The scene: A basketball court in Papakolea.
The players: Twenty women in knee and elbow pads, wrist and mouth guards and helmets, with nicknames like “Lieutenant Slamher” and “Killa Cali.”
A woman with “Midnight Cowgrrl” emblazoned across her helmet and shirt yells out instructions for the day’s practice. The girls whoosh by as they warm up, skating fast in a tight, single-file line with one girl weaving back and forth through her teammates. They move on to jumping over small cones; the cones represent fallen opponents.
By day, they are students, teachers, lawyers, scientists and members of the military. But don’t let the pastel tank tops and wide smiles fool you. Once they strap on their skates, they become a serious, tight-knit group of jammers and blockers in the Pacific Roller Derby (PRD) league.
Founded in 2008, PRD is a league consisting of two home teams – the Leahi Diamond Dolls and the South Shore Sirens. Skaters are drawn from both teams to play for the all-star travel teams, the Hulagans and the Bizz-nass.
Roller derby is becoming a hugely popular sport. According to the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) website, there are currently 301 member leagues and 92 apprentice leagues nationwide.
WCC’s Kehau Iwashita, a Ka Piko assistant, is a former skater and now a roller derby referee. You may have seen Kehau around campus, usually with a streak of brightly dyed hair.
Kehau says she decided to referee after one too many injuries. “Now I don’t do any contact. It’s so much fun to skate. I just want to skate,” she says.
As for her injuries, she says she has sprained her ankle and sustained many small fractures that left bone chips all over her body. “I have a chip here…and here. I have chips all over,” she says pointing to her elbows and hands.
Kehau put me in contact with Quinn Fisher, PRD’s media chair, so I could meet her and the team.
I arrive early at the Papakolea Community Center, so I chat with Dala McNew, aka “Lieutenant Slamher.” She’s a former Army Reserve lieutenant (now a captain) who led her own command in Afghanistan. She has played roller derby for over 10 years, previously with the No Coast Derby Girls, a Division 1 ranked team in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Among the common misconceptions about the sport is that it’s favored by cynical, hard-as-nails, Amazonian-like women on a banked track. These women may not fit the stereotype. But it still takes a certain toughness to compete — one that may not surface in a day job.
Lt. Slamher tells me that derby is an alternate identity. “I love it because normally during the day, I’m pretty soft-spoken,” says McNew. “But
during bouts, you have this alter-ego. It’s like a different person that comes out.”
Quinn arrives shortly after and we talk over the sound of Velcro as the girls gear up.
One thing I notice when I ask for their names, they all give me their derby name first.
Quinn’s derby name is “Quinn-Tin Tear-Into-You”— a take on Quentin Tarantino, the famous movie director of the films “Reservoir Dogs” and “Kill Bill.”
She’s been with PRD since last April and joined after seeing the girls at a flyer event. “I saw the girls and I thought it looked fun. So I asked them, ‘Can I join? Will you teach me?’ Then I just fell in love with it, instantly. They were so supportive as they were teaching. It really does become like a family.”
Quinn skates out to warm up, so I chat with different girls as they arrive.
Kelly Thune, known as “Calamity” (whom I remembered reading about in an article by Tiffany Hill of Honolulu Magazine called “I Am a Roller Derby Girl”) tells me this might be her last season skating because of an ankle injury.
She says she’s dubbed the “Safety Queen” by teammates and opens her backpack to show me a large first aid kit and supplies. She’s upset the padding for the metal volleyball poles (dubbed the “murder poles”) hasn’t arrived yet.
The girls skate on traditional quad skates, and to protect them against the wear and tear of outdoor skating, they wrap layers of duct tape over the toes, usually in bright colors or patterns to match their gear and/or personalities.
Some helmets are decorated with stickers or Sharpee to include things such as their “derby names” or numbers.
The girls are as diverse as the rainbow of colors throughout their gear. Some girls have tattoos, one has florescent yellow hair, one girl measures about 5 feet tall, another stands at over 6 feet.
Roller derby is played with two teams which have a roster of about 14 to 20 girls. Games, or bouts, are an hour long and consist of two-minute jams where girls are cycled in to play. Each jam’s lineup consists of five girls from each team—three blockers, one “pivot” blocker and one jammer. The pivot and the jammer wear helmet covers (called “panties” by the girls.) The jammer wears a star, the pivot blocker, a stripe.
Points are scored by the jammer passing as many of the opposing team’s blockers as possible.
It’s a source of pride and accomplishment to be a roller derby girl. The sport is demanding, not only physically, but also in terms of time. The girls practice three days a week, and that’s only after completing the rigorous training and assessment programs.
There’s the two month-long “Fresh Meat” training program, which teaches the basics of skating. No previous experience is required; it teaches how to stop on skates, how to do crossovers, and how to fall properly. After “Fresh Meat,” the girls go on to the assessments.
The “white star” assessment teaches the rules of derby. After passing the white star, girls move on to “orange star” (derby middle school) to learn hits and the strategy of the game.
After completing the “orange star,” girls are drafted onto one of the two home teams.
One last assessment, the “green star,” teaches advanced skills. Completing “green star” offers a chance at making it onto PRD’s travel teams. The B-team, called the Bizz-nass, plays teams on other islands. The all-star travel team, the Hulagans, plays teams on the mainland for the WFTDA ranking.
Roller derby isn’t limited to practices and bouts—there are even training camps—such as Camp Awesome—a 3-day derby “boot camp” with seasoned instructors.
There’s the annual SK808 Tournament, which is a mixed-skill level competition that hosts local leagues, as well as players from the mainland and around the world.
Since PRD is non-profit and self-sustaining, members participate in community and fundraising events to help promote the sport and raise money for equipment and travel costs.
Kehau says, “I wish we could get more people to sponsor PRD because it would open up and lead to better opportunities.”
The next game is on Feb. 28 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Hideaway Club at 1 Coral Sea Road in Kapolei. It will be a themed scrimmage of “WWE vs. American Gladiators” to coincide with UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) 184 that the Hideaway Club will air after the game.
By Jessica Crawford, Ka ‘Ohana Staff Reporter