EUCLID, Ohio — Skaters say it’s a combination of speed skating and rugby, requiring strength, skill and smarts. Roller derby is growing fast all around the country and that includes Northeast Ohio.
The Burning River Roller Derby is Cleveland’s team – calling Euclid’s C.E. Orr Arena home. The team is a member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the governing body for all flat track roller derby leagues.
So how does the game work?
Each bout is broken up into 30-minute halves, composed of jams that can last up to two minutes with 30 seconds in between.
Teams fields five players, four blockers and a jammer. The jammers start behind the blockers and work to pass opposing blockers for an initial pass. The first jammer to pass her opponents becomes lead jammer and can call off the bout at any time.
After the initial pass, the jammer earns points by lapping opposing blockers. Among the blockers for each team is a player designated as the “pivot.” If the jammer feels they can’t make an initial pass, the pivot can become the jammer, making the original jammer a blocker.
Members of the Burning River team say the sport isn’t for people afraid of contact. That’s because each player only wears a helmet, mouthguard, knee pads and elbow pads as protection. “We don’t wear any other protection, aside from that,” says team president Pinky Teseadero. “So, when our skaters are taking hits, there’s a clear possibility for injury.”
Apart from the skating, players know they must have a solid strategy to win, something that differs from player to player. “Since I’m small, I have to get really low,” says Burning River jammer Gnat. “You just have to eat every hit, you have to go out there and not be afraid of anything.”
The game comes at you fast, and even veterans say they always need to be on their toes. “When you’re a new skater, everything seems so fast. You think you’re reacting quickly, and then you realize ‘Oh no, that wasn’t nearly fast enough,’” says team brace Ginger N’ Tonic.
Making sure everyone follows the rules are the league’s skating and non-skating officials. The skating officials follow each jam to make sure everyone plays fair. “There areas of the body you can hit and areas you can’t hit,” says skating official Inte-Jill. “You can’t use your arms or elbows to hit someone. You can’t use your knees or below, you can’t hit anyone in the back and you can’t use your head.”
Meanwhile just off the track, non-skating officials are doing everything from keeping score, much more says NSO Dame Good. “We’re tracking the penalties, we’re timing the penalties, timing the game, basically without us, can’t have the game.”
But it’s not just the play on the track that make these skaters so unique, it’s the monikers they wear on their jerseys. Some like president Pinky Teasadero, take theirs from pop culture. Others say it’s a personality trait that gave them their name.
“My friend actually gave [the name] to me because I talk a lot,” says blocker/jammer Yakity Yak. “But I also have a very sensitive stomach.”
Team blocker Dee-Crypt didn’t have to look for her name – she’s has a computer science degree and is a systems analyst for the morgue.
Just like any other sport each member of the team says they had a different path that led them to roller derby and a love of the competition. Some learned early on, graduating from Burning River’s Skater-tots program. Others played in rec leagues or watched from the stands before lacing up their skates.
Players say sometimes they still get nervous before a bout and the game is demanding but they wouldn’t want it any other way.