March 13, 2006

Big wheels

(Originally published 3/13/2006)

Jack Knife Jill examines her skate and then, with a twist of a key, makes a quick clockwise adjustment. Leg outstretched, the 28-year-old - a.k.a. Jill Lenzi - tests the wheel by spinning it with a flick of a finger.

"The looser the wheel, the faster the skate," Lenzi explains, looking up with a devilish grin. "Of course, you don't want it to be too loose, or else the wheel will fall off."

Understood. Fast is good, but staying on your wheels to slip through a pack of scrappy blockers is better. Much better.

Lenzi is a member of the newly formed Sac City Rollers, an all-female roller derby league that on a recent, rainy Sunday morning was hitting the rink at Foothill Skate Inn. It's practice time and, suited up in knee and elbow pads, wrist guards and helmets, the women - from finance managers to coffee clerks - are ready to rumble.

And why not? Roller derby is back.

Perhaps best remembered as the '70s-era kitschy, highly choreographed sport, derby in fact dates back to 1935. Chicago-based brothers Leo and Oscar Seltzer fashioned it to emulate cross-country skiing with repeated, endurance-testing laps. But several bang-ups and bruises later, the Seltzers realized the high entertainment value of bodies in crashing motion.

Over the years, roller derby evolved into a female-dominated sport. It peaked in the '70s, but the craze re-emerged briefly in the '90s via TNN's "RollerJam" cable show.

Then, in 2001, roller derby resurfaced again, led by groups such as the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls and the Brooklyn Bombshells. Today, there's an A&E reality show, "RollerGirls" (at 10 p.m. Mondays), that chronicles the TXRD league's progress. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Roller Sports Association, there are now more than 50 all-female leagues - more than double the number from 2005.

Roll call

The derby basics are this: Five skaters from each team compete in "bouts," during which two-minute "jams" are played. Each team has a "pivot" skater who sets the pace while a "jammer" tries to sprint through the pack, scoring points by passing opposing players. Meanwhile, three "blockers" from each team try to stop the competition's jammer from making that breakthrough.

One of the most important things a derby skater needs to know is that she's practically guaranteed to fall during this sequence - and that there's a right and a wrong way to take that tumble.

At the local practice, it's Christine "Devil Doll" Galindo's job to work through drill sets that include the fine points of blocking, crossovers, jumps and, yes, falling.

"You fell forward - that's good!" calls out Galindo, also the co-founder of the Sac City Rollers, to a skater who tipped head forward onto the hardwood rink.

"I don't want to see you fall backwards - ever."

Galindo is a fan of the sport from way back. And after a "RollerGirls" TV spot reminded her of the fun of watching roller derby teams, such as Oakland's Bay City Bombers, while growing up, she called best friend Nicole Kennedy to discuss the possibilities of forming their own league.

The rest happened pretty quickly. Kennedy (a.k.a. "Loco Coco") contacted the A&E network, which put them in touch with the U.S. Roller Sports Association as well as a Chico-based league.

That was in December and in the months since, the pair - along with pal Lois "Sugar Pop" Brunk - has recruited at least 60 Sacramento-area skaters via postcards, fliers, Internet postings and word of mouth. They even got a coach with experience: Gina Lombardo, a one-time "RollerJam" member who, after coming across a flier, offered her services.

Lombardo says she is happy - although not surprised - about this latest derby revival.

"It's never really gone away," says Lombardo, who admits she often thinks about competing again. "Whenever you mention 'roller derby,' there is interest - people love it."

The Sac City Rollers is divided into five teams - including the Devil Dolls, a traveling team made up of the league's most skilled skaters. Although the Rollers won't have their first Sacramento bout until June, the skaters will hold an exhibition fundraiser on Sunday.

"Everything is falling into place," Galindo says, "but there are so many little things that go into building a league."

Such as: finding a practice facility. Most area rink owners weren't interested in playing host to a bunch of rough and tumble skaters, Galindo says. But they lucked out, she adds, when a Chico skater put them in touch with Foothill Skate Inn.

There were other hurdles, too. The Rollers currently operate as a rookie league within the Women's Flat Track Derby Association but, although skating flat track is fine for now, the long-term goal is to raise funds for a banked track - the kind that places skaters at a raised, tilted angle.

There also are costume and equipment needs.

The league has landed one impressive deal with Rock Star, a popular energy drink manufacturer which, along with providing drinks for practices and bouts, has chipped in for costumes for the Devil Dolls - black, frilly, short numbers that don't leave much to the imagination.

But, in the world of roller derby, looking good is half the battle.

OK, not really, but the racy image is unavoidable, Galindo says with a matter-of-fact shrug.

"Our costumes aren't over-the-top sexy, but they're sexy enough," she says. "Let's face it - that's part of this thing. It sells tickets, (but) hopefully it will also help draw people who are interested in seeing the girls actually skate.

"We're very serious," she says, "this is a real sport."

Real enough, in fact, that mandatory insurance may soon be required. In the meantime, members are required to sign a medical waiver as well as meet a strict list of skill and stamina requirements.

Girls, powered

Certainly, back at practice, there are plenty of bumps and crashes to go around. And after getting tangled up in a teammate's skates, Betty Bruiser is the day's first casualty.

When Bruiser, a.k.a. Elizabeth D'Amato, falls to the floor, Galindo skates into action. Rushing to D'Amato's side, she helps the 29-year-old player remove her skate and examines the damage while a teammate rolls off to the snack counter in search of a bag of ice.

D'Amato hobbles off the rink and collapses onto a nearby bench. Her ankle, turning a delicate shade of purple, is already swelling and the eventual diagnosis will be a broken bone. For now, however, the pain is like a badge of honor.

"This is my first real injury other than a few bruises," says D'Amato, pressing the ice pack against her ankle.

D'Amato says the chance to share derby war stories is just one of the sport's benefits. Another? She's discovered new friends.

"Women tend to be competitive with each other and it's good to see this kind of camaraderie," she says.

Courtney "M'Lady Mayhem" Swett agrees, calling the league a "total sisterhood."

"It's just so much fun getting together to mess around and practice," Swett says. "These girls are so amazing."

Diverse, too. Although, on the surface, the Sac City Rollers looks like an uber-cool subculture (read: tattoos, punk T-shirts, Converse sneakers, pigtails and pink hair), in reality, roller derby may be the only thing these teammates have in common.

They range in age from 21 to mid-40s. There are musicians and fashion designers, hair- stylists and nurses, students and mothers.

"We have women I wouldn't normally meet," Brunk says. "They live in Natomas and Citrus Heights, Roseville and Rocklin."

Although more than a few members admit to loving roller derby for its hard-core, aggressive nature, most seem to prize it for the Zen of its one-two punch of brainpower and athleticism.

"It's the contact, it's the physicality and it's the strategy - it's an adrenaline rush," Galindo says.

"Everyone thinks roller derby is just about fighting, but it's so much more than that: It's keeping calm and keeping your head in the game."

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