Bouts under the Big Sky
Roller Derby in Montana
By Marcie Hahn-Knoff, Photos by Jon Marshall
The wheels on my quad skates slide and give, barely gripping on the polished concrete floor. I accelerate toward the pack of skaters searching for my teammates, with only a split-second to decide how to get through the maze of aggressive women wrapped in combat padding without getting my ass kicked.
Finding myself in the midst of a flat-track roller derby bout was the culmination of a loosely woven series of events: a childhood spent ice skating, the lure of a women’s contact sport, an offhand comment at an adult roller skating party a few years back, and a flyer on a bulletin board for a league starting up in Bozeman.
Six months of practice with the Gallatin Roller Girlz, and here I am.
I duck for cover behind one of my team’s blockers. Hips clad in colorful shorts sway and swing like demolition equipment, out to crush me.
A fearsome girl soars over me, ready to deliver a hit. ‘Move!’ my mind screams, and I swerve left, barely missing her assault. Crack—I take a shoulder hit from another skater and am nearly sent out of bounds.
I stumble back and recover, then see a path open up to the front of the pack. My lungs tighten again as I sprint to break free of the pack. I battle past four blockers and score four points. Now I’m alone once more, accelerating around the track to lap the pack and get ready to do it all over.
Four long whistle blasts and the jam is finished. Sweat pours from beneath my helmet. We’re already midway through the second half, and the scoreboard reads 15 minutes left. I return to the bench and five of my teammates skate onto the track to start the next jam.
The four blockers from each team line up behind the pivot line, a mismatched assortment of heights and sizes jumbled together awaiting the signal to start. Back at the jammer line, two jammers, bright stars emblazoned on their helmet covers, stand on tiptoe waiting for their signal to sprint. I gulp water on the bench, and my breathing calms.
The whistle blasts and the blockers start skating as a pack, slowly gaining momentum. A double whistle blast sets the trembling jammers running down the straightaway of the track, racing to be the first through the pack.
As they fold one behind the other around the curve of the track, they meet the pack and fight to get through the scrum and be the first to the other side. A jammer in a metallic gold skirt emerges at the other side of the pack—not ours. Ours is trapped behind a wall of opposing team blockers, setting up to knock the snot out of her. But she finds a path around them, and once clear, she heads back around the track in pursuit of the other jammer.
I glance back up at the scoreboard. We’re down but we’ve made up some ground. Not bad. Ten minutes left. And once this jam is whistled dead, it’s my time to step back on the track, this time as a blocker.
Marcie Hahn-Knoff, AKA Ava-Launcher #88, is the proud owner of a growing pile of colorful knee socks. When not obsessing about all things derby, she is usually skiing, climbing, hiking, mountain biking, playing in her whitewater kayak or hula hooping in the backyard. She also handcrafts collapsible hula hoops, which can be found at hooplahulahoops.com.
Roller Derby in a Nutshell
A flat track roller derby ‘bout,’ or competition, is played between two teams of five players. Each team consists of four ‘blockers’ (one of which is known as a pivot) and one ‘jammer.’ A bout is an hour long; within a bout as many two minute ‘jams’ take place as possible.
Blockers line up as a tight group known as the ‘pack.’ A single whistle blast signals the pack to start skating, and a double whistle blast releases the jammers. Blockers work to help their jammer through the pack while blocking the opposing team’s jammer.
The jammers’ initial lap determines who the lead jammer is—that player can call off the jam before the two minutes pass. Subsequent laps allow jammers to score points by passing members of the opposing team.
Montana roller derby leagues
Billings Roller Derby Dames
Magic City Rollers
Gallatin Roller Girlz
Electric City Roller Grrrlz
Hel’z Belles Roller Girls
Flathead Valley Roller Derby
Hellgate Roller Derby
Flat track roller derby is one of the fastest growing women’s sports in the nation. There are almost 1,200 leagues worldwide, up from only 50 in 2005. Montana has seven established leagues (Billings (2), Bozeman, Kalispell, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula). Bouts (games) are played between teams on the same league and also between leagues.
Derby’s original architect Leo Seltzer was born in Helena in 1903. No longer the televised spectacle sport of the mid 20th century, roller derby has re-emerged as a legitimate sport that’s shed its theatrical undertones. Punching, hair pulling, kicking, throwing elbows and biting are a thing of the past, as is the banked track in most locations, though the derby names and costumes live on. The sport now adheres to strictly enforced rules, governed by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. wftda.org
This story was originally published in the Summer 2012 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine. Read more here.