With competitors named Viper Martini, Bonnie Doom and Trixie Firecracker, the sport of roller derby still carries the air of showmanship it is known for, but the game is far from the blood and glitter reputation that sometimes still follows it today.
• What: Hellions of Troy final bout against Hartford Area Roller Derby
• When: Saturday, Nov. 8, at 7 p.m.
• Where: Rollarama, 2710 Hamburg St., Schenectady
• How much: $10 presale, $12 at the door
• Info: hellionsoftroyrollerderby.com
Ask anyone their perception of game, and they are likely to conjure up images of vicious elbows, flying kicks and opponents tumbling over the railings of banked roller rinks. However, that’s only a small window into its history.
It all started in 1935. Roller skating was a popular recreation, as was bicycling – more specifically, bicycle racing. In fact, the earliest dimensions of the original Yankee Stadium were configured, in part, to accommodate bicycle racing. Combining the two pastimes was the brainchild of a Chicago man by the name of Leo Seltzer. Seltzer made a fortune hosting dance marathons, but ultimately, he’d be the grandfather of the sport that inspired the 1975 James Caan film, “Rollerball.” The game itself would later match the theatrics of the World Wrestling Federation instead of the legitimate competition he initially invented.
Leo Stowell knows all the history. The Clarkson University grad, who played intramural hockey in the remote North Country, has been a fan of the game for years. At a recent practice inside Robison Gym on the campus of Russell Sage in Troy, he drops Seltzer’s name. He credits the family for pulling the popularity of the sport through the ’50s and ’60s. As manager of The Hellions of Troy Derby League — “a man, literally, in a women’s world” — he and his players fight the stigma of a game once known for dramatic storylines and bouts with predetermined outcomes.
The Hellions of Troy started competing in 2008 as members of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. The WFTDA is the governing body of a network of 260 leagues spread worldwide.
The league’s marketing director Brittany Beyus had high praise for Stowell, who has been with the team for about two years.
“He is just a very likable person,” said Beyus. “He has a lot of passion for the league, and it shows. He’s the kind of person that would put the needs of the league before his personal opinions, which is very important as a manager.”
The Hellions of Troy league is made up of two teams. There is the Hellions of Troy, which shares its name with league. The other is the Herculadies. Both names are a play on stories from Greece’s Age of Heroes, where oftentimes women, such as Leda and Helen, fall victim to the will of men. But, not the Hellions.
“(There’s) lots of hitting,” said 24-year-old Felony Femme. Players adopt pseudonyms for their bouts. “Lots of contact. Lots of bruises. Lots of fun. … I definitely wouldn’t call roller derby a safe sport.”
Felony has a sports background that also includes hockey and golf, and she has a sister in Pittsburgh who is involved in roller derby too.
“I was an ice hockey player in high school, so I always liked skating. And, then I was like, ‘Hey — roller derby!’” said Felony.
The physicality of the sport has served to be cathartic for her, as well. Roller derby allows her to let go of the frustrations from her job as a speech language pathologist at a school for children with multiple disabilities.
The professional backgrounds on the team range from engineer, medical professional, pharmaceuticals, information technology, tattoo artist and more, representing an eclectic array of educated, talented women. In fact, the engineer and tattoo artist are one and the same.
“We have a wide range of ages on our team,” said Beyus, who is a 23-year-old rookie who goes by the name Camel Ribs. “The age range in our league is approximately 18 to 45. There may even be a few who are older than that, but honestly, looking at them, you would never know.”
The league incorporates a developmental program for safety reasons, allowing a skater to hone her skills before entering competition. WFTDA rules have eliminated the use of punches and elbows, but that does not prevent the occasional black eye.
“This face is brought to you by roller derby,” said skater Trixie Firecracker, who oversees the new recruits.
She recalls talking to her mother about getting involved in the sport. “When I first told my mother,” said Trixie, “she said, ‘You’re going to wear a mouthpiece, right? I paid too much money for that smile.’”
Despite the prospect of pain, there is an attraction to the game.
“The allure of roller derby for me is that it’s not like other team sports,” said Beyus. “There is no ball. We don’t have goals posts. It’s not a race. It is a relatively simple concept with many moving parts that make the game challenging to play and interesting to watch. It’s a sport that requires physical skills and strategic thinking. To make it more interesting, it’s full contact.”
At 42, Bonnie Doom is a veteran of the league, having started her career in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to the Capital District a few years ago. She started in roller derby six years ago, after a co-worker told her she should sign up. She looked it up online, attended a bout, and became “smitten.” But the draw to the game goes beyond the competition for Bonnie.
“Just the importance of women’s athletics and also acknowledging the hard work that goes into this sport,” she said.
The league is a non-for-profit organization. One in which each player has a position, either in title or within a committee, that maintains the logistics behind the organization. Scheduling, recruiting, marketing, fund-raising – are all done through a player-owned league.
“We do everything ourselves, so we run the business,” said Bonnie.
The Hellions of Troy and the Herculadies play their final bout of the year Saturday, Nov. 8, against the Hartford Area Roller Derby at the Rollarama in Schenectady. Advance tickets are on sale for $10, $12 at the door, and children 12 years and younger get in for $3. For more information, visit www.hellionsoftroyrollerderby.com.