By VANESSA GARCIA
Sun staff writer
5:54 pm, March 17, 2008
You remember your first big fall – the first bottom-slamming, hip-jolting, bruise-kindling spill – that reminds you, without a smidgen of subtlety, that you haven’t been on roller skates in more than a decade.
Mentally, the first tumble means everything.
After it, you know for sure: either you’re made for roller derby or you’re not.
At first glance, nothing about Robin Morris, a 32-year-old computer software technician, jumps out as threatening or rebellious. No piercings. No visible tattoos. No streaks of magenta dye streamed through her blonde hair. In a miniskirt and tube socks, this local mom and active churchgoer looks exactly like the kind of person you would want to run into in a dark alley.
Then she hit the rink on a pair of pitch black roller skates.
Her face changed, eyes focused, quadriceps flexed, and as she tore through each turn, her double life as a “derby girl” suddenly seemed a lot less farfetched.
For about six hours each week, Morris exchanges the hard working momma role she plays every other waking moment for life as Patsy Clothesline, a thrill-seeking roller derby queen.
All 22 members of the Gainesville Roller Rebels, the city’s first female roller derby league, adopt alter egos upon joining.
Morris based her derby persona off of her father’s love for singer Patsy Cline and her knack for sewing clothes. Some opt for more scandalous egos that showcase the wild side derby helps foster. There’s Lil’ Mamma Jamma, aka Carly Sinigoi, a waitress at Big Lou’s Pizzeria; Black out Brady, aka Emma Brady, an elementary school teacher; Evey Slammond, a University of Florida law student and former figure skater; Diamonds & Rust, aka Jennifer Cowan, a stay-at-home mother of two and, of coarse, Miss Rebel, aka Catherine Seemann, the 30-year-old graphic design student at Santa Fe Community College who started it all.
Seemann founded the Gainesville league in November 2007. Thanks to the magic of Myspace, a thorough flyer sweep of downtown Gainesville and a handful of meet and greets, the league’s roster filled fast.
As the newest team in the state (Tampa and Jacksonville boast the most established leagues), the Rebels still have a lot to prove, Seemann said.
At three-hour practices on Wednesdays and Sundays, team members don full derby gear: helmet, mouth guard, elbow pads, wrist guards, knee pads, butt pads and roller skates. Miniskirts, fishnet tights and pigtails are optional but popular.
For three hours, the girls run drills to boost endurance and learn the sport’s lengthy list of rules.
Modern roller derby, the latest grassroots revival of the game first made popular in the 1930s, stands as proud combination of the many faces the sport has worn over the decades.
It blends the struggle for female independence and equality that initially attracted women during the Rosie the Riveter era with the spectator-worth violence and entertainment that tuned people in during its short-lived comebacks in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, said one of the newest Rebels, Amy Funderburk, a 29-year-old creative writer who joined in mid-February.
“Women are usually given a choice: you can be tough or you can be feminine. Rarely can you be both,” Funderburk said. “Here, girls can express themselves whatever way they want.”
According to “Hell on Wheels”, a popular roller derby documentary released in March of 2007, the latest reincarnation of the sport began in 2001 when a group of “rowdy” Texan women formed the Lonestar Rollergirls. Early media attention spread the idea cross-country, but most of the sport’s quick growth is attributed to social network sites like Myspace and Craig’s List.
A video linked to the Rebel’s Myspace profile, www.myspace.com/GainesvilleRollerRebels, offers a clear description of battle rules.
The game starts with a pack of eight skaters, four from each team. A few seconds after the pack takes off counterclockwise around the rink one “jammer” from each team follows. The jammer’s goal is to catch up with the pack, lap it and begin scoring points by passing through the pack again. A jammer earns a point for every player she passes – a feat that’s made as difficult as possible by the opposing team’s skaters who use their hips and shoulders to block and knock them out of the way. All of this is done at full speed.
“We play the offense as well as the defense at the same time,” said Jordan Miernik, vice president of the league. “If anyone doubts my being an athlete, I challenge them to the rink. You outskate me, you get faster than me and then you try taking me out. When someone can do that, they won’t question how much training we do.”
According to official game rules, outlined by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, skaters are assigned penalties for any form of “gross misconduct.” This includes using flailing elbows, forearms or hands to block opponents and aiming for anything above the shoulder, on the back of the torso or below the knee. Instead, skaters are encouraged to target opponents’ arms, hips, chests and thighs with shoulder and hip jabs.
“It’s rugby on wheels,” Seemann explained. “But no ball, just bodies.”
Despite weekly injuries – jammed shoulders, sore bottoms, wheel-shaped bruises and forearms full of “rink rash” – most of the Rebels cling to the sport as a form of release and female bonding.
“There’s something about meeting another girl while you’re on skates, shaking her hand and thinking, we’re both really doing this,” said Sinigoi. “You bond quick. You have to because you rely on each other.”
The mismatch pack invites women of all sizes, personality types, athletic abilities and backgrounds to lace up and give derby a chance.
Tall or short, full-figured or size 2, life-long athlete or coach potato looking for a change – virtually every type is represented on the rink.
The Rebels only ask for commitment and strong will.
“It’s empowering to be the one person in the room who says, ‘I pour sweat, shove people and fall on purpose at least twice a week for several hours, and I love every minute of it’,” Seemann said. “I guess that’s the Rebel in me.”
Vanessa Garcia can be reached at 352-338-3166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.