Clear the rink — it’s roller derby time
BRISTOL — Erin Swigart popped up onto the toe stops of her well-worn, broken-in roller skates. She dashed forward on tiptoe, almost like a dancer preparing for a ballet leap, and then the eight wheels on her skates hit the concrete floor of the Bristol Recreation Club’s hockey rink, and she was off.
It was a breezy, sunny evening at the outdoor rink, and in neighboring fields Mount Abraham Union High School track athletes practiced and Little League batters took swings at the plate. Chased by her shadow — and two other skaters — Panton resident Swigart, 34, skated around and around the makeshift track she’d traced in chalk on the cement hockey rink. At her whistle, she and the other two skaters dropped to their knees in synchronized precision.
Swigart glanced over at Vergennes resident Kathy Martell, 47, and warned her to watch her wrists. She demonstrated the mock fall again: knees to the concrete, then elbows, and as a last resort wrists.
“The wristguards are only going to help you so much,” Swigart said.
Meet the ChampPain Rollers, Addison County’s first roller derby team.
It’s “Champ,” like the critter, and “the pain we’re going to inflict,” joked 31-year-old Kristy Sargent of Waltham.
But the roller derby of today is a far cry from the bash ’em blow outs popularized in the 1960s and ’70s. First, there’s the track — this is a flat track derby, skated on a level plane instead of the banked tracks used several decades ago.
The flat tracks make it easier for grassroots teams to start up in empty parking lots or hockey rinks like the one in Bristol. And with fewer barriers to entry, flat track derby teams have taken off in popularity. Since the first team emerged in Texas in 2001, more than 400 have cropped up around the country.
And while the modern flat track teams pay homage to roller derby history, skaters are quick to point out that today’s game is a different animal. Referees are on the watch for fouls, and throwing elbows is likely to land a player in the penalty box. Gone are the theatrics and brawls reminiscent of the World Wrestling Federation.
“It’s not staged,” Swigart said. “This really is a sport.”
But there’s still panache in the game: At their recent practice, Swigart and Sargent showed up in fishnet stockings and full gear, Swigart’s glittery green eye shadow carefully coordinated with her ChampPain jersey. Beneath her wristguards Swigart sported pink and purple argyle armbands. All three members of the fledgling ChampPain Rollers have also adopted daring derby names.
“It’s nice to be able to have tough sport for women that’s a team sport, and still be able to be feminine,” Swigart said. That blend of style and sport is part of what charmed some of the ChampPain Rollers onto the rink in the first place.
“It’s like burlesque on skates,” said Sargent, also known on the track as “Sgt. Raesin Cain.”
AT THE STARTING BLOCK
The fledgling Addison County team is still a long ways from competing in its first “bout,” the term for the races between two dueling teams. With just a handful of members so far, the ChampPain Rollers are instead focusing on recruiting new members and polishing the basics.
So, at their practice last Wednesday evening, Swigart, Sargent and Martel went through the drills. (Absent from their practice that evening was their fourth skater, Vergennes resident Danielle Wrisley — or “Maiden VT” when on the track.)
They practiced “t-stops,” building up speed before grinding to sudden stops at the sound of Swigart’s whistle. Martel, an avid ice hockey player in the winter, joked that it was only a matter of time before her instincts kicked in and a traditional hockey stop sent her tumbling.
Speaking of falling, the women practiced that too, armed in heavy knee, elbow and wrist pads. During a bout, the 88-foot long track would be crowded with 10 skaters, the fastest jockeying for position at the front of the pack. It’s not a sport without an element of danger: Sargent fractured her fifth metacarpal (otherwise known as her pinky finger) at a clinic last fall.
“But she came back,” Swigart said with a grin. “She’s rugged.”
Swigart, an office manager in Panton, is the team’s pied piper: She’s the one who brought roller derby to Addison County last year. “Miss Maul-e” picked up the sport when she was living in Portland, Ore., and noticed a poster advertising the city’s Rose City Rollers.
So she showed up for a practice. Swigart is an athletic, outdoorsy person. She hikes and cycles frequently, but she jokes that she failed physical education classes as a student. The roller derby was her first introduction to a team sport.
Something clicked. When she moved to Vermont, she commuted up to Burlington a few times to practice with the Green Mountain Derby Dames, but the drive was just too long.
Martell (or “Gnarly Ninnie,” a special educator by day at Bristol Elementary School) made the commute a few times herself. When she heard about Swigart’s dream of a local derby team, she jumped at the chance. As for Sargent, she’d never tried roller derby before — but the childcare professional had a pair of skates collecting dust in her mudroom, and like Swigart she found herself hooked once she hit the track.
To prospective derby dames, the skaters simply encourage anyone interested to come out and watch. For more information about the ChampPain Rollers, e-mail [email protected]. Potential skaters need to be at least 21 years old, and must have all of the necessary safety equipment to skate. They’re also hunting for sponsors, as well as an indoor space in which to practice.
It’s a great time to get started, Swigart said: The team is still young, so there’s plenty of time to learn the basics.
It’s good exercise, the women added. More than that, though, it’s just good fun. There’s a nostalgia factor that harkens back to their days as a girls on skates, and there’s the thrill that comes with picking up speed and mastering the skills.
“I don’t want to get old,” Martell laughed. “I just want to roller skate.”
But the ChampPain Rollers are also building a community of women athletes that they’re proud to be a part of. The derby community is a supportive, inclusive one, they said, and Addison County is no exception.
“I know it seems like it’s a bunch of girls knocking each other down, but we’re all really helping each other out quite a bit,” Swigart said.
After a quick water break, the derby dames were back on the track, sashaying their way around the tight curves while they practiced “cross-overs” and the “eight on the floor” move, during which they used their body weight to propel themselves forward without lifting their skates from the ground.
The team still has a lot of progress to make. If they’re going to be ready for their first bout — something they hope to do by next summer — they’ll need at least 10 skaters ready to take to the track. But they’re confident.
“We’re taking baby steps,” Swigart said.
“Baby rolls,” Sargent countered.
Check out an audio slideshow, with more photos and commentary from the ChampPain Rollers, online at www.addisonindependent.com.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].
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