Rockin’ and rollin’: Roller derby isn’t just for television anymore
REYNOLDSVILLE — Growing up, you may have seen roller derby on the television, but most probably think of it as a professional-wrestling-like act, set mostly for entertainment.
But a group of women from across the county have started gathering at the Reynoldsville Rollerdrome for a very different style than has become television folklore.
Wendy Reynolds and Kim Sweitzer are two of a number of ladies who take part in roller derby as a part of the Northern Allegheny Roller Derby (NARD) league, and Reynolds is the one who others have said “put in the leg work” to get the league going. Her interest was actually sparked far from Jefferson County, though.
“A friend of mine helped start a league in Oregon,” she said. “And at the same time, a co-worker was telling me about her niece skating for the Steel City Derby Demons (a Pittsburgh team). I researched local leagues, realized there wasn’t really one anywhere nearby and decided to start one. I thought it would be a great way for women to get together, be active and have fun.”
Sweitzer’s derby dreams didn’t start quite so far away, as she noted Wendy as the one who got the wheels turning in her mind.
“Wendy is the one who introduced me to it,” she said. “She put in a lot of time figuring out how to get things rolling and put out the flyers looking for interested women. I jumped at the chance, went to the first meeting, which had about eight of us, and we knew we had enough to at least start skating together.”
For both, the interest came from a longtime shared passion: simply skating.
“My parents owned the Jefferson Inn in Cook Forest,” Reynolds said. “There wasn’t much to do there, so they bought me a pair of skates. I would skate endless hours around tables and dodge the people. To this day, people remember me skating around that bar.”
Sweitzer had a similar sentiment, though her ability to skate has been a bit more late-blooming: “I’ve loved to skate since I was little, but living in the country, I didn’t get much opportunity,” she said. “However, the desire to learn never faded.”
Once the idea had started to form in her mind, Reynolds jumped right into the planning phase.
“As soon as I had the idea, I contacted Melvin (Henry) at the Reynoldsville Roller-drome to see if he would allow a league to practice there,” she said. “Once I got the approval, I created a Facebook group to see who all was interested. (Michael) Zug made up some flyers for me, and I posted them all around town and on Facebook. I learned all the ins and outs of starting a league from the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.
“We held an initial informational meeting at Dirty Ehrma’s, where I shared all the information I had learned about equipment, rules, practices, etc. And we had our first practice scheduled within a month of the whole process beginning.”
While others have credited Reynolds with doing “all the leg work,” she is quick to give a laundry list of others much of the credit for helping the league get on its feet.
“Joann Hunger from Dirty Erhma’s was interested in helping with meetings and recruiting; Scott Huffman was brave enough to volunteer to help coach a group of determined women; and Michael Zug made us our flyers and logos,” she said.
Those quick responses encouraged Reynolds, and she and the others grabbed the early momentum and ran with it.
“Kim Sweitzer was the first person to email me about the flyer, and she was as excited as I was to get this going and helped immensely from the start,” Reynolds said. “The Steel City Derby Demons and Westco Derby have helped our training committee with planning practices. Jean Lantz has helped us a ton in learning skills and drills that we find online and want to do, and Jean also chairs our training committee. Most recently, Bill Stein of Biandi Photography came and photographed us at practice. Really, all the girls have helped; we wouldn’t be a team without each of them.”
Sweitzer echoed that sentiment.
“Everyone involved has really helped in one way or another to get this league working,” she said. “We’re definitely still in the building stages, but we all step in when we’re needed, and it’s making a big difference.”
In a short time, the roster has grown to 25 ladies — a number that could continue to increase.
One might ask what exactly a derby practice would look like. Reynolds has an answer for that inquiry.
“Scott Huffman is our coach, and he collaborates with our training committee to devise practice plans,” she said. “Every practice is run by Huff and a member of the training committee. We start out with a warm-up skate with stretches. The first hour is endurance skates, pace lines and pack work. The second hour will eventually be scrimmaging, but for now, it is focused on learning and perfecting different skills, such as different stops, falling, hitting, blocking, whipping and pushing.”
Sweitzer also added that despite the hard work, practices are definitely enjoyable, too.
“My favorite part of our practices is probably learning to evolve with wheels on my feet,” she said. “Plus, it’s very much fun to hang out with women that have the same interest, as we all do.”
Despite moves like whips and hits, though, Sweitzer pointed out that this definitely isn’t the type of roller derby you’ve probably seen on television.
“What I remember of roller derby on TV was a banked track, and the women were tripping, punching, clothes-lining each other and throwing each other over the rails,” she said. “That is what I call the WWE version! It was staged for viewer ratings. While the object of the game is the same, those kinds of moves are illegal and will get you sent to the penalty box. Today’s roller derby is a lot like it was when it started back in the 1930s, as an actual sport. The only difference now is that it’s played mostly on a flat track.”
And as is normal with any sport, officials are required, and Reynolds said there are already some willing volunteers to help out on that front.
“We have several guys interested in reffing that show up sporadically to skate with us, including Eric Painter, Chip Steer and Richard Dixon,” she said. “Once we begin scrimmaging, they will come routinely.”
Reynolds also added that the team has benefited and learned how to run a practice with help from the other squads in western Pennsylvania.
“We have had five girls attend practices with Steel City, and last weekend, some girls and Chip went to Westco Derby to practice with them,” she said.
Organizing such a large-scale affair has proven to be a lot of work, but Reynolds shows no signs of regret and seems to enjoy the footwork.
“Kim Sweitzer, Joann Hunger, Sara Heffner and I are always busy answering questions, responding to emails, ordering shirts, reading rules and emailing other teams with our endless questions. It really has taken over our lives. I saw a shirt recently that said, ‘The Derby Monster stole my wife.’ My husband couldn’t agree more,” Reynolds said.
She added that between herself and Sweitzer, there is a pile of paperwork that goes into putting together medical history forms, applications, waivers, codes of conduct, new skater application packets and other things.
“We never seem to stop working on derby homework, even when we aren’t skating,” she said.
Members of the board split responsibilities, with Reynolds serving as president and founder; Sweitzer working the role of vice president; Joann Hunger and Sara Heffner serving as secretaries; Tonya Woodel working as historian; and Gina Santaniello-Vrobel serving as legal advisor.
Similar to any group that begins, plans for growth were always on the mind of Reynolds and the other planners, and she laid out a bit of a vision for the team.
“My initial goal in starting this was to become an apprentice league of the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) and form either a nonprofit or an LLC,” she said. “I would like to have several teams scrimmaging by the spring and be playing against other teams eventually. Our only problem thus far is bouting space. We are on the search to find a venue large enough to hold a bout.”
Sweitzer added that she is fully confident the squad will find a space.
“We will need to find that venue (that is) large enough, but we have a strong group of determined ladies that I have faith will find a way to make it happen,” she said.
With expansion always on the mind of the group, Reynolds also had suggestions for anyone interested in pursuing derby as a hobby.
“Roller derby is for anyone,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you are 90 pounds or 190 pounds, 5 feet tall or 6 feet tall. You don’t have to run a 6-minute mile or bench press your own car. All it takes is determination and practice.
“We don’t trip each other and get in fist fights of years past. It’s very controlled; rules are followed; and we trained properly to — hopefully — not get hurt. It is a way for women to develop an identity of their own that is different from their everyday routine.
“We have women from all walks of life. I personally am a neonatal nurse with four kids. We have women with kids, women without, stay-at-home moms, business owners, nurses, teachers, a psychologist, secretaries, waitresses — you name it.”
Sweitzer also encouraged folks to come check out a practice if they’re interested.
“If they’re interested, they should come out to a practice on Tuesday or Thursday evenings at the Reynoldsville Rollerdrome from 7 to 9 p.m.,” she said. “We always keep recruiting information on hand if you’d like it and are ready to sign up. We’re looking for skaters, referees and non-skating officials. We need a lot of people to make things run smoothly.”
If making the trip to practice isn’t an option, interested ladies can also contact the team at email@example.com or by visiting the team’s Facebook page.