As a jammer, it was Melissa ‘Throttle Junkie’ Morrow’s job to score. For each Motown Wrecker skater – the Teachers – she passed, she earned a point for the united team of River City Renegades (Cheboygan), Sault (Ont) Soonami Slammers, and Petoskey Roller Derby skaters – the Students. Throttle Junkie was among the fastest skaters at the Roller Derby. Her speed was evident as she burst free from the starting pile and raced around the rink in an effort to lap the opposing players. Throttle Junkie caught the pack at the next turn and ran into a wall of Wrecker blockers, who jutted their rears out in an effort to send the young jammer crashing to the concrete. The Wrecker’s own jammer was circling the course, and Throttle Junkie had little time to get free before she was lapped. With the help of her teammates, who split the pile, she was able to leap past the wall with a nifty move inside. Now, in order to gain ground on the Wrecker’s massive point lead, she would need to get around the rink and fight through the pack once more.
I am a sucker for nostalgia. Host an event that envokes once popular recreations or entertainments, and I am there. I think most Gen-Xers are that way. We love ‘retro’.
When Jaime Nemecek told me last winter that she was helping start a roller derby team in Petoskey, I was excited to see what the ladies could pull off. My memories of the sport is admittedly dulled by time, but I have hazy memories of tough women in roller skates on a banked rink. Hip checks over the boards. ‘Clotheslines’ to the neck. One woman whipping another into a moving wall of opposing players. Of course men played as well in the 70s, but let’s be honest, there was something thrilling (and a bit sexy) about watching grown women crash into each other. When the men played it was just…goofy.
Roller derby began in the 1930s, much as it is played today. By the 1970s, however, it featured professional skaters who raced around banked tracks and showcased their pratfalling skills. Skaters adopted violent stage names and wore miniskirts and fishnet stockings, adding camp to the rough theatrics. Much like WWE wrestling today, the matches were often choreographed and fixed. The teams participated in bawdy hijinks including pillow and slap fights. By the late 70s, the sport died.
Today the game has returned to its athletic roots and is played at local levels by women looking for a team sport. Utilizing speed, strength and strategy, it produces moments of genuine sporting thrill. The game itself is pretty simple to understand. Like most sports, there are two 30-minute halves in a meet, which is called a ’bout’. Each team fields five skaters at a time in shifts that are called ‘jams’. These jams can last up to 2-minutes, depending on team strategy. The jammer of each team is identified by a star on their helmet. The jammer’s role is to score points for her team by lapping the opposing team. The other four skaters skate in a pack and, using their hips, arms, and legs, try to make room for their jammer while also trying to hold up the opposing team’s jammer. This is the basics of the sport, although there is strategy that I admittedly don’t understand. The game itself is quite rough and at times the players skate very quickly. Skaters are allowed to shoulder and hip check, but receive a penalty for use of elbows, tripping or blocking in the back.
Nikki ‘Nix’r 86’r’ Linder is a bartender from Petoskey who chose her name because, “In the restaurant business to 86 something is to get rid of it.” Nix’r 86’r played primarily Jammer during the first half of the scrimmage, and proved to still be a bit of a novice as she found herself in the penalty box several times. The event was called ‘Summer Skool’, however, and was meant to give the women an opportunity to learn the game from seasoned skaters. Like all of the ‘Students’, Nix’r 86’r proved to be learning her lessons and in the second half was a physical force on the rink, living up to her name by hip checking Wreckers from the course.
Nicknames and camp played an important role in the history of roller derby. Today the sport honors that history with wild nicknames and punk rock costumes. With names like ‘DevilZone’, ‘L’ill Tempered’, ‘NEVERmore’, ‘Back Allie Bruiser’, ‘ChaCha Coconuts’, and ‘Skelly Ka-Pow-Ski’, the skaters channel their inner badass derby girl. Even the refs get in on the act, with names like Muhammad Falli, Kwityer Bitchen, and Speedwhip 69 (who wore a spiked mohawk atop his helmet). Yet do not mistake the women’s enjoyment of camp and punk rock costuming for adult-only themes. Today’s roller derby is careful to keep their events family-friendly. Which makes sense, seeing that most of the women skaters are mothers who bring their children to the rink. During the ‘Summer Skool’ bout, several children were sitting in the ‘Suicide Seats’, seats within 10 feet of the action.
For the brave roller derby skater, the sport is a way to bond with other women and release pent up aggression in a positive way. But each woman’s reason for joining the sport is as unique as the woman herself. I asked Megan “Nutmegz” Pfieffer why she joined the Petoskey roller derby team. “Why not?” she answered. I considered asking a follow up question, but the excitement on her face said it all. Nutmegz, unfortunately, had yet to pass her qualifying tests, so she was unable to skate in the scrimmage. Still, you could see the thrill in her eyes as she watched the other women circle the rink.
Roller Derby leagues and teams are popping up throughout the world. The sport is already popular downstate. All three of the Northern Michigan teams are seeking more skaters. For more information clink the links: River City Renegades, Sault (Ont.) Soonami Slammers, and Petoskey Roller Derby.