On a bright and sunny spring evening in March, the Greenbrier Roller Vixens prepared for their first home bout of 2014. The Ronceverte Lions Club Gym was filling up quickly while the visiting team, HARD (Heart of Appalachia Roller Derby), began their warm-ups. The team, from Kanawha Valley, had brought a number of their own fans, but they were wildly outnumbered by Greenbrier Countians who had flocked to the gym en masse. DJ Merrick Tracy pumped out tunes from his perch in the corner and concession vendors slung hot dogs and BBQ pulled pork as spectators settled into the bleachers.
Even during their own warm-ups, the Vixens foreshadowed their fortitude to become one of the elite teams in West Virginia, as Coaches Bill Fish and Shea Hatcher worked them through lateral jump drills. As the team finished up, emcee Mr. Slam took over the microphone and prepared the crowd for team introductions. Each team member, upon introduction, took a solo lap around the painted concrete track as the fans cheered. The room settled and as Mr. Slam explained the rules to the laypersons over the PA, the Vixens took their position on the track. Seconds later, the first jam was underway.
Rewind for a second, say.... one hundred years. Roller-skating had already become a growing trend throughout pre-industrial America and one particular visionary skater, Victor W. Clough, saw the potential. Clough began organizing endurance races as early as 1884. While pushing and shoving wasn’t necessarily allowed in these “derby” races, it most definitely constituted the origins of organized, competitive roller-skating, effectively moving the activity from leisurely recreation to sanctioned sport.
The sport had ebbs and flows over the next 70 years, and while most of us remember the televised roller derby of the 1980s, the first televised event actually took place as far back as 1948, when New York battled Brooklyn on the local CBS affiliate four nights a week. Very few people owned television sets in those days, but bars and storefront windows made the derbies accessible to a wide swath of New York’s exploding population.
In the 1960s, an enterprising entrepreneur named Jerry Seltzer inherited from his father the most fabled team in history—the San Francisco Bay Bombers, which produced derby legends Charlie O’Connell, Joanie Weston, and Ann Calvello. Seltzer struck a deal with a local network to continue broadcasting the games. But seeing how other sports had become overly dependent on television broadcasts to generate revenue, Seltzer instead used the broadcasts to simply promote the sport and encourage fans to fill the arenas. It may have taken some time, but eventually roller derby would command audiences as big as the nearly 30,000 people that jammed into Oakland Coliseum to see the Bay Bombers skate against the Northeast Braves. The year was 1970, and in many ways the sport would soon eddy out once again.
Now most of us remember the WWF-like derby of the late 1980s. Entertainment more than sport, RollerGames, a league started by two television executives (if that tells you anything), graced the airwaves of homes throughout America. It was a time when Randy Rhodes and Ric Flair were taking “professional” wrestling to new heights...and revenues. While RollerGames was directly born of television executives’ desires to placate and grow what appeared to be a fickle TV audience, the skaters had other ideas, wishing to maintain the integrity of the sport. RollerGames went off the air, despite strong ratings, and the next phase began to take shape.
The current revival of roller derby began in the early 2000s in Austin, Texas, when musician “Devil Dan” Policarpo recruited women to skate in what he envisioned as a circus-like show straight from the mind of David Lynch. “And so, under disputed circumstances,” wrote the New York Times in 2008, “the man known as Devil Dan eventually sneaked out of Austin, or was chased out, leaving his weird brainchild to the women he had recruited as team captains.” And thus began modern Roller Derby.
In May of 2011, the Greenbrier Roller Vixens had their first organized practice. The team was started by Liz Staten-Presswood, a skater from southern West Virginia who also skated with the Greenbrier Valley Rollergirls from Bluefield. Work and travel took their toll on Staten-Presswood’s involvement, but the seed was planted and Areigna Preston took over the team, building it into nearly two-dozen members over the next couple of years.
Just one month after the formation of the Vixens, Amy McClure, a local self-employed civil engineer, decided it was time to do something a little different in her spare time. She fell in love at that first practice.
“I showed up with a bike helmet, cheap pads, and some in-line skates that were sitting in a closet,” she remembers. “But Areigna had some old, beat up rink skates that I referred to as ‘flood skates,’ since they had been in the flood in 1985. I bought those ‘Brownies’ for five dollars on the spot!”
McClure, now a co-captain for the Vixens, attended practice religiously over the next few months and became bout ready in just nine weeks, a time-frame she doesn’t recommend today. But back in the early stages things were different. There are a series of physical tests that skaters must pass before becoming “bout-ready,” and the thresholds become more stringent as more and more women join the sport.
At first, McClure took the bout name of “Uncivilized,” a nod to her civil engineering background. The Derby names are a vestige of the entertainment side of the sport, and while some teams designate new skaters’ names for them, the Vixens allow their team members to choose their own names. In fact, it used to be a rule that no skater could share a Derby name with any other skater, but the growing popularity of the sport eventually made that impossible.
In those early years, the team practiced at the Underwood Building at the fairgrounds. While that building provided a much needed practice space, its layout created a dangerous track for skaters, with tight curves and a narrow diameter which was not suitable for bouts. As they team grew both in numbers and experience, a new location to host bouts was needed. The Vixens soon made arrangements with the Ronceverte Lions Club Gym, where the bouts are held today.
Foxy Balbusta, co-captain and jammer for the Greenbrier Roller Vixens, says the extent of her skate training before joining the team in summer of 2012 was basically kids’ birthday parties in her younger years.
“I eventually got a pair of in-line skates and skated in my driveway while listening to Shania Twain on a boombox,” she jokes. The Pennsylvania native moved to Greenbrier County in 2010 and, after the birth of her first child two years later, was looking for a way to meet people and get back in shape. “I’m also very competitive, and needed an outlet for that.”
Foxy remembers that she was a little intimidated on that first night, not so much by the hitting, but mostly because she was walking into a group already doing their own thing. “The girls were kind of loud, too,” she says with a laugh.
But it wasn’t long before the 22-year-old picked up right where she left off in that driveway listening to Shania Twain and she soon became one of the Vixen’s jammers (see “Roller Derby Glossary”).
Foxy says that while most people remember the RollerGames-style derbies, and that throwing elbows and tripping others is not allowed, the sport today is actually much, much rougher.
“The old stuff on television years ago was fake,” she says. “Those girls were acting on skates. This is the real thing. After a bout I usually feel like I’ve been in a car accident.”
There is definitely a trend in roller derby today to continue to move away from the theatrics of the RollerGames era.
For example, after a couple years, McClure decided that she would drop her derby name and simply go with “McClure.” “I just felt like I didn’t need the persona anymore,” she explains. For many skaters, the names and outfits are simply holdovers from the entertainment aspects of the old derby.
“I would actually like to see both names and outfits completely go away,” adds Foxy, referring to the sometimes outlandishness of the derby outfits. She notes that in many ways the outfits have calmed down over the past few seasons. “But in the end I want my daughter to see me as the athlete that I am. We put a lot of hard work into this.”
Two skaters from neighboring BADD, the Beckley Area Derby Dames, take their spot in front of me in the packed bleachers at Ronceverte Lions Club Gym. They are definitely there to cheer on the Vixens, for as the Girls line up for the first jam, the two skaters cheer loudly, “Come on Foxy!” But I also wonder if it’s something of a scouting mission, as they are the next team up on the Vixen’s schedule.
The opening whistle blows and the pack moves slowly forward as the two jammers begin bouncing their way through. Shoulders and hips are thrown to stop them. The HARD jammer quickly commits a foul, landing her in the penalty box and creating a Power Jam for the Vixens. (A Power Jam happens when the a jammer is called for a foul and sent to the penalty box, leaving the opposing team with an uncontested jammer and increasing their opportunity for points.)
With the HARD jammer riding pine in the penalty box, Foxy, jamming for the Vixens, makes a strong push through the pack, throwing a hard right shoulder into the last HARD defender to take the lead jammer position. She quickly glides around the track and slices through the HARD pack with precision to take the first points of the bout. Another lap and she scores four more points before calling the jam off just as the HARD jammer is released from the penalty box—a deft strategy that milks the power jam and leaves HARD in the hole right off the bat.
Two jams later, Sha Rollz Bye, jamming for the Vixens, has a nasty collision out of the start. As one of her teammates helps her back up she tries to catch up with the HARD jammer, who is still trying to break through the pack. Bombshell, a Vixen blocker, walls off the HARD jammer just as Sha Rollz Bye makes a power move to the outside and takes the lead. Once loose, it’s obvious where the name comes from, as her mechanics are both graceful and smooth, effortlessly gliding around the track at alarming speeds.
Twenty minutes later, Foxy ends the first half with a two minute jam that nets 18 points. As the whistle blows, the Vixens find themselves up 128-51—a sizable lead. The team, tired and out of breath, gathers outside to rest and hydrate and discuss the half. With the Vixens up nearly one hundred points at half, the second and third teamers are told to prepare to see some action in the second half. Soon, a NSO (Non Skating Official) peeks their head outside and lets the team know the second half is about to begin.
As the second half gets underway, it becomes apparent to everyone that the Vixens aren’t about to relinquish their lead. They stay true to their promise and Coach Rico Shea decides to start playing some of the less experienced players to get them some valuable playing time. The Vixens continue to dominate the bout and as the final whistle blows the scoreboard reads 214-129. The girls gather for a group picture and mingle with fans as the gym slowly empties out into the parking lot. As is the derby tradition, the Vixens host HARD for an after party at Del Sol Lounge in Lewisburg that evening.
On Sunday morning, McClure wakes up to a sore body. . “I used to feel like I had been hit by a train in the days following a game but now I usually just feel as if I had a hard workout. The hours of practice and cross-training have conditioned my body to take the abuse better now.” The need to recover fast is imperative. Practice for the next bout begins tomorrow night.
For any readers out there interested in becoming a part of The Greenbrier Roller Vixens, the team plans to hold open tryouts in the summer. Skaters come from all sorts of backgrounds, but each of them has what McClure likes to call “an edge.” Skaters must be at least 18-years-old and attend the majority of the team’s two-a-week practices. A specific skills test must be passed before skaters are determined bout-ready, a process which varies but can take anywhere from three months to a whole season.
“There are definitely two types of skaters that come out,” says Foxy. “There are people looking for a rec league experience and then there are those of us that are highly competitive and see this as a serious sport.”
While the Vixens welcome any and all skaters to the team, the group has grown leaps and bounds in terms of competition experience and talent; therefore, the commitment must not be taken lightly. Good skate gear—skates, wheels, pads, and helmet— can run upwards of $1000. “You get what you pay for,” says McClure, who quickly upgraded from her $5 “flood skates” years ago.