Hell on Wheels

Don't let the pious name fool you. As Sister Mary Jane of the Lonestar Rollergirls league, I play for keeps.

I TRIED OUT FOR THE LONESTAR ROLLERGIRLS in March of last year. I had been playing basketball with the City of Austin men’s league, and most of my friends knew me as the tough girl. One weekend when I was out of town, my friends went and saw a roller derby bout. And when I got back, they were like, “We have found the thing for you. You get to beat the crap out of girls.” I’d never seen roller derby, not even on TV, so I didn’t know what the rules were or if it was staged or real. And I hadn’t roller-skated since the sixth grade. But I just went to the tryouts and told myself, “This is your one chance. You can do it.” I landed on my tailbone when it came to the jumping. But I made the team.

Now I skate with the Holy Rollers. We’re undefeated so far this year. There are three other teams in our league: the Hellcats, the Rhinestone Cowgirls, and the Putas del Fuego. We’re also adding another team, the Cherry Bombs, and we have a traveling team, the All Scar Army. It’s completely volunteer-based. Our dues go toward an injured-skater fund, so we can pay the insurance deductible for any girl who gets hurt. We have at least two practices a week, and our season runs from February through November; we have about fourteen bouts a year. This month we’re playing for the Calvello Cup—named after Ann Calvello, who was known as the Queen of the Derby back in the day—at our Roller Derby World Championship, in Austin.

When roller derby got started in Austin, in 2002, it was the local founders who came up with the names and outfits for each team. They wanted to make it all sexy. So as a Holy Roller you’ve got to have a plaid skirt; we’re the Catholic schoolgirls gone bad. We buy our skirts online from some poor school that has no idea. Then you personalize your uniform, and you also have to come up with a name for yourself. It becomes your character. A friend came up with mine. I’m still developing Sister Mary Jane’s persona, but she’s one of the most popular players right now.

The founders were four women who had the idea to revive roller derby. They didn’t know a whole lot about it; they just figured it out as they went. That’s why our fighting is real. Back in the seventies it was more staged, but the founders—we call them the She-EOs—didn’t know that it was fake. So they did real fighting. We’ve certainly changed the physical aggressiveness of it. We even keep a list of our injuries on our Web site, and we’ll take pictures. At the same time, because we want to preserve the original, using Rollerblades has never even been a question. And our league—there are now two in the city—skates on a banked track from the seventies.

There’s not a prototypical roller derby girl. There are moms, schoolteachers, accountants, brokers, strippers, bartenders. I’m a special-ed teacher. We’re really like a family. When a girl broke her leg last year, we checked up on her every day; we take turns from practice to babysit the kids; everybody is always taking care of each other. The original roller derby had men, but to us it’s important that it be a woman thing. That’s the best thing about it, really. It’s skater-organized play, we run the entire operation ourselves, and we’re building it from the ground up. So besides being a source of energy, it’s about learning to work with each other. In the end, I think, what draws me isn’t so much the bouts themselves but rather the working with the women and learning and creating something together. As long as that’s a part of it, I’ll always be involved. Unless, of course, I break my neck first.

As told to Katharyn Rodemann

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