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Belles of the Flat Track

Jamming to the front of the pack with the Mid Iowa Rollers


By Jared Curtis

The sport of roller derby has never been about the prestige and honor of competing. It’s been about the cultural bond over getting down and dirty on eight wheels. Roller derby girls are the kind your mother warned you about: tough chicks that would rather be on skates than in heels. They are the toughest girls this side of the Mississippi River, the Mid Iowa Rollers.

“If you love to skate, this sport is fucking awesome,” says Stephanie “Lass ERation” Stewart. “There is nothing better than getting in the rink and beating the hell out of each other.”

The Mid Iowa Rollers are a Des Moines-based roller derby team. Although the sport has fallen to the side in recent decades, a resurgence has been slowly building throughout the country and Des Moines has become a part of this growth.

“I was watching TV and I came across this show,” says founding member Jamie “Dangerous” Daugharthy. “It was a show about these girls playing roller derby and it was awesome.”

Daugharthy is talking about the TXRD Lonestar RollerGirls based in Austin, Texas. The girls were a subject of a reality show, “RollerGirls,” which told the stories of the lives these skaters lived on and off the track.

After watching the show and conducting some research on the Internet, Daugharthy found that there were teams and leagues popping up all over the Midwest, but there were no teams based in Iowa.

“My boyfriend suggested I just start a league,” Daugharthy says. “So I did.”

In the beginning, the Mid Iowa Rollers had five girls on the team. Now it has 17.

“I saw a flyer in a bar bathroom and wanted to know what it was all about,” says Tessa “Roxy Knocks” Wilkinson. “I started going to practice and, after a few months, I felt strong on my skates.”

The history of roller derby

In 1929, a film publicist named Leo Seltzer was losing business to the newest trend, dance marathons. Seltzer fooled around with the dance marathon concept and came up with the idea of two member teams, skating around the track. The first event was a race of 3,000 miles, the distance from Los Angeles to New York City. The winners of that event skated for 11 hours a day and out lasted 25 others teams.

Seltzer then took his race on the road throughout the country. At some matches, contestants would fall, which would result in a massive pile up of skaters. A sports writer saw this as the most interesting part and approached Seltzer about changing the game to include physical contact. After some convincing Seltzer agreed and fans loved the new concept. Over time the sport developed into the five on five games that are played today.

In 1947, roller derby debuted on ABC and the National Roller Derby League was formed. In 1949, the leagues playoffs sold out Madison Square Garden for an entire week. With six teams spread throughout the country, everyone could root for a team. But in 1953 Seltzer moved the home base from New York to Los Angeles and debuted the most famous team in roller derby history, the San Francisco Bombers. A member of this team included one of the most famous ladies to every strap on skates, Ann “The Demon of the Derby” Calvello. The TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls named their championship trophy, the Calvello Cup in honor of her roller derby legacy.

Seltzer gave the league to his son, Jerry, in 1958 and the sport continued to grow. Jerry Seltzer syndicated his league to 120 television stations throughout the country, which introduced the sport to new fans and the Bombers went on coast-to-coast tours, selling out venues before record crowds. The highest attendance record was set in 1972 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. More than 50,000 fans attended a match between the Bombers and the Midwest Pioneers. But only a year later, financial losses and other problems led Seltzer to shut down the roller derby league. Players went their separate ways and several small leagues began popping up all over the country, but their popularity was never as wide scale.

In 1989, roller derby got a face-lift thanks to Bill Griffith Sr., who brought the sport to TV once again, but this time with a little more theatrics. “Roller Games” featured a steep banked track, an alligator pit in the middle of track and a mix of veteran and new skaters. The show featured six teams, the T-Birds, Violators, Bad Attitude, Rockers, Hot Flash and the Maniacs. It had a lot of flash and pizzazz, but not much else and was broadcast for only one season before the distributor filed for bankruptcy.

In 1999, Pageboy Entertainment joined forces with CBS to once again bring roller derby to the masses with “Roller Jam.” Once again, stars from yesteryear, members of the “Roller Games” teams and numerous nationally-ranked speed skaters came together for the six-team, World Skating League. Jerry Seltzer returned to the sport and on camera, becoming the league commissioner. All the action took place in the Roller Jam Arena, located in Orlando, Fla. The teams were co-ed and featured elaborate player storylines and feuds. The show was broadcasted on TNN, but once again didn’t last long and the future of roller derby was looking dim.

The new school

In 2001, Bad Girl Good Women Productions was the first league of the new generation to only allow females on the team. They held their first match in the summer of 2002 in Austin. But the league was divided about rules and regulations and eventually split. Some went to the flat track, while others, stayed with the banked track. With the help of the “RollerGirls” reality show and the love of the sport, both types of track play, flat and banked, have helped launch multiple leagues throughout the U.S.

As of July 2007, more than 150 leagues are apart of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. The WFTDA governs inter-league play and travel teams to play against each other in regional matches. The WFTDA publishes the team rankings and keeps bout scores. Their first tournament, the 2006 “Dust Devil,” was held in Tucson, Ariz. There are also a large number of independent teams waiting to be recognized by the WFTDA, like the Mid Iowa Rollers.
A convention, Roller Con, is held in August in Las Vegas. It offers skill training workshops, equipment vendors, skate repair, cheerleading camp and referee classes throughout five days.

How they play

The basics of roller derby breaks down likes this. Five members for each team are on the track at once, consisting of a “jammer” and four “blockers” including a “bumper,” who is last in the pack and the first to block the jammer and the “pivot,” which is the first person in the pack, controlling the speed of the group and providing the last line of defense.

The jammers start at the end of the pack and race to the front of the group. On their second lap, they try to get past as many of the other team’s players as possible scoring points for each person they pass. The blockers try to stop the jammer by any means necessary. The first jammer that gets to the front of the pack is considered the “lead jammer” and once they score or think there are no more scoring opportunities, they can call off the jam by placing their hands on their hips. This concludes the match and fresh legs are brought onto the track. Teams battle for three 20-minute periods, with each jam lasting two minutes. There is also a 20-minute break between periods.

Back to the Midwest

“What we are lacking is girls,” says Lindsay “Fanny Firestarter” Leimbacher. “We hope to have inter-league bouts someday. I would like to see us keep growing and spreading around like butter on toast.”

As of now, the Mid Iowa Rollers have 15 players. They practice three times a week and work hard at what they love.

“It’s great exercise and it keeps a bad girl out of trouble,” Wilkinson says.

The practice sessions are run like a fine-tuned machine, as players cover drills and techniques as well as build endurance and speed on their skates. Co-founder Ella “Knock Around Suzie” McLandsborough, yells out commands and keeps her “sisters” in the best possible shape.

“We have all worked together to get this league started,” McLandsborough says. “We have fought tooth and nail to recruit and get girls, amongst other things.”

Each week, the girls practice at Skate North and Skate South, both in Des Moines and at Spinnin’ Wheels in Oskaloosa, where the players work on fundamentals and have fun. Most of the girls live and work in Des Moines, but some, like Anna “D-Killa Amazon” DeVilder, who lives in Grinnell, travel for practices.

“I drive here every week because I love the sport,” DeVilder says. “It’s a long distance, week after week, but I’m addicted.”

DeVilder’s daughter Zoe, 8, comes to practice and hopes one day she will be a Mid Iowa Roller, like her mom.

“I want to be on the team, but I have to wait 10 more years,” she says.

The girls get rink time before and after regular operating hours, so they can get the most out of their practice.

“I have a friend in Missouri who is a roller derby coach,” says Skate North manager Dante Muse. “So when the girls came to me about practicing here, I was more than happy to offer them the space. I try to help them anyway I can, and I’m anxious to see them play.”

The team traveled to Omaha in June to take on the Omaha Roller Girls. They have two teams, the Victoria Secret Service and the Low Down Lucy’s. The Mid Iowa Rollers ventured into Nebraska and battled the “fresh meat squad,” a team comprised of the younger members of Omaha’s two teams. Even though the Mid Iowa Rollers lost 120-90, they gained some valuable experience.

“We lost, but it was by far the best learning experience for the team,” Leimbacher says. “Many thanks goes out to Sharon Misery and Bruiseberry Muffin for stepping out of their Omaha Roller Girls uniforms and slapping on a MIR manager shirt.”

This wasn’t the first time the Mid Iowa Rollers have been involved with Sharon Misery. She saw a post on a message board by Knock Around Suzie, about getting some help with drills. Misery contacted the girls and offered to come to town.

“Derby is a huge sisterhood and Lincoln’s No Coast Derby Team came and helped us get started and I wanted to return the favor,” Misery says.

She came to Des Moines on five different occasions to help get the girls rolling. When the season was about to start, Misery wanted to give the Mid Iowa Rollers a shot and invited them to town during their interleague season.

“They played and lost, but they did a great job and really made me proud,” says Misery, who was their manager for the bout. “They did amazing for their first bout and really held their own, kept up their endurance and pushed themselves to the next level.”

Misery loves her company.

“Roller Derby has grown a phenomenal amount over the last couple years and every roller girl is just as passionate as I am about the sport,” she says. “I think the more leagues in the Midwest, the better!” 

Not just for the ladies

Even though the team consists of women, it doesn’t mean the guys can’t be involved. Each team needs referees, managers and scorekeepers. One of the Mid Iowa Rollers refs, Patrick “Paddi Cake” Schutte, enjoys his time in the rink, even though he can’t get physical.

“It’s an awesome time,” Schutte says. “I get to hang out with the ladies and have some fun.”

Schutte attends most of the practices and was introduced to the sport through friends.

“When I heard about the team and what they were doing, I wanted in,” Schutte says.

If your interested in helping out, stop by at practices or future bouts, but what the Mid Iowa Rollers really need is more skaters and sponsors.

“It’s a great work out and it keeps you out of trouble,” says Daugharthy. “If you love to skate, there is nothing better than flying around and knocking people down.”

The team is always looking for new members. If you are over 18, can skate, like to get physical and have a little bit of attitude, this team is for you.

“Roller derby is for all types of girls no matter how short or tall, big or small, it’s for all types of personalities,” says Danielle “D’Shiznit” McDowell.

The team is also looking for sponsors and offers sponsorship packages for businesses and individuals. So far they have a few sponsors, but are always looking for more. The season runs from March until October, so there is still time to get involved and strap on some skates, players say.

“Ladies, leave the babies at home with the men and come hang out with us,” says Wilkinson. “If you try it once, you won’t regret it. You’ll be hooked.” CV

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