By Peter Jasinski, email@example.com (Photos by Ashley Green)
LANCASTER — I was standing on the edge of the track, watching what can only be described as a stampede on wheels.
A knot of 20 women came gliding across the floor of Roll On America, their rollerskates hissing beneath them. They took a turn in unison and the wheels of their skates screeched like an army of pencil erasers trying to rub away a mistake.
“Have you got an AKA yet?” asked the referee, who would later introduce himself as Gonzo. “My what?” I said, still transfixed by the mobile mayhem in front of me.
“Your AKA — you know, your nickname,” Gonzo replied. “If you’re gonna skate, you’ll need a nickname.”
That’s when I looked down and remembered there were a pair of roller skates strapped to my own feet.
Panic began to seep into my brain, and a newfound nickname was the last thing on my mind.
Ten minutes earlier, I was filling out an insurance waiver that explained the Bay State Brawlers would not be held responsible if I were injured while skating with them. There was a blank space on the form next to my name, and it was reserved for my derby name.
A woman who goes by Sylvia Wrath (a nod to poet Sylvia Plath) was telling me about how she originally wanted to be called Hurt Vonnegut, but it was already taken.
“It’s a right of passage, and it’s all part of your skater identity,” she explained.
At this point, it’s probably important to mention the reason I was at Roll On America talking to a woman who goes by Sylvia Wrath is because I was taking part in the Bay State Brawlers’ team tryouts.
Since I don’t identify as female or gender binary there was little hope of my joining the Brawlers. Honestly, I was only hoping to survive the experience.
Best-case scenario: I’d survive and get a nickname.
When she’s not serving as captain of the Brawlers, Sylvia Wrath is Maggie Lavelle, a high- school English teacher from Worcester.
As Lavelle explained, roller derby is in the middle of a big comeback that has seen new teams pop up across the country in the last decade.
Five years ago, the Bay State Brawlers split from a larger league and have been filling out their own roster ever since. While there are nine teams already in Massachusetts, the Brawlers still travel throughout New England, as well as to New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to play other teams.
As I talked to team members, I also learned they’re in the middle of a hot streak, winning nine of their 10 games this season. The only loss had been to a team from the U.K. called the Middleboro Milk Rollers.
“It’s the best season we’ve ever had,” Lavelle told me. “We’ve been working very hard on our strategy, and we’ve also played together for a while, so we’re able to communicate really well.”
I should also note that before I laced up my skates on Wednesday night, the last time I went roller-skating was when I was 9 years old. All I can remember from the experience is being so scared after one lap that I refused to skate any further.
More than 15 years later, I’m probably worse off. Because I’m over 6 feet tall (without skates), any accident will mean I’ll be falling from a much higher altitude than my fellow skaters.
Attaching wheels to my feet won’t end well.
Yet to my, and probably everyone else’s, surprise, I got up on my skates without ending up looking like a baby deer trying to traverse a frozen pond.
I was even able to skate over to some of the other new recruits to see if they had what it took to be a Brawler.
“I’m feeling a little nervous, but I’m also excited because I’ve wanted to do this since I was in the eighth grade,” said Paige Lewis, who came from Nashua, N.H., to take part.
Lewis hadn’t thought of a nickname either, nor had Grace McCurn of Somerville.
“I love roller-skating, and I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, so it just made sense to come and try,” McCurn explained, adding she had a friend on the team.
Talking to other new skaters did little to calm my nerves. I asked some of the more experienced rookies for advice, but not all of it helped. One just told me that if I feel like I’m going to fall, I better make sure I fall backward. But then the next skater reminded me to always fall forward.
Forward, as I later learned during falling drills, is the safest way to go.
I then rolled out onto the floor in my borrowed zebra-print kneepads and mismatched wrist guards for warm-up drills.
Lavelle walked the group through gliding, falling, crouching and stopping, the last of which is, not surprisingly, the most difficult. As we wobbled about like a bunch of toddlers learning to walk, the rest of the team would rocket around their practice area.
There are more than 40 members of the Bay State Brawlers, including referees and non- skating participants. Also included are players on the league’s two travel teams, each with a roster of 14.
“When you first start out, it’s confusing being out there because there’s so much happening at once, but after a while you start to get it,” said Tracy Connors, a Leominster resident and four-year veteran of the team.
Connors, who skates under the title Ace of Aches, says she had been attracted to the sport after her career as a student-athlete. She said she tried training for triathlons after graduating from college, but stopped in favor of something more team-oriented.
“I was looking to get into something again, I wanted a community,” she said.
Katie Costello, who just recently celebrated her five-year anniversary with the team, said the camaraderie is also part of what keeps her coming back.
“I love the team aspect, and I love the challenge. You can always learn something new, no matter what level you’re at,” she said.
Talk to any team member or new recruit, and it soon becomes clear how far the Bay State Brawlers are spread. Active members will travel for hours to get to a game or a practice. The roster features names from all throughout Massachusetts, as well as players from New Hampshire and even Rhode Island.
While there are leagues that permit men, the explosion in popularity the sport is experiencing is carried almost solely on the backs of female players.
“With every sport that women play, there’s always a men’s sport that gets paid attention to more, so I think women are only more proud to be in something where they dominate more,” Lavelle said. “I think it’s also because it’s something where women aren’t ogled or sexualized as much.”
It was one hour into the tryout when I decided to quit while I was ahead. I still hadn’t fallen down, so I took that for the miracle it was and said my goodbyes. I also just really wanted to take off my helmet, which is designed for skiing and was far too warm for roller derby.
As I left Roll On America, at Duval Road on the Lancaster-Leominster line, the popularity of the sport made complete sense to me. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s one of the rare sports women can really point to it and say, “this is ours.” The only confusion I felt is over why this had ever needed a comeback in the first place.
And while I might have left without a nickname, I could at least take with me a new experience I won’t soon forget.
Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter and Tout @PeterJasinski53.