March 3, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Whistles blow, and ten women stop moving on a flat derby track in a basement rink in Omaha. A player grits her teeth and stays seated while everyone else clears away. Someone runs for an ice pack. “She says she heard it crack,” a teammate says. “We need the wheelchair,” another woman says.

Injuries are inevitable in roller derby. Health insurance is required if you’re going to play in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. That’s on top of monthly dues, paying for uniforms, and buying gear. Then there are two- to three-hour practices three to four times a week. Plus a workout regimen to follow. It’s definitely a pay-to-play sport.

Yet the Omaha Rollergirls’ roster has more than 50 members. Two women’s teams. A junior team. A recreational team. Even a men’s team (they’re called the Big O Roller Bros, by the way).

“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” says Axl Rogue, aka Katy Flores. She was a gymnast and a cheerleader in a previous life but found ORG two years ago and hasn’t looked back. She’s a blocker now, as well as a team captain for the All Stars team, the highest caliber team in the ORG league.

The ORG itself is 8 years old, a product of the roller derby revival that started in the early ’00s. The professional leagues with banked tracks and owners in suits are relics of the ’70s, and today’s grassroots, skater-managed teams wouldn’t have it any other way. “We vote, we decide what we want to do,” says Daisy Mayhem/Jessica Palimenio. She’s an All Stars blocker as well as the team’s event director. “It’s ours.”

There are as many reasons why women join roller derby as there are women in the league. “We have doctors, we have waitresses, we have people in their 20s, we have people in their 40s,” says Palimenio. “Yes, there’s a level of toughness and athleticism, but there’s sort of a place for everyone.”

For example, Esther Knopes-Morris is Rady Ruck, a jammer on the All Stars team. She moved from San Diego to Omaha a few years ago with her husband and infant son. “It was a big transition,” she says. “Once I started doing this, this was mine.” Though justifying the time commitment was a challenge at first, Knopes-Morris says her family has accepted that roller derby is not going away. In fact, she’s the player on the cover of this issue of The Encounter.

“It built my confidence back, my self-esteem,” she says. “My character. You’re a completely different person on the track. Off track, I’m more quiet and shy. Here, I’m hanging out with friends, and it’s just more comfortable.”

“You get a sisterhood,” Flores agrees. “If I have a really crappy day, I can come here, knock down my friend, and she’s going to tell me ‘good hit.’”

Sisterly bonds aside, roller derby is one of the few physical contact sports available to women in an organized association. The whole point of the game is to push your jammer through the pack so she can rack up points by lapping other skaters. Of course, your team is trying to block the other team’s jammer. And that team is trying to block your jammer. Bruises happen.

The physicality of the sport has led to a bit of a reputation for street toughness, but Flores says the ORG decided last year to put aside the ripped fishnets and heavy face paint in favor of a more uniform look. “We’re in black from head to toe, and we just wanted to be more professional.”

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Gear for a properly suited-up skater includes, at minimum, knee pads, gaskets, elbow pads, wrist guards, a helmet, and a mouth guard. Holmes Sweet Holmes (when she’s in her role as ORG marketing director, you can call her Jacie Daeges) states that getting started with gear cost her about $100 a couple years ago. That’s in addition to a $200 pair of skates for a beginner. “A custom pair of leather skates could cost $500 or more,” says the All Stars blocker.

The drive for a more serious level of play stemmed from an organizational change in WFTDA last year. Palimenio explains that, instead of playing regionally, leagues now play in divisions. Division 1 includes the top 40 ranked leagues internationally. The ORG is in Division 2, which is for teams 41-60, ranked at 57. Their chief rival in years past, Lincoln’s No Coast Derby Girls, is in Division 1.

Leveling up isn’t impossible, says Knopes-Morris, but it’s going to take a lot of work to get there. “Our endurance is better,”
she says. “Our actual drills have gotten more intense. It used to be really basic, and then last year we had a big meeting. What could we do to move our league forward? What were our strengths, what’s our endurance level? Like, we would play a really strong first half and then fall apart.” She’s noticing with pride that a lot of ORG’s players are doing extra workouts outside of training. It also helps that, so far, the 2014 season hints at improved skater retention. “We have to keep people in order to keep building,” Knopes-Morris says. “Otherwise we’re just trading in new people and not accelerating.”

Flores commends Palimenio for her care in lining up this season with matches against teams that will challenge the ORG but still move them forward. Including tournaments, the All Stars team could play between 11 and 14 games. The ORG’s home season, played at Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, will run through June and tournaments through August.

For those who’ve never been to a derby match, never fear. Connecting to the community is pretty important for the ORG, as Palimenio points out, so the league makes an effort to produce events that are unintimidating and family friendly. “Of our audience,” she says, “we usually have 50 percent who are coming for the first time.” Volunteer announcers keep match analysis clear and fun, and inactive players walk through the stands with Talk Derby to Me signs to help any guest who’s a little unsure about what’s going on down on the track.

The ORG season began Feb. 1. For a complete schedule, check out omaharollergirls.org.