speed drills and cardio.”

On Valentine’s Day night, about 20 skaters did not care about hearts, flowers or romantic dinners — although one member put a sheet full of lemon cupcakes on the rink’s air hockey table. They dressed in helmets, elbow and knee pads and wore mouth guards; some wore black tank top shirts with names and numbers on the back in hot pink. Others wore Hellion game uniforms, a red and green mix. Dark leggings and skirts over tight shorts were other fashion choices.

They worked on speed control and tight wall formations. There were shouts of “Out! Out! Out!” from blockers as a jammer moved to the outside of rolling walls. There were splits and spills, and the sounds of skate wheels braking on maple boards — kind of like the noise chairs make as they’re dragged along wooden floors. Here and there, some of the women laughed about broken plays.

But the skaters are not fooling around. Shivalila and her teammates say their brand of roller derby is nothing like the occasionally corny and always choreographed derbies of the 1970s. These were the matches filled with phony feuds and outlandish athletics — closer to the sports entertainment episodes of World Wrestling Entertainment than serious skating.

“We bill ourselves as real athletes,” she said.

There are other athletes on wheels in the Capital Region. The Albany All Stars, another women’s league that began in 2006, started its new season in January. Their home floor is the Washington Avenue Armory. Capital District Men’s Roller Derby takes care of the guys.

The Valentine’s workout moved quickly. Jammers tried to find ways around or through the blockers. Kayla Galway, 22, of Albany, one of the league captains, stood in the center of the floor and shouted encouragement and instructions.

“Be aggressive,” she yelled to passing skaters. “I’ve seen both of you hit harder!”

Having fun with names

It’s not all aggression and bruises. The women have a little fun, too. Derby girls invent tough-sounding names for alter egos who lace up and lash out. Shivalila is not a Hellion star — “Baby Nuclear” is. Pry, at 4-feet-11 the smallest Hellion, is “Short Temper.” Leagues all over the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association — the Hellions’ group — also have creative names. There’s a registry, so there can’t be two women named “Sweet Dee Bacle.”

Samantha Williams, 27, of Scotia, owns the “Sweet Dee” name and the tough rep. She wears a skull and crossbones on her helmet.

“You want it to be clever, you want it to be personal,” said Williams, an accountant when she is out of her skates.

She also said male companions can appreciate roller derby and help out wives and girlfriends by volunteering for the league or refereeing matches. Or they can not appreciate the sport.

“Historically, I’ve found that if your dude isn’t into it, it doesn’t really work out,” she said of relationships. “You’re with roller derby or you’re with the dude. My dude’s cool with it. The last one wasn’t.”

Women skate for different reasons.

Katlyn Prescott, 21, of East Berne, currently a senior education major at the State University of New York at Oneonta, makes the 70-minute evening drive from campus to Capital Region for the practice sessions. If women want to skate in matches, they have to show up for group skates. Prescott is always home by early Friday morning.

At 5-feet-8, “Epic Kate-Astrophe” looks more like a basketball player. But Prescott has been on roller skates since age 2. “It’s something I do,” she said. “I found out about roller derby and said ‘This is my sport.’ ”

The women range in age from 21 to 50-plus. Lise Martin of Niskayuna is the 50-plus representative.

“When I turned 50, I woke up one day and I said I have to so something with my life,” said Martin, “Evo Huntress” in Hellion. “So I said, ‘Hmmmm, what can I do? I think I want to do roller derby.’ I used to watch it in the ’60s with my dad.”

You’ve got to be tough

Christa Kavinski, 30, of Troy, understands the “tough woman” tag associated with women’s roller derby.

“I think to join roller derby you have to be a little bit off,” she said. “You have to reject those feminine stereotypes, going and getting your nails done all the time. We still do that . . . but we’re willing to get bruised at the same time.”

Kavinski, a production specialist for a local pharmaceutical company, is “Kitty” on skates. She thinks tough sports for women are just as acceptable as tough sports for men.

“Playing football and being aggressive is accepted in our society,” she said. “But for women to do the same thing, it’s still unheard of.”

A couple of the skaters are nurses, some are financial workers, one’s a veterinarian technician.

“We’ve had up to three librarians at one time, but we’re down to one right now,” said Shivalila, an assistant producer at WTEN, News 10 in Albany. “One of them was ‘Reading Rambo,’ I thought that was a pretty good name.”

The Hellions recruit by showing up at community events. “We try to wear our team jerseys and we get a lot of questions,” Shivalila said. “We’ve been known to frequent farmers’ markets. We’ve been to a hockey game this year. The most frequent question I get is, ‘Is it real? Do you throw a lot of elbows?’ ”

The action is real, so are the falls. But competing leagues get together after matches, the same way college rugby players celebrate afternoons on the field. The Hellions gather at Clinton’s Ditch, one of their sponsors.

Karen Clarke of Schenectady, the Hellions’ coach, said her 10-year-old daughter Megan has become a fan of the derby girls. Megan might want a piece of the action herself some day, and that would be fine with Clarke.

“I’d want that for her, I’d want that ‘I can do this,’ ” said Clarke, 32. “When you first start, you’re scared, there’s a certain amount of overcoming that and realizing you can do something that your entire life, they’d never let you do, you didn’t have a chance at full-contact sports in school.”

 
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