On Saturday, the Myrtle Beach Convention Center becomes the site for a free-for-all a full contact dustup on wheels involving jammers, blockers and alter egos vying for dominance on a flat track with participants jumping into the fray from Virginia to Florida and across the Southeast skating toward danger and never running away from it.
Welcome to the world of roller derby.
The fracas in question is Deck the Dolls III, an invitational hosted by the Palmetto State Rollergirls, a local womens flat track derby league founded in 2006. We covered the Palmetto State Rollergirls [or PSRG] in those formative days, when Weekly Surge itself was in its infancy featuring the nascent league on our Sept. 7, 2006 cover. In light of the Deck the Dolls III event, Surge took a look forward and a glance back, and with the help of key PSRG movers and shakers and others, attempted to get inside the minds of these rough-and-tumble women.
Deck the Dolls move to the vast Myrtle Beach Convention Center may be a step up in profile and a sign that support for and participation in roller derby is on the upswing along the Grand Strand.
From Academia to Derbymania
Roller girls use alter egos well-thought-out monikers that conjure up take-no-prisoners personas, and although they come from all walks of life and professions all of this is irrelevant on the flat track. As for the PSRG, there has always been a close connection to Coastal Carolina University from professors and librarians to administrators and students. From the halls of academia to the front lines of no-mercy skirmishes. A sharp contrast indeed.
Michelle Lewis, aka Piranha Mama, is a prime example of this dichotomy. Coordinator of access services at CCUs Kimbel Library and PSRGs reigning president, Lewis found out about PSRG in 2007 from her boss, Jennifer Hughes, head of access services at Kimbel Library. Her name was Bout Girl like Batgirl because Batgirl was a librarian by day and a crime fighter by night, says Lewis. I went to a practice and I just knew it was for me. It didnt matter that I was 44 at the time. I turned 50 this June, on skates in Asheville [NC]. It was the best birthday ever.
With up to 24 skaters on the roster, Lewis says the PSRG skates under the rules of an organization called the Womens Flat Track Derby Association, or WFTDA. There are two governing bodies for roller derby. One is USA Roller Sports [USARS] and we are a USARS team. There are all of these things that you have to do to become a WFTDA team, and we dont have all of that done yet.
The PSRG holds practices three days a week at the X Gym Sports Mall in Myrtle Beach and is heavy on recruiting. Every January there is a boot camp, where prospects go through four weeks of training. At the end of it, we assess you and see where you stand but I dont think we ever turned anybody down, she says. If you put your heart into this and want to do it bad enough, you could be a roller girl. Anybody interested in joining the PSRG must be at least 18. You have to get to a certain level, because if you are not at a certain level, you are detrimental to other people.
But how brutal can it get on the track?
Its a full contact sport, with mouth guards on wheels, Lewis said. Other protective gear includes helmets, elbow and knee pads. I dont want to say that its brutal, but its not for the faint of heart.
Aside from the January boot camp, the PSRG schedule is peppered with home and away matchups in connection with other leagues such as the Carolina Rollergirls [Raleigh, N.C.], Cape Fear Rollergirls [Wilmington, N.C.] and the Lowcountry High Rollers [Charleston] and others Lewis calls these sister leagues as opposed to rivals. The more derby the better. There is not a whole lot of animosity between the leagues because you want to play as much as possible. And when I say we dont have rivals, we certainly compete against them. I bout for the game and I am going to play the hardest that I can. If I knock you down oh well I will buy you a beer at the after-party.
CCU associate professor of physics Teresa Burns, aka Rockaway Beatch, has been skating with the PSRG since shortly after the group was formed in 2006 and says she joined on the same day as CCU English professor Shannon Stewart, aka Tart of Darkness, now a head referee with the organization.
Shannon saw [the] article in Surge and said, we have got to do this and I said you are right we have got to this. It was such a new organization, and they were recruiting pretty much anyone who was willing to put on a pair of skates. So we went out, strapped on our skates and I have been skating (ever) since.
Burns, who is also the parliamentarian for the group, says she skated everywhere as a kid. Sneaker skates were the big thing, she says, adding that she grew up in Rockaway Beach [N.Y.], on the south shore of Long Island. One of the parents would load us up in a car and wed drive into Manhattan and go skating in Central Park.
But how has the league changed through the years?
The skill set you needed to start back in 2006 is very different than the skill set that you need now, she says. The athleticism of the game has evolved well beyond my ability to have joined if the 2006 me were to try to join the team now. Id have far more difficulty doing it.
But dont underestimate Rockaway Beatch.
Id say that my super skill at the moment is longevity. The reason I am able to play the game now is because I have been doing it for so long. I know the game very well and how it has evolved. I know what I can do and how I can help in ways that it takes a long time to learn.
Because Burns is a physics professor we immediately thought that Super Collider would have been a suitable alternate moniker. And the laws of physics must be inextricably connected to roller derby, right?
There is no way in which the laws of physics dont control the game of roller derby. In fact, so much so that I have a whole days lesson on the physics of roller derby when I teach the introductory level class - because it is so integral and such a great illustration of the laws of physics - Newtons laws of motion momentum energy centrifugal force and circular motion and all of these things play a role in how roller derby is executed. Its really a great way to pull together all of the things that the students have learned over the course of the semester. Granted, Burns is sure to establish decorum over the semester before the big reveal. You need to establish the classroom atmosphere before you start bringing in something like Oh and by the way I beat girls on skates for fun.
Burns passed along her enthusiasm for the sport to her friend Lesley Etherson, aka Punk Blocker, who is a coach and team captain.
I have played sports my entire life so when my friend Rockaway joined and said it was fun, I thought I would give it a try, she says. I have really enjoyed it since that first day that I strapped on my skates after 15 years of not skating.
Etherson teaches digital photography and yearbook journalism at North Myrtle Beach High School and is the 2013-14 NMBHS Teacher of the Year. She is also pursuing a postgraduate degree at CCU. But she is sure to make time for her responsibilities with the PSRG.
In addition to being a skater, I am currently the training coach for the team. I design all the practices and teach the strategy that we use during bouts, she says. I mostly teach the girls how to play with each other. We have a lot of girls with varying abilities, and it is important to find a way for that to work on the track to benefit the team. I am also a captain, which means that I motivate the players during the bout, and if there are any questionable calls I negotiate with the referees. Only the captains or an alternate can do that.
And as a testimony to how real things can get on the track, Etherson says that despite rules and procedures in place to protect skaters, accidents happen. Not everyone follows those rules. I have seen shattered arms and shattered ankles. I myself have had many injuries over the years, like a separated shoulder, torn Achilles, fractured fingers, leg, and wrist. It is rough, but you dont really notice it while you are playing. At least I dont. I am so caught up in the strategy and the skating skills that sometimes I dont know how injured I am until I cant get out of bed the next day.
Ethersons husband, Louis Keiner, associate professor of physics and physical oceanography at CCU is also team photographer for the PSRG. In derby circles he is known as A Boy Named Tsunami.
Grand Strand Regional Center clinical staff pharmacist Angie Short has been an active participant in the PSRG since Januarys boot camp. Short, aka Short Storm, also handles multiple duties for the league like press releases and ticket sales and she is a non-skating official, or NSO. I work with the referees to keep score, record penalties, time the penalty box, and so on, she says, adding that all team members are constantly tasking off the track, and that with each job there is a lesson learned. There is no better way to learn the rules/penalties than being part of the officiating crew.
Short will be participating in her first bout at the Deck the Dolls III event, and she can pinpoint her initial motivation. I saw a movie on TV about it when I was a kid [Kansas City Bomber] with Raquel Welch, and thought it looked so cool.
And the boot camp is something Short would recommend to others. Women of all skill levels are welcome, she says. After going through it, I can say showing up might be intimidating, but there is not a more welcoming group of women anywhere.
Moving on up?
With the recent shuttering of the Dreamland Skating Arena in Conway, the PSRG lost its de facto home bout venue. This was a blow, considering that plans were already in the works for Deck the Dolls III.
When Dreamland closed we were all of a sudden in this quandary about what we were going to do, says Burns. I am just so thankful that Piranha took the leap and called the [Convention Center]. We had no reason to think that this would come together, but its coming together immensely.
Myrtle Beach Convention Center sales manager Rita Harrell got that phone call from Lewis. She was very upset that they didnt have a place to do their invitational. Were always happy to help people, she says, citing Southern hospitality.
Harrell met with Convention Center GM Paul Edwards and events manager Frankie Sluss to come up with a solution. The upshot is that the PSRG is coming in to Hall C right before setup begins for the annual Beach Ball Classic basketball tournament. They are going to come in right before they put the floor down for the Beach Ball Classic. Moving forward, the Convention Center could be the home for future bouts, provided the PSRG garners additional sponsors and comes up with the funds.
Harrell says the Convention Center has never played host to roller derby, but is hoping for a good turnout. We are hoping that it draws a good crowd locally more than usual since it is in the center of Myrtle Beach, and get the public more involved. A lot of these people are professors at Coastal its a real interesting mix.
Says PSRG president Lewis: The Convention Center is being very wonderful to us because we lost our venue at a moments notice, and they opened their doors to us. We want to make sure we are doing right by them.
Its just really is a dream come true, says parliamentarian Burns. I know its going to be big and I know its going to be awesome we have so much great support from the community [its] closer to where everybody actually lives and people can make it part of [their] day.
A portion of the proceeds from Deck the Dolls III will benefit the Lowcountry Food Bank. We were very pleasantly surprised when we found out they chose to support hunger relief in the Myrtle Beach area, says Lowcountry Food Bank Communications and Special Events Manager Holly Shinn. We know that Deck the Dolls is going to be such a fun way to contribute to hunger relief. Since each dollar raised creates six meals, proceeds from the event have the ability to make a huge impact on the Grand Strand. We are so thankful for all the awareness that will come from this partnership and PSRGs efforts with Deck the Dolls.
Saturdays event will feature two junior bouts for skaters ages 10-17, a fresh meat bout, a one hour veterans bout and a mens bout.
Huh? A mens bout?
Meet Walter White, technology support analyst for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and marketing director for Collision Mens Derby in Raleigh. Yes. Walter White is his real name and he was a huge fan of Breaking Bad so much so that his first derby name was Heisenberg before he changed it to Waltercation. Some people at HP still [ask me if its my real name] when I call for tech support. They are located in Albuquerque, N.M.
White has been skating with Collision since March 2013. One of my co-workers skates for PSRG [Laura Stover aka Fairy Brutal] and she told me about a mens team that she practices with in Raleigh. Fairy invited me to a Collision outing event at a Carolina Hurricanes game, he says. There I met Doug Hayes [aka Camo Rodeo] and he told me more about the guys and the team. After meeting everyone I was sold on the idea of playing. I bought skates the next day and went to practice that following Sunday.
When we asked White what the public reaction to mens roller derby was, his response was classic. Wait, men play too?
White will be coming down to Myrtle Beach with four other skaters from Collision. We are very thankful that the PSRG added a mens bout to the events this year. We hope for an awesome turnout and hopefully get some more guys interested in roller derby.
Carolina Rollergirls (Raleigh) training director and skater Renee McHugh, aka Elektra Q-Tion, will represent at Deck the Dolls III as well. This will be my third year doing this particular invitational, she says. I found out about it through my good friends Fairy Brutal and Punk Blocker.
But McHugh, who is a graphic designer for the State of North Carolina, has spent quite a bit of time with her PSRG sisters. Palmetto is my league away from my league. I spend as much time as I can coming down to visit these ladies. Sometimes they let me coach their practices, which is so much fun. She was a substitute skater for the PSRG earlier this year. I can't really say enough nice things about them. I love playing with them and against them; because we know each other so well, we tend to be able to anticipate what the other person is going to try on the track, which makes it even more exciting. After we leave the track, we will all go somewhere and celebrate how lucky we are to play this sport together.
As a testament to the badass side of things, McHugh says things get very brutal. In my five years of skating, I've broken my nose twice, cracked my sternum, broken my finger three times, gotten countless bruises...it's a war. Remember, derby has a ton in common with hockey and football, and we wear way less padding. I don't know how many derby girls are skating out there with knee reconstructions or pins or permanent injuries, but they are. And, they do it without pay, without professional trainers and while usually working full time. These women are tough.
PSRG captain Etherson sums up her take on the roller derby experience: Roller derby is not just a sport, it is a mindset - a cultural movement that started with women but is now expanding to men and children. It is one of the few things that I have ever been involved with in my life that is accepting of everyone. It celebrates the diversity of each person involved and does not put anyone down. It is a worldwide network of athletes that look out for each other off the track and then try and kill each other on the track. I have never experienced anything like it anywhere else in the world. Viva La Roller Derby!