There was a massive, messy pileup at the International Boxing Club in Oregon on a recent Saturday night this winter. And no, we’re not talking outside in the gravelly parking lot or on icy Earlwood Avenue.
Sure, an ominous black hearse was parked near the back door of the gym and former Fun Spot Roller Skating Rink at 525 Earlwood. But as it turns out, the driver was just one in an eclectic collection of approximately 450 fans who braved another blast of freezing rain, ice, snow, and miserable cold to take in the very first bout of the Glass City Rollers women’s roller derby team.
The Rollers kicked off their 2014 season against NEO Roller Derby out of Akron at their brand new home, the IBC.
“We love the new venue – it’s smaller, it’s much more intimate and the audience gets to experience roller derby like they’ve never really seen it before – up close and personal,” offers 26-year-old GCR public relations rep, and standout “jammer” “Elle O’ Hell” – aka Jessica Schadel, 26, who also serves as the Marketing Director for both Harley Davidson in Toledo, and Signature Harley Davidson in Perrysburg.
Unfortunately, the up-and-coming Toledo-based team dropped their debut bout at the IBC to their 50th-ranked visitors (out of 200 teams) from northeastern Ohio, by a score of 446-40.
“The fact that the IBC was packed on a snowy night in early February was just an awesome sign,” “O’Hell said. “And while we knew going in we were going to lose, we wanted to put up our best fight. NEO was ranked number 50, and we were ranked number 150 nationally, so there was really no contest. We fought a hard battle, and the fans seemed to have a good time regardless.
Of the Glass City Rollers’ previous venue at the SeaGate Centre downtown, she says, “The facility was great, and the staff was always very accommodating. But, while it was nice being downtown, the hall was just too big for us – the audience just too far away from all of the action,” she shares.
“That’s one of the greatest things about the sport of roller derby – it’s for everyone,” she said. “There’s really no stereotypical roller derby fan. You have your die-hard followers. You’ll often have people from other leagues coming to watch bouts, and show their support. You have new people, who expect a banked track, and girls punching each other, circa 1970s roller derby. You’ve got parents bringing their kids to a family-friendly sporting event, and you have adults looking for a good way to start their fun night out. Everybody is welcome in roller derby.”
Who wouldn’t enjoy a sport that features such campy, yet colorful nicknames as “Jeeper Creeper,” “Destruck-Shawn,” “Ripper D’ Shreds,” and of course “Elle O’ Hell” splattered on the backs of jerseys of ladies of every size, shape, age, profession, and ability – along with such crazy numbers as 999, 4x4, and MUTIL8?
Everyone from young professionals sporting power suits and power ties, to college students, to longtime Toledo hockey fans in both Goaldigger and Storm sweaters, to parents, grandparents and kids – even dudes who cruise around in spooky hearses have been known to gather when the Glass City Rollers are back in town.
Fans watch intently as the competitors skate counterclockwise as fast as they can around a circular track to score points and knock the opposition into next week like some kind of scene out of a “Xena: Warrior Princess” episode.
The league was formed in 2007 and in 2010 was later accepted as a full member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which boasts teams throughout the United States, and internationally in such far-flung corners of the globe as Australia, Germany and Colombia.
The Division-III Glass City Rollers (the NEO team from Akron are considered D-II) compete on a flat track rather than the traditional sloped track of roller derby of yesteryear. In 2014, they’ll try to better their ranking by taking on an ambitious WFTDA schedule, which will pit them against such teams as the Lafayette (Ind.) Brawlin’ Dolls, the Traverse City Toxic Cherries and the Rollergirls of Central Kentucky (Lexington), to name a few. The bout against the latter is the next home date at the IBC, on Saturday, March 29.
Which leads us full circle to the Glass City Rollers’ first-ever bout at the IBC on Feb 1, where the home team threw one heck of a party to “open up” their new digs against NEO, complete with a blitz of raw, edgy, classic rock, metal, and rockabilly which provided a soundtrack for the mash-up to come.
Fans, along with athletes from both teams clad in all manners of knee-highs, plaid skirts, colorful helmets, shredded fishnet stockings, and war paint, mingle near the concession stand.
Referees trade witty banter and snippets of conversation with the most eager of fans already camped out in the so-called “suicide seats” right alongside the track, and on the floor – as they rapidly circle the track, warming up in traditional zebra-striped jerseys emblazoned with such untraditional names as “Hakuna RefToddta,” “Refenstein” and “Sgt. Ref-A-Roni.”
The show began when the Glass City Rollers took to the track after the “National Anthem,” some rousing introductions, and a poignant moment of silence for fallen Toledo firefighters Stephan Machinski and James Dickman.
Pandemonium ensued when the derby girls from T-Town proceeded to trade near-nonstop mayhem with NEO for an action-packed 60 minutes, with speedy, nifty “jammers” from the Akron team.
And while GCR trailed big at halftime 202-18, and continued to struggle to fight through the stifling NEO blocking wall in the second half, the Toledo team wasn’t without its highlight-reel moments either, with the majority of their offense coming on the shoulders and relentless skating of scrappy “jammers” “Zooey Suicide,” “Mother Nature,” and “O’ Hell.”
There are five more home bouts on tap at the Oregon gym, between March and early October, giving fans plenty of opportunity to get to know some of the athletes on the newest team repping their hometown – a team of accomplished women who are also teachers, media reps, aspiring entrepreneurs and philanthropists.
RavinBubbles” – aka Elise Heintschel – a 5-10, 33-year-old “blocker”/”jammer,” works as a UPS Operations Supervisor.
“Roller derby is a nice stress reliever,” she said. “I enjoy lacing up my skates, and just doing laps, even if I don’t get to hit anybody. I love being part of a team. We push each other to be our best. It’s so much better than just going to the gym, and running on a treadmill.”
The aforementioned 5-2, 36-year-old “blocker” “Jeeper Creeper” – aka Keri Porter –divides her time between driving a school bus and owning and operating her own residential and small business cleaning service, Simply Clean by Keri. She’s also a wife and mother of three striving to teach the gospel of roller derby to her kids.
“I am currently the assistant coach of Toledo’s junior roller derby team, the Frogtown Fallgirls and I love coaching,” she said. “My two daughters skate for the team, and my son is now starting to join the refereeing program. My oldest daughter will be 18 in under three years, and I am hoping to at least get to skate with her.”
“When I watch the TV shows that depict roller derby, and the women that play, it can be frustrating,” she adds. “Most of the women on these shows are depicted as selfish, stupid hotheads who love to party, and the sport they play usually resembles fake wrestling. Roller derby is hard, it’s a sport that requires a lot of training both on and off the track, and the women who play are athletic, and many of them are very educated, and accomplished in their careers. I would love to see Toledo rally around this great sport. We are women. We are strong. We are Toledo strong.”
Rolling through history
With the advent of roller skates in the late 1700s by Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin came actual organized multi-day endurance skating races around the mid-1880s, with participants competing for cash prizes on both banked and flat tracks.
By the early 1920s, the term “derby” was coined to describe such races, with then well-known derby promoter Leo Seltzer and iconic sportswriter Damon Runyon teaming up to alter the rules a bit to allow for more skater contact, somewhere in the late ‘30s. This step was taken in hopes of further drawing fans to the sport, who had always seemed to enjoy the skaters’ spills and wipeouts in the traditional money races.
In ‘48, roller derby made its debut on television in New York, which further increased its mass appeal, and in ‘49, Seltzer created the NRDL, or National Roller Derby League, which consisted of a handful of teams, and was broadcasted on various networks throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s.
In an attempt to grow the sport even more, Seltzer’s son, Jerry, further tinkered with roller derby, and even went as far as to adapt scripted storylines and bout outcomes (a la professional wrestling) – which is when roller derby athletes started to use colorful aliases. Audiences saw right through it, and appeal declined.
Since then, popular culture has seen roller derby steadily fight for relevance again, with the formations of RollerGames in ‘89 (think “big-time wrestling again, but even more over the top), and Roller Jam in ‘99 (a TNN incarnation that allowed roller blades to be used), and the release of the Drew Barrymore-produced roller derby movie, “Whip It,” in ‘09.
The WFTDA was formed in ‘04, and has helped roller derby become a respected, legitimate sport once again, with all scripts and pro wrestling-style pageantry long since relegated to the dusty annals of history, although the colorful nicknames still prevail to this day.