Local women enjoy competition and camaraderie of Free State Roller Derby
It’s Friday night in late August at the Michael & Son Sportsplex in Rockville, and roller derby coach Sandi Burtseva is giving a quick pep talk to five female skaters before they head into a scrimmage with another team.
“This jam is going to be so chill! Stay together,” says the 35-year-old nicknamed “Slaughter Lily.” Burtseva coaches in the Free State Roller Derby, a women’s flat track league in Montgomery County that she helped establish 10 years ago. A Silver Spring resident who has worked as an editor and publisher, she had never skated before she was inspired to help organize the league after seeing Whip It, a 2009 roller derby movie.
“When we started out, there were four of us, and only one had played roller derby,” says Burtseva, who approached other area leagues for coaching instruction. Over the years, the Free State Roller Derby’s big-tent approach has appealed to skaters of all backgrounds and sexual orientations. Now there are nearly 70 skaters with varying levels of experience who may compete on two Free State teams—the Black-Eyed Suzies and the Rock Villains—and skate against other leagues.
Free State skaters have been as young as 18, with the oldest in her 50s; some are single, others are married with kids. All skaters must learn the basics through the “Fresh Meat” program and pass a physical skills test—including the ability to complete at least 27 laps around a track in five minutes—and a written exam on the rules before they can compete on a team.
“The sport is really taking off,” Burtseva says. “I like to think we have created a particularly welcoming, diverse supportive community.”
While roller derby is a contact sport, skaters say it’s not the rough-and-tumble spectacle it used to be. Now there is more emphasis on strategy, and the league markets the games, known as bouts, as family-friendly events. Still, skaters do get hurt, suffering concussions, broken bones and other injuries, though the women wear four-wheeled roller skates built for stability, helmets, mouth guards, wrist guards and pads on their knees and elbows. Despite the injuries, the women say they are drawn to the intensity of the competition and a sense of connection.
“I just love the spirit of it—a bunch of strong women playing a friendly, fun sport,” says Maria “Dirty Marteeny” Watson, 38, of North Potomac, who hadn’t skated before joining the Free State league eight years ago. Her daughter, Kalani VanMeter, a recent graduate of Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, played in a local junior league as “Rainbow Bash.” When she turned 18 in January and was old enough to compete in the adult league, she changed her derby name to “Edgar Allan Hoe”.
During roller derby bouts, five members from each team face off in two 30-minute periods that consist of multiple “jams.” Each jam, which can last up to two minutes, offers an opportunity for the designated “jammer” of each group to score points. The jammer attempts to pass opposing team members as many times as possible by sprinting around the track. She can score a point each time her hips pass those of an opposing blocker. Officials can bench players for penalties, such as creating a multiplayer block by linking with a teammate. The league, which practices twice a week, holds eight to 10 bouts annually. Free State is one of seven leagues from Maryland affiliated with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.
At 4-feet-9½-inches tall, Laura Villarreal, 29, says being short provided an advantage as a field hockey player at Rockville High School, as it does now as a roller derby skater. “I try to be a good blocker and get as low as I can to get in people’s way and annoy them,” she says.
Villarreal, who works in information technology, describes herself as shy and says co-workers were shocked to learn that she participates in roller derby. “Because I’m small and I’m nice, they can’t imagine me hitting anybody,” says Villarreal, who has suffered two concussions while competing. “I’m the person who hits you and says, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
The sport’s physical intensity appeals to Christina Kay, who also plays ice hockey and was an amateur boxer. “My favorite ways of blocking people in roller derby are completely illegal in hockey,” says Kay, a 31-year-old solar physicist from Silver Spring.
“It’s not a question of if you’ll get injured. It’s a question of when,” adds Alexandra “Nikki Trikki Savi” Thirumalai, 30, of Silver Spring, who has broken her arm and injured one of her shoulders several times during the three years she’s been playing. She sticks with the sport because of the community; teammates have driven her home from the hospital and provided meals when she was injured.
The teams wrap up the scrimmage that Friday night by performing a traditional bonding ritual of “going into the volcano.” Skaters form a circle and roll into the center of the track for a huddle and call-and-response cheer. “Who are we?” “Free State!” “How do we keep it?” “Real!”