At the sound of the first whistle, the Band of Brawlers and Blackeye Bullies start moving.
At the sound of the first whistle, the Band of Brawlers and Blackeye Bullies start moving.
Skating shoulder-to-shoulder are four skaters from each team. The Brawlers are wearing camouflage and hot pink. The Bullies are wearing black pants, for the most part, and blue cutoff shirts with threads hanging where there would be sleeves. Behind the pack of skaters, a jammer from each team awaits. They are racing to get through the pack first. On the second whistle they go -- and the game begins.
In Chicago's Comiskey Park on Sept. 15, 1972, a roller derby bout between the hometown Midwest Pioneers and Los Angeles Thunderbirds drew 50,118 people. Both teams were part of the International Roller Derby League and that day marked a high point in the interest of a sport that over the next 20 years fell nearly extinct.
In 2002, an all-girl flat-track roller derby league popped up in Austin, Texas, called the Texas Rollergirls, and its formation helped lay the groundwork for people around the country to look at roller derby with a renewed spirit.
Leagues started popping up all over the place. Two years later, most joined the Women's Flat Track Derby Association. A year after that, Victorian Village resident Melissa Wallace set in motion events that led to the formation of the Ohio Roller Girls, an organization driven to bringing flat-track roller derby to central Ohio. They set up a booth at ComFest in June 2005, nearly a year before putting on their first bout, hoping to attract people to an organizational meeting a few weeks later. They found what they were looking for and more.
At the ComFest in 2005, Crissy Hardy of Gahanna milled about, looking for something positive to embrace. Some of the main foundations in her life, like her marriage and her job, weren't the source of fulfillment she thought they should be, and when she came to a booth set up by founding members of the Ohio Roller Girls, it was a first step to a change of fortune.
"I was in an extremely bad marriage and I really wanted to be out of my house," Hardy said. "I wanted something to make me feel better."
As she stood there talking to the Ohio Roller Girls' chief organizers, she didn't think it was anything more than a roller-skating club. The aspect of it being a competitive sport didn't draw her and wouldn't have anyway.
Very little in the sports world could hold Hardy's attention. At Whitehall High School she was in the color guard before graduating in 1997. She had to perform at every football game, yet she still couldn't give the name or function of a first-down marker. She listened to the roller-girls' pitch and it heightened her curiosity.
"Do you get hurt?" she said.
One of the skaters turned around and showed Hardy a giant ink-colored bruise that covered the back of her arm.
"You get bruises," she said.
"I don't know," Hardy said. "I really don't like pain a lot."
Three years later it turned out Hardy liked being part of a team more than she disliked pain, and once she began to interact with others who were also looking to be part of something different, she found the support she needed to get out of an unhealthy relationship and find a better paying job.
"I found that I was able to be independent," Hardy said. "It gave me so much self-esteem. The girls, they are so supportive of you and whatever goals you have in life."
That goal right now is beating The Take-Outs. Hardy, a blocker for the Blackeye Bullies and also the vice president of personnel, will get a chance to do that Sunday when the Blackeye Bullies face The Take-Outs for the Envy Cup in the second match of a doubleheader in the Lausche Building of the Ohio State Fairgrounds.
The Band of Brawlers and the Sprockettes will open the evening with the third-place match, which starts at 5 p.m.
Everything has seemed to come together for the Ohio Roller Girls since its inception in 2005. Four teams is an ideal amount for a roller derby league. For the Ohio Roller Girls, it has given the league the ability to put on a doubleheader once a month from March through July.
They play flat-track roller derby, a game of perpetual motion. Two teams of four skaters, called blockers, move around an oval-shaped track mixed together in a pack. Skaters in the pack are playing offense and defense at the same time. A fifth skater from each team, the jammer, lines up behind the pack and moves twice as fast, trying to pass through it. The more people the jammer passes, the more points she scores for her team. In its most basic form, the objective for blockers is simple: let your team's jammer pass, but not the one from your opponent.
There are, of course, intricacies. There are calculations made for a skater's speed, power, agility and the ability to take or make contact. There are plays and game plans. Blockers shift left and right, move forward or back and sometimes grab the outstretched arm of a trailing jammer and act as a pivot, pulling the jammer forward and into the pack like a slingshot. It's teamwork more than tough man. Although the blocking can get physical, skaters are ejected for fighting. In fact, they are not allowed to use an extended arm on any members of the other team. It is full contact from shoulder to hip, but grabbing lands skaters in the penalty box.
"Everyone is always thinking that we're elbowing each other in the face," said Molly Ray, a 1994 graduate of Dublin High School who skates for The Take-Outs as StingRay. "It's a great opening to get people to the games though."
In the television version of the sport in the 1970s and '80s, a normal defensive play would be for two blockers to grab the other team's jammer, holding her up as a third blocker pummels her ribcage. Some blockers would go for the dropkick. Renee Fairchild, a 1991 graduate of Gahanna who now skates for Band of Brawlers as Triptease, grew up a hardcore fan of that kind of roller derby and knows the legends of the sport.
"Ann Calvello and Midge 'Toughie' Brasuhn were my favorites," Fairchild said. "Calvello was probably the most hated. Joanie Weston was probably the most loved."
A rookie skater like Kristi Barka, a 2001 graduate of Grove City, claims no knowledge of the television version.
"I wasn't born yet," she said.
A four-year letterwinner in soccer, basketball and softball for the Greyhounds, Barka, who skates for the Sprockettes as Phoenix Bunz, also played soccer and softball in college -- first at Mars Hill near Asheville, N.C., and then at Shawnee State.
By happenstance she stumbled upon the Ohio Roller Girls Web site and was looking to do something to stay active in competition. She represents the type of skater that the Ohio Roller Girls draws more of now -- ones with lengthy athletic backgrounds.
At first they were happy to have the 25 people that showed up to the first meeting, though not all of them knew how to skate. But that hardly mattered. A bigger issue was no one, chief organizers included, knew any derby-specific drills. They were pulling the sport from obscurity and the videos and manuals that taught specific roller-derby drills had gone missing. The closest they could get to someone with expertise on roller skates was a competitive artistic skater, who was at least able to teach some balancing drills. Not anymore.
There's no more teaching people how to skate for the first time.
"Now they expect you to know the crossovers and what happens if you lean this way and that way," Hardy said. "A couple of girls when I first started hung onto the walls at first.
"Now we expect people to know how to skate. We don't expect them to come in and know how to derby check, but the standards have changed."
The Ohio Roller Girls can turn people away now, especially if they're not committed enough to show up to at least 75 percent of practices per month or haven't done enough promotional events to earn the required service points. Not paying the monthly $30 fee can also lead to dismissal. Members don't even earn the right to take a name until they have officially been a member for three months. At that time they are allowed to come up with a name, but since the roster is sent to WFTDA, the name must be checked against a national registry to see if it is available. Barka wanted to go with Phoenix, but had to add the Bunz to because Phoenix was taken.
"We are all so committed to building the sport of roller derby and the reason we practice so much is to make it safer out there for the skaters," Hardy said.
Six weeks after Hardy was introduced to the sport she found out how unsafe it can be, falling awkwardly during a balancing drill in practice and breaking a tibia. She was the first member of the Ohio Roller Girls to break a bone, but certainly not the last.
"It's not a matter of if (you get hurt), it's when," Fairchild said. "It's a ritual. You get it and get over it and move on."
Fairchild has suffered numerous injuries. She tried to name them before a team meeting June 18 at Skate Zone 71, sitting at a table with Barka, Ray and Holly Bell, a 1997 Westerville North graduate who goes by Wild Irish Rose. She was thinking hard about what injuries she had had, sifting through all the minor ones to try to pick out the most painful.
"My worst one was a fractured and shattered shoulder," she said. "It still dislocates all the time. I've had concussions, a twisted ankle."
She paused briefly to think some more.
"I don't even know what else I've had anymore."
"You had the contusion," Ray said.
"Oh, the bone contusion," Fairchild said. "That sucked. That still hurts."
There were no major injuries June 8 in a playoff bout that decided which teams would play for the Envy Cup.
That day the outside appearance of the Lausche building provided a stark contrast to the energy and atmosphere on the inside. On the outside, the only hint there was even something going on was a handful of tailgaters in the parking lot.
But through a small set of doors near the rear of the building, it was nearly impossible to talk with an inside voice. Hair bands and punk rock as well as words from a play-by-play man and color commentator blasted over the loudspeaker, and sitting in the center of the room, was the flat-track.
"There's a lot of people who think that it's all show," Hardy said. "We're kind of out there to kind of smash that."