Fast, furious and gloriously loud, roller derby is a spectator sport that rewards careful attention: Blink and you might miss the Jammer whizzing by the Blockers and making the Star Pass to the Pivot. In the midst of all this, points are scored, bouts are won, legends are made.
Of course, some fans don’t care about the rules; they just like to watch a bunch of sweaty women on roller skates whizz around and knock the hell out of each other.
That’s OK, too. Roller derby is different things to different people.
Tricia Wells, the founder of St. Petersburg’s four-year-old Deadly Rival league, is a paralegal by day. By night, she’s Murder Ride — trainer, skater and den mother to the nearly 60 women who make up her league (they compete as individual teams of 10).
The Deadly Rival ranks include bartenders, hairstylists, servers, clerks, professional women and more. There was a doctor on the team a few years ago.
It’s exercise and it’s an adrenaline rush. For some, it’s a confidence builder. It's different things to different players.
“A lot of us have had hard lives,” Murder says. “But not everyone — some of them were born with a frickin’ silver spoon in their mouth! Some skaters have money, some don’t.”
At “The Slayground,” where they practice and compete on a 101-foot banked oval track, the players are known only by their skater names. They’re required to check their identities — and their emotional baggage — at the door.
There's Time Bomb Bettie, Puck Her Up, Nitrox, Bambi's Revenge. Doomsday Adams and Mpyre Wrecker and Slaughter Melon. And, of course, Princess Slay-a.
"Some people come because they’re just fucked up to begin with,” Murder says with a boisterous laugh. “Some people come because they need an outlet. Some come because they’ve just moved here and they don’t have friends, and don’t make them easily. So they’re kind of forced to meet people here.”
Tall or short, thin or chunky, white, black or Latina, when they’re together they’re all the same.
And they look out for each other.
For about 10 years, single mother Kat Yanesh (MyzFit) was “in kind of a dark place. I just felt broken, like ‘Is this my life? I’m never going to be whole again.’ Then my father, in Louisiana, got really sick — that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” A friend suggested she try out for Deadly Rival.
“I discovered it was a place to feel whole and broken at the same time. We all kind of have a story. The years of emotionally traumatic things, and the loss, those’ll never go away. Derby gave me something to do besides sit and sulk. And when I put the skates on, I was a 7-year-old girl again.”
She’s made at least 59 new friends since she signed up in early 2016.
“All these girls have different personalities,” MyzFit says. “They’re all weird and quirky like me. I just love it, you know? You get to skate, you get to sweat it out — you feel strong. We’re getting whacked and beat up on the track, but it never felt so good. Because it was my choice to get up here and get beat up.”
Those with anger management issues, advises Murder, need not apply. “Each one of us has to learn to hit our friends. And to take probably the hardest hit we’ve ever had from our friends. So it’s humbling, in a way.”
As a contact sport, women’s roller derby has been around since the 1930s. At one point it was an over-the-top, ultra-violent carnival act. And by the turn of the century, it was all but a memory, having been supplanted by professional wrestling as the country’s preferred “sports entertainment.” Over the past 20 years, derby — significantly less theatrical and more competition-minded — has enjoyed a major revival.
Today, there are more than 1,200 amateur leagues around the world. Deadly Rival engages in monthly bouts (known as “jams”) with teams from other states. On Aug. 5, they’ll split into two teams and play an intra-league game.
St. Pete is a preferred destination, and here’s why: Nearly all roller derby jams — women’s, men’s and intra-sex — are played on flat oval tracks. Thanks to Murder Ride, Deadly Rival has one of only nine banked (raised and sloped) tracks in the United States.
“The sound of the athletes rolling on the track alone creates excitement,” Murder enthuses. “It's also a much more difficult game to play, because we have to learn to skate on an elevated incline and stay controlled to hit one another without tripping — tripping is considered a penalty. We also have to learn to slow down at higher speeds more quickly.”
Murder paid for the Kitten Traxx-crafted track herself. Deadly Rival’s bills — including rent for the Slayground, inside an industrial warehouse in St. Pete’s Lealman district — are paid through players’ monthly dues, tickets sales, sponsorships and fundraising events.
The ladies pay for their own skates, helmets, gloves and padding.
Murder Ride has created a family, a tribe, a sisterhood. And, in some sense, an Island of Misfit Toys. “You always hear ‘roller derby’s empowering to women, blah blah blah’ — I think that’s bullshit, honestly,” she says. “It actually breaks you down. You’re falling in front of people you don’t know. You need to be pretty humble — you’re training for something that’s really hard — and you need to suck it up. You have to learn how to find confidence where you’ve never had it, and it helps you develop in every aspect of your life.”
For 18-year-old rookie Taylor Kimberly, who joined the team last September, Deadly Rival has been a godsend.
“I moved from Michigan down to St. Pete, and I didn’t know anybody,” she explains. “So I looked online to see if there were any groups that I could join. Just to get a little bit more social. And I found the Slayground. And I found my girls!”
Incredibly, Kimberly had never been on roller skates. But Murder and the others taught her, and they taught her the rules of the game, and now she’s one of the team’s most promising newcomers.
As was the custom, she chose her own skater name, Wolfenit. Everybody calls her Wolfie.
“This is all about energy, not aggression,” Wolfie says. “We don’t want to hurt each other, because we’re a family, and we all love each other. But it’s all in good fun. We’re a family that hits each other.”
St. Pete native Bill DeYoung is the author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down and the forthcoming Phil Gernhard, Record Man. Learn more here.