By Christina Kearney, Photos by Vincent J. Appollonio
It’s a Sunday night at RollOn America roller-skating rink in Lancaster. About 25 women are either skating around the rink or lacing up, greeting each other and all genuinely excited to be here to do some strenuous physical activity.
Community is an important element to the Bay State Brawlers, a roller derby team based inLeominster. In a world in which church attendance among Gen Y’ers and Millennials is continuing to sink, people connecting that haven’t grown up or gone to school together is a rarity.
“You wouldn’t come if you didn’t enjoy it,” Maggie LaVelle of Worcester said. “It’s three nights a week … it’s two hours every practice … but there’s nothing in the world like being on our team.”
“My teammates keep me skating,” said Ally Mabardy of Gardner. “I’m not someone who was super athletic growing up … I think that the support and camaraderie around it is really awesome because I have a team of 12 other people that I enjoy seeing three days a week. It’s nice to get away from work or nice to get away from the house.”
Roller derby is a game in which five members from each team race around either a flat or banked ink, and play offensively and defensively simultaneously. Each team has a “jammer” that scores points by racing past the other team. The “jammer” is being forcibly stopped at the same time. It’s complex and requires excellent understanding of the roles and movements of the individual players.
Members of the Bay State Brawlers hail from the Leominster area and everywhere in between, such as Waltham, Stonehamand Western Massachusetts. The flat track roller rink off Route 2 in Lancaster is a convenient central location for this group.
“It’s not unusual to travel over an hour to get to practice two to three times a week,” Mabardy said.
A new skater program starts Sept. 7 and is two hours, two times per week. Most importantly, everyone is welcome.
“We have girls that are just learning to skate backwards,” Mabardy said.
“We have a lot of people who have never been on a team before,” LaVelle said.
Looking out onto the track, there are girls of all sizes and shapes.
“I think that a lot of people think that we are really burly, tough, big chicks that hit each other wildly,” Mabardy said. “I’m only 5-foot-2. It’s a very nuanced sport, in which you have to learn very different techniques that smaller skaters can use against bigger skaters.”
“Short people have a real advantage in this game,” said LaVelle. “Really tall people have the advantage of getting places faster. I can’t think of a different sport that welcomes that many different body types and utilizes different body types.”
The Bay State Brawlers’ A Team, the “Punishers,” don their green and black uniforms all along the northeastern coast, generally within a traveling time of five hours. At last year’s tournament inCamden, Maine, the Punishers ranked four out of six teams. This year, they ranked first of eight, and the reward was a large trophy.
“We’ve played together longer. There’s less mess. Less chaos,” said Mabardy.
Cross-training, running and strength building are goals each Punisher works toward off the rink. The teammates watch footage of their practices and games, thinking strategically about better communication and movement of their bodies.
Jim Colleran has been coaching the Punishers for about five years. He also skates in the men’s league. The Punishers this year are 8-1, which is a great improvement over last year. The only loss came to a team from England, LaVelle said.
What if you have a physical difference that kept you from playing sports in high school, or even enjoying gym class?
“We have a few girls with hearing limitations,” Mabardy said. “We let the referees know about the hand signals we use with those girls. If they can skate and figure out a way to make it work, we are willing to do that.”
“I know skaters with epilepsy,” Lavelle chimed in. “In San Diego there is a completely deaf player.”
Even non-skaters are welcome.
“We foster a community where if you can’t skate, there’s still something else for you to do,” Mabardy said. “Some people make it through the program and realize, ‘I don’t want to be hit. It’s not for me.’ And they are really good at analyzing what’s going on with the track and they are really good with rules, so they might find reffing is definitely for them.”
“We have a girl that’s not skating right now, but she’s the best treasurer we’ve ever had,” LaVelle said.
This team is all about community.
“I want to be better for my teammates,” Mabardy said. “Our team is only as good as I can help out.”
“Especially when you work 13-hour days, you will be like, ‘I don’t want to work out right now,’ but then, you’ll get a message [from a teammate] that she’s at the gym. If she’s there, I’ll be there,” LaVelle said.
For more information, the Bay State Brawlers can be found online at baystatebrawlers.com or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. They may also be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by searching “Bay State Brawlers.