My Derby Daze

The girl-power sport on skates prepares to storm the county



She said I was a natural, but I believe she was just pitying me. It didn't feel natural. The maneuvers Jennifer "Grrl Haggard" Jenkins was asking of me felt all wrong. First lesson, get low — knees bent, butt out. Next lesson, fall to the floor. Third, get up without using your hands. Repeat.

We weren't wrestling. We were roller skating, and it was nothing like I remembered — at 10 years old, those humid summers spent zooming around the neighborhood, chasing after the ice cream man, the concrete buzzing against my wheels, rattling my kneecaps. I've ice skated, played soccer, basketball, run track. I've climbed a tree in roller skates — no lie. I once had skills.

But last Wednesday evening, as I flailed around at a "fresh meat" practice for the Humboldt Roller Derby league, I had to forget what once was. I had to let go of the past.

I am not 10 years old, I told myself. I'm not 20. I'm closing in on 30 and I should probably start on some calcium supplements. Get low, fall down, get up. Forget all the other stuff.

For the women of Humboldt Roller Derby, the sport has taken more than a year to master and for many players, it has become much more than a pastime. It's an addiction that consumes their lives.

"Once you start, you never see your spouse," said Jennifer McMahon, founder of Humboldt Roller Derby. "We call them 'derby widows.'"

So after a year-plus of family neglect, practicing two to three times a week, and a few broken bones and torn ligaments, the league, which ranges in age from 21 to 46, has split into two teams and will host their first-ever public bout this Saturday night, May 24, at Redwood Acres, when the The Hot Tempers take on The Cold Hearts.

Here is the abbreviated version of what to expect at a roller derby match: Players — super-competent players, not rejects like me — skate full-speed around a flat oval track, mowing one another down while attempting to thwart their opponents' progress. Each time the "jammer" laps the other team, she makes a point. Games last for 60 minutes, split up into two-minute jams and four quarters.

Each player has a unique alter-ego name that she registers with the national roller derby conference. No other player can have her name. There is only one Thunder Muffin (Whitney Wirt, co-captain of the Cold Hearts), just one RaqHELL (Rachel Hernandez) and one Damanda Tension (Amanda Masterson).

"I don't even know some of their real names," said Sarah "Guts and Gloria" Sullivan. "You should see my speed dial, it's insane."

Sullivan, a mother of two toddlers who is one of the most experienced skaters on the team, said she knew "from the first whispers" of a Humboldt Roller Derby squad forming, that she would be involved. She said the game has changed her life completely.

"I can be my old self — before kids, before marriage. I can be totally raunchy and no one will be offended," she said. "All these girls, I didn't know them a year ago and now they're my best friends."

Best friends or not, when derby players are in the rink, the team's motto is "It's nothing personal." You have to be able to knock your best friend down and not look back.

"We're not allowed to say sorry," Grrl Haggard, captain of the Hot Tempers, told me as we took a break in the rink. "Sorry gets you ten push-ups."

It's a trait, she said, that's crossed over into her real life. Her husband has noticed it, too, she said. "I'm not always saying sorry for the smallest thing," she said. "If it's unnecessary, why apologize?"

Partial proceeds of Saturday's bout benefit Humboldt Domestic Violence Services, whose building was destroyed in an April 1 fire. McMahon said she never realized the irony of a full-contact, violent sport such as roller derby raising funds for battered women until the directors of the clinic brought it to her attention.

"I see roller derby as empowering women," she said. "I had women who never stood up for themselves before they started playing. For me, personally, I can handle confrontation a lot better since roller derby."

McMahon's long-term goal is to build Humboldt Roller Derby's roster to 80 women, and split into four teams that play each other in public bouts regularly. Derby, she says, will rule the sports pages some day. Beyond that, McMahon wants to hand over the reins of the business to a nonprofit board of directors — something like the Humboldt Crabs baseball team. She'd like the sport to continue for decades to come.

For now, she said, the team is looking toward another local bout in late July, which will also serve as a fundraiser for a local organization.

As I got back on my skates, plodding along the rink, sweating slightly under an ill-fitting helmet, I was finally able to convince my brain to let my right foot cross over my left — clomp, clomp, woosh. "You're getting it," Grrl Haggard assured me. As I swept freely around a turn, knees bent, butt out, a breeze in my face, I understood what they'd been talking about. I got that weird feeling, both sinking and thrilling, that I was going to want more of this game.

The Humboldt Roller Derby League first bout, the Cold Hearts vs. the Hot Tempers, takes place at 8 p.m. this Saturday, May 24, in Franceschi Hall at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds, 3750 Harris St., Eureka. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Beer, wine, and snack bar available. Derby after-party with drink specials at Aunty Mo's Lounge, 535 5th St, Eureka. $7/$3 kids. Free for kids 5 and younger. Get tickets at The Works in Eureka or Arcata or online at Prospective skaters 21 and older should contact league founder Jennifer McMahon at

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