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How roller derby is helping women grow in confidence

Heidi Kendrick was recently at a holiday party in Portland and mentioned that she played in a local roller derby league. When another partygoer asked what roller derby was, and before Kendrick could explain, someone else chimed in and likened it to staged wrestling.

Though it’s not the first time she’s heard the misnomer that roller derby is scripted, there probably isn’t anything that could make a roller derby player like Kendrick cringe more.

“There’s an old-school thought that it’s fake,” said Jessica Locke, and some think of it as a novelty item. Locke is a skater and coach, who, like Kendrick, is a member of the Maine Roller Derby, a Portland-based women’s league with two home teams and one travel team.

Photo by Jim Vernier

While televised roller derby in the 1970s may have at times been scripted, modern roller derby isn’t about fishnets and gimmicks and putting on a show on skates. It’s governed by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which, according to the organization’s website, represents more than 450 member and apprentice leagues on 6 continents. The association holds leagues to a code of conduct and lays out safety regulations.

So how is roller derby played?

A game, called a “bout,” is broken up into segments, called “jams,” which can last up to two minutes. During a jam, there are two teams with five players each. Each team has one jammer, who wears a helmet with a star, and a pack of four blockers.

Jammers must make their way through the pack, with the first jammer to break though declared the lead jammer. That gives them the right to decide when the jam ends. The jammers then race around the track and try to break through the pack again, scoring points on opposing blockers.

Photo by Jim Vernier

“It really is a brain game,” said Molly Sullivan, a Maine Roller Derby member and roller derby broadcast announcer. She has also played and coached the sport. “It’s like playing chess on eight wheels, going 20 miles per hour. You’re playing offense and defense all the time.”

Like any sport, there are rules, and they are taken seriously.

Players must wear helmets, mouthguards, and other protective gear. Illegal target zones include the spine, head area, and below the mid-thigh. It’s a family-friendly sport, and if a player uses foul language, it could land them in a penalty box.

“It’s like playing chess on eight wheels, going 20 miles per hour. You’re playing offense and defense all the time.”

Playing roller derby takes a certain amount of devotion—three-hour practices are held three times a week, in addition to bouts. The Maine Roller Derby is a non-profit organization and relies on monthly dues from players in addition to ticket sales and donations. There are about 100 players and officials with the league, and 30 of the top players are chosen for the travel team.

Players on the travel team must also pay for travel costs for away games. Sullivan, Locke, and Kendrick and all others heading to Hatfield, Pennsylvania in February for the Battle of the All Stars will ride together and pool expenses. The tournament, which will feature players from across the country, is planned for Feb. 13–16 and will be streamed online by New England Roller Derby Report.

The sport attracts players from a wide variety of professions—Sullivan is a teacher, Locke is a real estate appraiser, and Kendrick is an artist.

Locke was first introduced to roller derby as a teenager living in New York when she saw a friend of a family member play. Years later, after the end of a long-term relationship, “I decided I wanted to do something for myself,” she said. She emailed a local team, only to discover she had contacted them the day before the deadline to join.

Photo by Jim Vernier

“It was like kismet,” said Locke. “So, I showed up, and joined the team.”

Kendrick joined Maine Roller Derby at the age of 39, at a time when she said she wanted to do more of the things she loved in life, like roller skating.

“Roller derby, the sport and the community, they both empower you,” said Kendrick. “The sport literally teaches you to get knocked down and come back up over and over again, and if that’s not a good life lesson….”

Sullivan played sports in high school, but never roller skated until she decided, as an adult, that she wanted to try roller derby. She taught herself to skate at Deering Oakes park in Portland.

“I would hit Happy Wheels on Friday nights while everyone else was partying. I was very determined to make it into this sport and community,” she said.

There are a lot of benefits to being in a roller derby league, say local players. The sport is accepting of all body types, and everyone brings a different strength to the game. Players come in all shapes and sizes, and all are valued. Because Maine Roller Derby is a non-profit, members must contribute in different roles—for example, a nurse might serve as a required medical professional at a game, or someone with a marketing background might help promote the sport.

Photo by Jim Vernier

It’s a team effort on and off the rink, and the league has become like a second family to many of its members.

“In our league, in particular, there is so much love. We choose to hang out together outside of the sport as well. We’re all friends,” said Kendrick.

Not only has roller derby made them comfortable with their bodies, but it’s also given them confidence, say players.

“I’ve learned to use my voice. I’ve never been shy, and I can talk, but to actually make my voice assertive and strong was hard for me at first. You have to use your voice on the track, but it also teaches you to use your voice in the world,” said Kendrick.

Photo by Jim Vernier

Locke said, in life, women are sometimes told to “stay small,” and not assert themselves. Roller derby has taught her not to acquiesce to others.

“One of the things I’ve gotten from Roller Derby is the confidence to take the space that I deserve and should have in other aspects in life,” said Locke. “In roller derby, you have to be direct and get it done.”

For Sullivan, roller derby has opened up the opportunity to do something she had always dreamed of—sports broadcasting.

The role of roller derby announcer is a volunteer gig. Maine Roller Derby isn’t unique in that players and those in associated roles don’t get paid. Opportunities for roller derby players are few; some make money by hosting clinics or selling merchandise.

Sullivan hopes that someday that will change, and in the future young skaters will be able to make a living playing the sport they love.

Photo by Jim Vernier

Right now, the Maine Roller Derby is at a crossroads. Happy Wheels skating rink, which has been home to practices and many home games, closed in December after being sold.

This leaves league members with no place to practice, and without a place to play games when the Portland Exposition Building is not available.

The Maine Roller Derby has a long-standing relationship with the Portland Exposition Building and has worked out a time around the Red Claws basketball schedule when the local roller derby league can play a game on Jan. 25.

Maine Roller Derby is hopeful to find a future home and the board of directors is scouting out potential leads. It’s a challenge, but as members of the sport that, as Kendrick says, teaches players to “get knocked down and get back up” they are hopeful to find a new place to practice in the future.

Liz Gotthelf lives in Old Orchard Beach with her husband. She enjoys hula hooping, volunteering at a local horse barn and finding Fiestaware at thrift stores.

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