The sun hadn’t quite begun to set outside the tour bus window when Juanna Rumbel lost her train of thought, leaned out of the backseat, and sank her teeth into Broken Cherry’s ass.
“Can you tell me why I’m in love with Broken Cherry?” she asked the Windy City Rollers lined up in the aisle waiting to use the toilet.
Before Cherry popped out of the bus’s bathroom, Rumbel had been deep in conversation, talking roller derby with the girls in the seat in front of her–Angel Dustt, Nikki Sixxx, and Rumbel’s best friend, Sister Sledgehammer. Now Dustt chimed in. “I’ve been in love with her for a while,” she said indignantly.
“Oh no,” said Rumbel, handing a plastic bottle full of wine back to Cherry. “You don’t want to step up to this, bitch. ‘Cause you know she’s my girl. I carry her grape juice.”
The women talked a little more shit, then got back to the subject of track dimensions.
In the past couple years nearly 20 all-female DIY roller derby leagues have sprung up across the country, starting in Austin, then spreading to Arizona, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Madison. Most are still in their formative stages, but some have divided into teams and begun competing intramurally. A few others have started holding interleague competitions. Chicago got a league this summer when Rumbel and Sledgehammer cofounded the Windy City Rollers.
Roller derby has been around in various incarnations since the 30s, but this resurgence is young. The Rollers haven’t broken into teams and begun to bout among themselves yet–it takes a lot of work, and start-up costs are formidable. The rules and regulations aren’t yet standardized either, though a coalition is working to develop the sport on a national scale. Austin’s Texas Rollergirls serve as the model for many of the newer leagues, and several have copied the size of their track, a rough 90-by-63-foot flat oval, outlined by string lighting.
Rumbel is of the opinion that this may not be big enough. “I feel that the Windy City Rollers is one entity,” she said, chasing a Miller Lite with slugs of Jim Beam from an Aquafina sports bottle. “And I know that we need to convert to interleague, should it really become a popular thing. But the big thing is understanding our capabilities and challenges. I don’t want our girls to get bored skating in a five-foot rink. If the track really presents a challenge if we go bigger, then we should go bigger.”
“She knows I completely disagree with that,” said Sledgehammer, who had a Red Bull in one hand and a sippycup of Bloody Mary in the other. She thinks the WCR should stick with what the Texas Rollergirls have proved will work.
“I understand the big picture,” said Rumbel. “But I also have to say that what we really need to focus on in the next year is, How do we get Chicago fans to be here?”
“You serve beer and you show girls beating up on each other,” someone piped up.
Earlier that afternoon these 50-some women (and a few male ornaments) had collected at Delilah’s, fueled up on Bloodys, and boarded this charter bus bound for Madison, where the five-month-old Mad Rollin’ Dolls were holding their first exhibition bout. The week before the Rollers had hosted a fund-raiser at Liar’s Club that raked in almost $6,000. One dazed and grinning young dude had dropped more than $200 on arm-wrestling matches and souvenir Polaroids. Part of the take went to Planned Parenthood and the Chicago Abused Women’s Coalition, and the rest went into the league’s hope chest. The Rollers are hosting a benefit with live music, the Jingle Brawl, at the Logan Square Auditorium this weekend. They’re still months away from holding their own bouts, and they don’t yet have a place to do it, but already charities, sponsors, and reporters want a piece of them. This trip to Madison was to serve notice to other leagues that they were organized and anxious to start kicking ass.
Val Capone, one of the WCR’s first members, stood at the front of the bus and hushed the women. She, Anita Applebomb, and Courtney Shove had agreed to help with security at the Madison bout. She read from an e-mail sent by the Mad Rollin’ Dolls asking if the Windy City girls would be so good as to keep the crowd off the track when the brawling broke out.
“Please, ladies,” said Capone over the bus’s PA. “Let’s get jaked out of our minds on the way back, but on the way there we do need to help, and we do need to be somewhat coherent.” The girls hoisted beers and margaritas in paper cups. “And I just want to say thank you so much for the most awesome League of Their Own moment I’ve ever had in my life. I’m like ready to cry my fuckin’ eyes out. OK, I gotta–ah hah hah–I’m gonna start crying.” Capone put her face in her hands. The women cheered.
“I love you guys so very much,” she continued. “And if I’m ever an asshole just come up and punch me.”
When Kelly Simmons and Elizabeth Gomez met seven years ago, they hated each other’s guts. “I was yuppie scum and she was a pierced freak,” says Simmons, aka Sister Sledgehammer.
Simmons, who’s 34, grew up outside of Detroit and was a team player in high school. “My mom had me in every sport imaginable,” she says. She also played the cello, was president of the French club, vice president of the student council, a member of the National Honor Society, and a delegate to the Great Lakes Invitational Model United Nations. In her senior year she won class awards for “most school spirit” and “most outgoing.” After college at the University of Michigan she moved to Chicago to be with her boyfriend, whom she married before 110 guests in a “typical fancy-schmancy” wedding that she’d spent a year planning. Then the mundane demands of adulthood began to eclipse athletics. She played softball on Sundays and took up golf, “but I probably spent a lot of weekends hanging out, watching TV, seeing friends, going shopping, and doing the typical girl stuff,” she says.
Gomez (aka Juanna Rumbel), who’s 30, was an army brat and a loner outside Richmond, Virginia, who wanted nothing to do with sports. “I’d come home and go to my bedroom,” she says. “And I learned to read very intensely. I loved books on philosophy, poetry, art–things that would just take me into another world.” She tried a couple of semesters of art school in Philadelphia before dropping out and moving first to Virginia Beach, then to Los Angeles. “I was having a really good time and I had to pull out of there,” she says. “It was fun, but it came to a point where I had to go.” In 1996 she moved to Chicago for no better reason, she says, than that she’d never been here before. Three weeks later a guy she’d been dating in LA followed her. He was going to find his own place, but one day while strolling downtown they decided to get married and applied for a license. A month later they tied the knot at City Hall, celebrated with steak and eggs for breakfast, and then shot pool in a bar.
About a year after Gomez’s arrival she was hired to answer the phones at a printing company where Simmons used to work as a salesperson and still dropped by to visit occasionally. “I just couldn’t stand her,” says Gomez. “I thought she was everything that I hated–Miss Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, a preppy chick who liked her china and her BMW. We just couldn’t relate to each other.”
“I think I was living in a very small bubble at that point,” Simmons says. “Buying into stereotypes. She probably had a different hairstyle every day, and she had a septum ring, which totally grossed me out. And she was super outspoken and loud, and it just rubbed me the wrong way.”
The two might never have been anything more than mutually annoyed acquaintances had Simmons not been rehired at the company. Though they didn’t butt heads, their relationship was chilly and professional at first. A series of small gestures began to thaw the ice. When Gomez was pregnant with her first daughter she gave Simmons a couple bottles of expensive perfume that were making her nauseous. Simmons thanked her by giving her a copy of A Widow for One Year by John Irving, whom they discovered they both loved.
Late one afternoon Simmons approached Gomez’s desk and said, “I want to go to a movie.”
“Then why don’t you?” Gomez replied. “And she’s like, ‘Well, because I don’t have anyone to go with and I just don’t want to go by myself.’ She kind of gives me this look like it never occurred to her to ever go to a film by herself. And I go, ‘Look, here are the reasons why you should. You get to pick when you go. You get to pick the film. You can sit down and eat a bucket of popcorn. You can sit where you want to and there’s no conversation about it.'”
Later, when Simmons said she’d done it, Gomez was impressed: “She’d actually respected me enough to listen to what I had to say.”
Around the same time, Simmons recalls, they went to see John Irving speak at the library together, but the event was sold-out. “So I ended up driving her home,” she says. “And that was when we started to scratch the surface of getting to know each other–that this is just a human being and it doesn’t matter that we look totally different. At the time we thought we came from very different backgrounds, but it turns out we have a lot of similarities: coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, divorced mothers who were pretty strong and tried to keep the family situation together, being the oldest and feeling a very strong sense of trying to protect your younger siblings.”
The pair started going to movies together, then happy hours. They began holding “hen parties” with female coworkers every day at lunch in Simmons’s office. Once Gomez’s daughter was born, Simmons was the only person she allowed to babysit.
Simmons says she’d always been a big girl. She was a size 14 about four years ago when she decided to do something about it and began kickboxing, biking, running, and working out. Gomez had put on a lot of weight after her second daughter was born, but Simmons had a hard time getting her to join in. “She was kind of chubby and big and curvy, and she thought she was the sexiest thing on the planet,” says Simmons. “She would just laugh and say, ‘There’s no way I’m working out.'” But Gomez was into yoga. Simmons persuaded her to come to a class at her health club and then talked her into giving the treadmills a try. Then they began running and biking in races. “A few years ago it got to the point where we were going to the gym five and six days a week and sometimes twice a day,” Simmons says.
“I’m the world’s biggest slacker,” says Gomez. “I get lots and lots of ideas, but I can get three-quarters of the way through something and just decide I don’t want to do it. I can get to a point where I’m just on the edge of touching home base and totally bail because I just don’t give a shit. She entered my life at a time when I needed somebody like her to help motivate me. She’s an achiever. She can finish things and make things happen.” Over time they each lost about 50 pounds.
For her part, Gomez talked Simmons into sensory-deprivation tanks and fencing lessons. Once they took part in a “gong bath,” where they lay on the floor for an hour and a half while someone hammered an enormous metal bowl. “She’s one of the most naturally curious people I’ve ever met,” Simmons says. “She’s like a child. She had so completely opened me up to ideas of spirituality and energy. I was totally against any notion outside of what I believed in. I think one of the major things she taught me was about compassion and not judging other people. I was unbelievably conservative when we met, and that was one of the things we used to argue about. In fact, she and several of my other friends have been celebrating the fact that I’ve essentially become a Democrat.”
They cemented their friendship in February 2003 on a road trip to Memphis and New Orleans, when they hatched a scheme to start an off-the-street center to combat teen pregnancy, an issue Simmons was particularly passionate about. That idea later morphed into plans to create a spiritual center. “It was going to be a place where you could learn to restore your energy, or understand how to use your energy in a positive way,” says Gomez.
A trip to Austin this April led them in a different direction. They were having a drink at the Continental Club when they noticed their waitress had an odd mark on her belly. Simmons asked the woman if it was a tattoo. “She goes, ‘No, it’s a derby burn,'” says Gomez. “Let me tell you, I was swooning. That was the sexiest thing I’d ever heard.” The waitress went on to tell them about the Texas Rollergirls, then a year old.
Once home the pair prepared to spend the summer racing their bikes, but roller derby remained in the back of Gomez’s mind. A few months later, surfing derby sites on the Web, she decided she needed to get involved. She wrote to women in other cities, who told her there were rumors of a league starting in Chicago, but she could find no sign of it. They encouraged her to start her own. “I said, ‘I don’t really know anything about roller derby.’ They all wrote back and said, So fucking what? Just get it done.”
On August 13, 1935, nearly 20,000 people showed up at the Chicago Coliseum at 15th and Wabash to witness the world premiere of the Transcontinental Roller Derby. The event was the brainchild of a promoter named Leo Seltzer, who’d arrived from Portland two years earlier. According to Keith Coppage’s history Roller Derby to Rollerjam, the concept grew out of the walking, cycling, and dancing marathons popular with Depression-era audiences. Seltzer’s idea was to have roller skating couples race for weeks at a time around a flat oval track, covering the distance between New York and San Francisco, about 4,000 miles. The competitors never left the coliseum during the race, sleeping on cots in the infield in shifts. The event was a hit, and Seltzer took it on the road. Coppage traces one of roller derby’s formative moments to a night in Louisville when skater Joe Laurey tossed a few of his competitors over the railing. Fined $25, he threw off his skates and stalked off the track. The crowd ate it up.
Seltzer grouped the skaters into two teams of ten, each with five men and five women, and banked the track at a 45-degree angle, which allowed them to go faster and execute more complicated moves. He quickly scuttled the marathon component of the game, opting instead for timed competitions in which skaters scored points for their team by lapping their opponents.
Celebrities began to attend the games, and roller derby’s popularity grew, though because of touring and operating costs it still existed hand to mouth. Seltzer was courting writer Damon Runyon as a potential investor one night in Miami when the roughhousing took on a new dimension. Larger, slower skaters began jostling and blocking faster skaters to prevent them from breaking away from the pack. When the referees blew the whistle, the audience rose up in anger, and just to see what would happen Seltzer instructed the officials to let it slide. That night Runyon and Seltzer drew up the rules that would govern roller derby and its imitators for decades. (Technically Roller Derby is a trademark owned by the Seltzer family.)
Five skaters from each team lined up against one another on the track. First was the pivot, who set the pace of the pack, followed by two blockers and two jammers, the latter usually the fastest, most agile skaters, identified by their striped helmets. (Today there’s only one jammer per team, and there are three blockers instead of two.) When the “jam” began, the jammers attempted to break through the pack and score points by passing the opposing team’s skaters. Pivots and blockers tried to clear a way for their own jammers and prevent the opposing ones from breaking through. Jams were timed between one and two minutes over the years, though the leading jammer had the option of stopping play for strategic reasons by placing his fists on his hips. The games were broken into alternating periods, first males, then females. Certain moves were forbidden–no elbow blocks above the shoulder–and punished by a time-out in the penalty box, though when a female skater “took one in the tickets” (an elbow to the breasts) the jam usually went on. While the jammers moved the fastest and got most of the crowd’s attention, the strategy played out in the pack as skaters set up formations, regulated speed, or performed intricate moves to gain advantage.
On paper, fighting and dirty tricks remained forbidden, but both staged and genuine fisticuffs became integral to roller derby’s appeal, blurring the line between the respectable sport Seltzer envisioned and the raucous spectacle the fans loved. Training schedules were grueling and skaters had to be conditioned athletes, but as individuals attained fame they developed flamboyant identities, some villainous, some heroic. One of roller derby’s most legendary skaters, the Brooklyn Red Devils’ Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn, was feared on and off the track in the 50s as a foul-tempered, hard-drinking scrapper who trashed barrooms and could punch out male skaters. In the 60s, Ann Calvello, one of the longest-playing skaters in derby, dyed her hair green, purple, and pink decades before Dennis Rodman did. Four-time roller derby queen Joan Weston was a humble, down-to-earth heroine to crowds when she skated with the San Francisco Bay Bombers, but when she moved to the Midwest Pioneers in the early 70s she became a punching machine.
At first just two major teams were established: Chicago had the Westerners and New York, where Seltzer relocated, had the Chiefs. Seltzer had his skaters on the road constantly, and they constructed the banked Masonite track at each stop, then broke it down after each series. When they arrived in a city, one team would adopt the attitude of upstanding, honest competitors who only attacked when provoked, while the other played dirty. Later Seltzer created more teams and manipulated the rosters to keep them competitive.
For years roller derby was a shaky family empire, selling out long successful runs in some cities while tanking in others. Seltzer’s brother Oscar ran the affiliated Roller Derby Skate Company, selling skates to the masses, and the derby was broadcast every week for a few years on ABC. But in the late 50s it seemed to suffer from overexposure. The “business,” as skaters referred to it, was in danger of dying.
In 1958 Seltzer’s son Jerry took over the operation and moved it to San Francisco, where the Bay Bombers, with crowd favorites like Weston and Charlie O’Connell, soon became dominant over the regional teams. The younger Seltzer had a long successful run in the 60s, using televised prerecorded games to stir local interest before he took the show on the road. He even made a critically acclaimed documentary, Derby, in 1971, the same year Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford published the loving Five Strides on the Banked Track. The sport reached a peak in September 1972, when the largest roller derby audience ever–50,118–watched Weston’s Pioneers beat the LA Thunderbirds at Sox Park.
But the following year was a disaster. The energy crisis and a stale economy caused crowds to dwindle, and popular skaters were aging. Seltzer, who’d gone through a bad divorce, took a bath on a computerized ticketing screwup before a major series at Shea Stadium. In December he disbanded the league.
Over the years attempts were made to revive the sport, most promisingly in 1998, when TNN enlisted a bunch of competitive in-line speed skaters and some buff models and actors to star in a cheesy American Gladiators-style spectacle called Rollerjam. It lasted only two seasons.
In 2001 a handful of women in Austin started an all-female league, which skated just a few bouts before a faction split off to form the Texas Rollergirls. The breakaway organization marked the first time in history that roller derby was owned and managed by the skaters. In some ways both leagues played up the showmanship more than ever, creating team personae and nicknames and pushing a badass burlesque sexuality to a punk-rock sound track. Goaded on by goofy mascots, the crowds got whipped up by tattooed women in fishnets; penalties ranged from time in the box to spankings by audience members. The original league, now the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls, eventually purchased a banked track, but because of the prohibitive expense of building, maintaining, and transporting one, the Texas Rollergirls skate on a flat oval outlined on the floor of the Playland Skate Center in Austin. That limits the speed and some of the moves characteristic of traditional derby–but then a bout on a banked track doesn’t offer the chance of a sweaty girl flying into your lap.
Last June, Gomez showed Simmons an online documentary trailer about the Texas Rollergirls, a bruising montage of flying fists and women pinballing around the track. “Oh, hell no,” said Simmons. “I’m in sales for a living. I can’t show up to work with a black eye.” At the same time, she says, “I was tied up in knots, not wanting to disappoint Elizabeth. I was like, ‘I just don’t see this. I don’t know what she’s thinking. It doesn’t make any sense to me, and I don’t understand why you’d want to do something like this.'”
In July, Gomez went to a Mad Rollin’ Dolls recruitment party in Madison and came back even more determined to start a league in Chicago. One afternoon, Simmons recalls, they were running home from work and Gomez pressed her again. “She said, ‘Look, I’m really serious about this. I really want to start this league, and I cannot do it without you.’ So I said all right, and my business sense kicked in: ‘If you want to do this the first thing we gotta do is get the girls.'”
They found about a dozen women by hanging flyers around the north side and going to bars. “It was the most fun time,” says Simmons, “because every time we went somewhere it was ‘What about her? What about her?’ It gave you carte blanche to go up and talk to anybody at any time.” The recruits were surprisingly diverse. Anita Mechler, a 23-year-old aspiring LGBT advocate, came across a flyer outside the Gold Star and called Gomez at 2:30 in the morning. Barbara Dolan, a 41-year-old Oak Park mother of two, is an old friend of Simmons’s. The league’s youngest member is 22-year-old Sara Stevens, a musician who works at the Old Town School of Folk Music. She was corresponding with roller derby team captains in other cities herself when they told her about Gomez and Simmons. The oldest is Jill Nelson, a 43-year-old personal trainer who tore down a flyer while running in Wicker Park. Thirtysomething Candy Amato, who became Angel Dustt, used to babysit 25-year-old Lara Shaw, who became Val Capone.
They set up an online message board and began arranging carpools to roller rinks and talking about which skates to buy–the new derby leagues skate on old-school four-wheeled speed skates, or quads, not in-lines. Nelson started a Sunday-morning boot camp that captured long stares from Wicker Park dog walkers and the homeless. The girls sweated through calisthenics and sprints tailored to build endurance and strengthen legs, hips, and lower backs. They made up T-shirts with their numbers and derby names–Ivana Krushya, Ida Ho, Eva Destruction, Miss Fits, Violet Nature.
In mid-September they held a recruitment party at the Cork Lounge. More than 100 women packed into the back room while a row of regulars sat at the bar ignoring the Cubs game. “The party was at 7 and we had girls showing up at 6:15,” Simmons says. “We had to do the presentation twice because there were so many people.” The next week around 40 women showed up at the Martin Luther King rink on the south side for the Windy City Rollers’ first official open skate. Women who hadn’t been on skates in years glided around the rink, languidly weaving among the neighborhood skaters. Others jerked and struggled on their clunky rental quads. Later that month Simmons began talking to a lawyer about insurance and incorporation, and the women designed a logo: a snarling skull with long eyelashes, set against crossbones that terminate in skate wheels.
Now that the Rainbo Roller Rink has been demolished to make way for condos, MLK is one of only two operating roller rinks in the city. And between the open skates, gospel skate, birthday parties, and lessons already scheduled, it couldn’t be rented for practices. The women found two rinks in the suburbs that could squeeze them in late Tuesday and Thursday nights: the Orbit Skate Center in Palatine and the Lombard Roller Rink, owned by Bob Heinrich, a jammer on the Chicago Westerners in 1959, the team’s only championship season.
Heinrich, who wears a wispy gray chinstrap beard and is a bit of a crusty old salt, was a competitive speed skater when he tried out for the team. “I got aggravated because today I’m on the Westerners, tomorrow I’m on the Bombers because somebody didn’t show up from their team,” he says. One day at practice an angry female teammate skated across the infield and plowed into him at the highest point on the banked track. He flew over the railing and landed in a pile of chairs. The coach sent the woman home, but Heinrich, who’d injured his back, decided he’d had enough and quit the team.
Heinrich coached speed skating teams after his derby days, but when in-lines became popular in the late 80s and people stopped skating on quads, he gave it up. At early WCR practices he sometimes stood at the rink wall quietly muttering.
“I don’t mind helping them,” says Heinrich, who was coached by Charlie O’Connell in his day. “I wouldn’t mind doing it. But that’s up to them.” Whenever he could catch Gomez or Simmons’s ear he was full of advice, pointing out that the skaters should not be coasting through the corners and gaining speed in the straightaways, but the other way around. Sometimes he grumbled that the women were acting too silly and not taking their sport seriously enough.
“I hear some of the things that he’s saying and I agree with some of them,” says Simmons. But “I think we know the girls better than he does. And there’s something fundamentally different about the way roller derby is today than it was back then.”
Some things don’t change. Many of the Rollers began taking their lumps. Several developed “stigmata” on their inner ankles, blisters that rose, broke, and cratered and never had time to heal. The first time Mina Streak put on skates at MLK a little boy took out her legs. “Now I have this giant knob on my knee and can’t feel it,” she says. Varla Vendetta was trying to skate backward when she landed on her tailbone and couldn’t bend for days. Angel Dustt tripped over Athena DeCrime and slammed her left knee to the wood. Now it locks when she straightens it, but after three X-rays her doctor can’t figure out just how it’s damaged. Voodoo Dahl strafed the carpeted wall during roller tag and burned a three-inch-wide strip across her chest. After practice one night, J’illegal and Miss Fits crouched down and faced off for a game of chicken. “We gave each other the death eyes,” says J’illegal. “We power charged and just went bam!” Neither could skate for days. J’illegal had to see a naprapath to get her back realigned, and Miss Fits’s right collarbone now sticks out farther than her left.
Soon Simmons and Gomez closed the roster, settling on the 60 women who’d participated steadily, planning eventually to divide into four teams. Last month the league found a coach in 46-year-old “Black-Eyed” Susan Sabin. Originally from Florida, Sabin grew up roller skating and watching roller derby in the 70s. When the Raquel Welch vehicle Kansas City Bomber was released in 1972, she dreamed of skating on a banked track. “I thought, I could be her–and she can’t even skate.” In 1998 she finally got her chance when Rollerjam opened its training school in Orlando. Some of the best in-line skaters in the country trained there, and Sabin joined in every chance she got. But she couldn’t afford to quit her job, and as the show progressed its creators began focusing on contrived story lines featuring actors who couldn’t skate well.
Two years ago Sabin moved to Chicago, opened a skating school, and joined the Rainbo speed skating team, which began training at the Orbit in Palatine when the Rainbo was torn down. That’s where she heard about the new roller derby league.
She coached her first Windy City Rollers practice in October. “I was thinking they’d all be really wild and crazy, but they’re all very conscientious and open-minded to learn,” she says. “I see some great skaters emerging. Some of them have a real derby style already–they’re getting low, they’ve got the loose body style, and they’re strong and they look tough.”
“She’s like an elder statesman,” says Simmons. “The girls will look up to her.” Sabin began putting the women through endurance and strength drills, chiefly in pace lines–extended trains of skaters that skirt the perimeter for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. They chased each other in roller tag, slalomed between cones, and practiced falling, sliding, and getting up without placing their hands on the track, to avoid broken wrists and smashed fingers. Sabin consulted with Heinrich, who applied his expertise with quads to the women’s footgear, making adjustments with his skate key. One night she had him put an Aretha Franklin CD on the sound system and got the women dancing to loosen them up.
“I’m determined to make these girls great skaters,” she says. “They’re changing so fast.”
Three months ago Simmons left her husband and moved into a basement apartment. “Roller derby made me realize I have no time for love,” she says. “It’s all derby.” She’s only partly joking. In the past few months a number of women have experienced strains in their relationships. Two have broken up with their boyfriends. “It’s that age-old thing,” Simmons says. “Men are attracted to it because it’s such a sexy thing to be, but then after the initial ‘Oh my God, you’re so hot, you’re a derby girl’ it’s ‘Can you talk about something else for five minutes?’ It’s like they want you to be independent, but not too independent. They want you to be sexy, but not too sexy.”
Gomez is separating from her husband as well, and though she says it has nothing to do with roller derby, she agrees that some men feel threatened by it. “People who have any kind of foresight know that this is going to be big,” she says. “And a lot of people are going to know who we are and what we do, and with that comes a lot of other things, including attention from other boys. We are trying to sell a great game, but we’re very proud of our sex appeal, and that includes flirting and trying to charm other people. I would assume that as the boyfriend of a roller derby girl, that’s probably really hard to deal with.”
Simmons says people might be surprised to learn that she and Gomez each tried to convince the other to make her marriage work. She says many people–from friends to strangers they meet in bars–assume they’re lovers. “Quite frankly, I’m flattered,” she says. “That’s just fine. It’s funny to me. But also in a sad way I think that people want to make it like a dirty, ugly thing, when if really we were it would only be the most powerful, enviable relationship on the planet.”
Besides scaring boys, roller derby changes a woman, says Gomez. “I drink a lot more,” says Tequila Mockingbird.
Some of the women view it as destiny. “Just from talking to different girls I know that so many people were at this turning point in their life when derby came around,” says Anita Applebomb. “I think we were looking for something like this but didn’t exactly know what it was. With roller derby something just clicked.”
“I’ve never really had girlfriends,” says Gomez. “I don’t really like girls for the most part. I think girls, especially under the age of 24, tend to be very whiny. But when I met the girls in the roller derby I met women who were just proud to be women.”
The Windy City Rollers have come a long way since June. A second tier of leadership has developed, with different women heading various committees like rules and regulations, training, merchandising, charities, and event planning. There’s a “bout scout” committee that’s looking for a permanent home–the suburban rinks are too far out and don’t serve alcohol. The women make public appearances at bars, and Gomez has met with a national beer company to discuss sponsorship.
The Rollers talk dreamily about bouting at the Rosemont Horizon or Wrigley Field. Their ultimate goal is to own a building that can serve as a community center between practices and games. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as going too big with it,” says Simmons. “We don’t have a place to bout yet, but that is so not a concern to me because I feel like we could walk into the Logan Square Auditorium and sell it out without even trying. The five-year plan is to do something beyond roller derby. Elizabeth and I have a very acute vision of our place in community and society, and that is a lot more than just roller derby.”
But the logistical difficulties of maintaining a thriving roller derby league are immense, even at the local level. For all the sisterly love among the Windy City Rollers, squabbles percolate now and then, and a rival league is rumored to be starting. One of the women has ovarian cancer (part of the proceeds from this weekend’s Jingle Brawl go to her). Gomez says her friendship with Simmons is now based entirely on roller derby, and she misses their quiet time together.
The women can vent their frustrations on the track this spring, when they hope to start bouting. Gomez and Simmons laugh at the possibility of ending up on opposite teams, even trading blows if things get heated. “I think I would win because she’s too nice,” says Gomez.
Simmons agrees. “I would let her win.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni, Frank Deford, George Skadding/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images, J.A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images, Bettmann/Corbis.