Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Leader sportswriter

They are the new voice of girl power, one part titillating and one part terrifying.

They are thrill seekers with silly nicknames and fishnet stockings.

And at the end of the day, they are wives, mothers, girlfriends and professionals just like everyone else.

They are roller derby girls.

Girls Rollin’ in the South, or GRITS, is the Cabot/Jacksonville version of a sport with roots in the pre-World War II era. Skateworld on Loop Road was the site of the league’s maiden event Saturday, a green-black intramural scrimmage ominously named “Holiday Havoc.”

The rapidly increasing interest in roller derby was evident by the large crowd. People squeezed into the sections of folding chairs near the turns in the makeshift track — an area labeled “suicide seating” — to the barrier outside the rink area.

From their vantage point they watched veteran team captain Bailey Fitzpatrick, who skates as “Daisy Fever” lead her black squad to a victory fueled by a solid performance from jammer “Jaguar Jersey.”

Jersey, whose given name is Desirae Boldin, cleared the pack several times to score the most points by any jammer and she led in most of the scrimmages in which she participated.

Coach Nick Fitzpatrick, Bailey’s husband who goes by “Coach Fever,” worked primarily with the less aggressive green squad while his wife gave most of the instructions to the black team during timeouts.

Though low budget, the operation was professionally presented, with an announcer and a scoreboard projected against the south wall. Members of the officiating crew, led by “Senorita Slammer” — otherwise known as Lisa Dixon — kept a keen eye on the action and occasionally served as cheerleaders as they stirred up the crowd between jams.

The difference in skill levels was evident early, and tumbles were frequent in the first few jams. But the action picked up in later scrimmages as onlookers cheered for their favorite player.

There were no significant injuries outside the usual scrapes, rashes and cherries sustained in falls to the wood surface, and some skaters were more affected than others.

Roller derby’s growth is reflected in the local area.

The Roller Derby Worldwide Website Registry of amateur teams list three other leagues in Arkansas, along with GRITS, and 484 nationwide. That’s not to mention the leagues and teams that seem to form almost weekly.

Roller derby, once presented as a scripted form of pro wrestling on skates, lurked on the outskirts of the sports world and popular culture for over half a century but has found a glittery new voice in its girls-doing-it-for-themselves mentality. It is a sport by females, for females, but the guys can watch if they want to.

The spectator appeal is easy enough to grasp.

With 10 girls all on eight small wheels heading into sharp turns at high speed less than a foot apart, contact is inevitable. A crafty jammer can also be thrilling to watch as she ducks and maneuvers through blockers intent on knocking her down.

The do-it-yourself ideology was evident as Nick Fitzpatrick was taping down the nylon cord that served as the track’s out-of-bounds lines minutes before the scrimmage.

Nick and Bailey Fitzpatrick, “Coach Fever” and “Daisy Fever,” have been at the forefront of roller derby movement in central Arkansas since 2005. Bailey began skating for a league in Little Rock while Nick was recruited as an official.

The league dissolved less than a year later, leading the Fitzpatricks to bring the movement up the interstate. Practices are at Cabot while competition is in Jacksonville.

“One day, somebody said ‘Hey, let’s do this in Cabot,’ so here we are,” Nick Fitzpatrick said. “Our neighboring Jacksonville rink is bigger, so we have to do our sanctioned and official bouts here.”

With his black suit and neon green tie, Fitzpatrick certainly looked the part of a coach. A heating and air technician by day, he takes his coaching seriously.

“What I like to do is get a good idea of what the other team is going to look like,” Fitzpatrick said. “Once I’ve got that figured out, I know exactly how I’m going to run my jammers. Then I will set up different formations for my blockers depending on the players on the floor.”

The Fitzpatricks’ chosen Fever moniker is tame compared to some of the other handles. “Shawanna Tattletale” and “Harley Hardtail” are among the printable nicknames, as off-color slang and references to body parts seem quite popular.

Brynn Comeau went with “Gi Gi Genocide” for her derby alter ego. Comeau was recruited by a friend at work, and has been in the sport for a couple of months.

She likes being a part of something not everyone gets, and said she loves to see people’s reactions when she tells them she is into roller derby.

“Basically, you want something that will kind of intimidate the other players, but something that’s fun and cute,” Comeau said of her Gi Gi Genocide alter ego. “So that’s where I got mine.”

Officially injured

Christy Hendricks wore a wistful look as jammers Sassie Longlegz and Jaguar Jersey blazed by her scorer’s table in the southwest corner of the Skateworld rink. Hendricks is GRITS president and was one of three girls who began weekly practices one year ago.

But in an early March practice, Hendricks took a fall and broke her leg in 11 different places, requiring plates to be inserted on her tibia and fibula.

While the others practice and fine tune their skills as the January start of regular play approaches, Hendricks handles vital but less glamorous duties like the paperwork required for the league’s non profit status.

Hendricks, a newspaper art editor and single mother, has taken on the business and legal end of the operation and hopes GRITS will grow to the point of having multiple teams. It remains to be seen if her alter ego, “Wicked Pagemaster,” will make it back onto the rink.

“I was okay until they got me up, and my toe touched the floor,” Hendricks said of her injury. “That’s when I really felt the pain. It hurt. That’s probably one of the worst pains I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Hendricks said she does not mind serving as an example when it comes to safety, especially for the sake of younger skaters. Her brief hesitation while practicing baseball slides that day in March caused the fall that left Hendricks immobile for three weeks and unable to go to her newspaper office for two months.

“It’s hard to watch them, especially in that atmosphere,” Hendricks said.

“And to know because I hesitated just a little bit, that I can’t be out there. I don’t watch a lot of sports, but I’ve always liked to participate in sports. Being involved, but not being able to actually play, that’s really hard to watch.”

Injured skaters are still able to contribute. Dixon, or “Senorita Smasher,” is also recovering from an injury and stays involved as an official. She has lived in the Cabot area for almost 20 years and took her daughter to the skating regularly when she caught wind of roller derby.

“Honestly, it’s a great workout,” Dixon said. “I love these ladies — they are all professionals, from diverse backgrounds. They are very colorful women. We get out there and let our mom coats fly and just have fun at being women who are strong and empowered.”

Tough alter ego

Toni Wofford does not get pushed around at work anymore.

“D.D. Knockersdown” won’t allow it.

Knockersdown is Wofford’s roller derby name and a new part of her self-image. By her account Wofford was a placid doormat in her job at a local center for abused women, but through roller derby she has found her voice, her inner D.D.

Wofford became involved when co-worker Rebecca “Sassie Longlegz” Silver encouraged her to give roller derby a try.

“I was too nice, and I got walked over,” Wofford said. “And she said ‘I think you should come out here and do this.’ And ever since the first practice, I haven’t looked back. I stick up for myself more — I feel more confident. I can stick up to people who have tried to walk all over me.

“If I have an opinion, I’m not afraid to voice it now. I take a little bit of D.D. Knockerzdown out of here and apply it to the rest of my life.”

It took some time for Wofford to adjust to the old-school quad skates after growing up with more modern roller blades, but she can sense improvement with every practice.

Silver, a former basketball and track star at McPherson College in Kansas, wasn’t looking for empowerment, just a good calorie burner.

“I’ve been looking for someone to hold me accountable for working out,” Silver said. “I needed a weight loss program. This is perfect. It’s all girls, twice a week. I hate running, but I love skating.”

Silver, taller than your typical jammer at 5-10 — 6-3 with skates — said there is sometimes a moment of panic before skating up to the pack. But the rush is similar to what she felt on the basketball court.

“I didn’t know what roller derby was for the first three practices — no idea,” Silver said. “I’m still learning the rules. I’m relatively new, but not for this team, I guess.”

Women seem to gravitate to roller derby primarily because it is not age or lifestyle specific. Women from 18 to their mid 40s participate, and their day jobs range from doctors and computer engineers to teachers and housewives.

The influx of such women from all walks of life has helped remove the stigma of roller derby’s checkered past, Nick Fitzpatrick said.

“Maybe in the minds of older people who remember those times,” Fitzpatrick said.

“It’s really half underground and half mainstream now — the wrestling and the fake part has gone away from it almost completely. You would be hard pressed to find any league that still has a gimmick as far as fake fights and fake moves.

“These five girls, they hit the floor against the opposing five, and it’s all or nothing.”