Off in the distance something catches your eye. It’s as purple as the Goshen College color itself –maybe even more purple. If the velvet neon purple didn’t already distract you from class, the neon pink wheels and cyan blue toe stop surely did.
The image is getting closer – it’s Goshen College junior Riley Friesner and she’s just bought a new pair of skates. “These particular skates aren’t for derby, but I was excited about their arrival so I wore them around,” Friesner said. Friesner is a roller derby girl, but as she wears her skates to class, it is clear that her derby life doesn’t end on the track.
Friesner competes for a South Bend roller derby team called The Studebreakers and she practices twice a week, playing games from summer until fall. Her team membership is $25 each month, in addition to buying her own gear and driving to South Bend from her home in Elkhart. “Unfortunately, roller derby doesn’t run on love alone,” Friesner said. “But it’s worth it.”
On the track, where she’s known as Ivana Bumpalot, she glides effortlessly as though she were on ice. She’s decked out in knee pads, a helmet and butt pads because the nature of this sport is fast and hard. Though she’s not the score earner (the jammer), she’s no stranger to injuries from jams.
A jam happens like this: the jammer scores a point for her team each time she passes players from the opposing team. It may sound easy in print, but the real thing is full of game-approved body checks and tricky skating formations. It’s rough and tight teamwork. “It’s all about trying to keep the jammer from getting through or around your pack,” Friesner said.
“The most common injury in derby is getting a concussion,” Friesner said. “I almost got one before my first bout [game]. I landed head over butt and it felt like my brain was oozing out the side of my head. No concussion for me, just some whiplash, and I played the next day.”
Friesner began skating for fun as a second grader. She played on a pee-wee hockey team at age 13, and at 18
Friesner joined the South Bend Studebreakers league. “My high school saxophone teacher’s wife, who was on a derby league at the time, got me ready for derby-101,” Friesner said.
For Friesner, the sport is about body positivity and feeling fierce. In derby there is no preferred body type.
“Whether you’re short and broad or a skinny, tall, Amazon woman, which I’m neither of, the sport can use you,” Friesner said.
There is also an element of empowerment that comes with a kick butt sport such as this, Friesner says, and she loves that edge to the sport as well.
“Even the derby players who play at professional levels are still everyday women,” she said. “They’re nurses, teachers, librarians you name it.”
On the track, the women aren’t dressed in costume, they don’t fight, and they don’t skate on a banked track as team members do in the movie “Whip It” starring Ellen Page; but, as in the movie, they do maintain derby names.
Friesner says some of her favorite names, and skaters, are Scaled Eagle, Suzi Hotrod, and Estro Jen. Others include Elbow Nita and Tara M Up. Friesner’s all-time favorite is Slaughter Melon.
“I have what we call a ‘derby wife’, basically your roller derby bestie, whose name is Alotta Pushy,” Friesner says. Names are usually created with the help of teammates.
The Studebreakers use names, but Friesner explains that some places have stopped in an attempt to gain more legitimacy. According to Friesner, both costumes and names have become arguing points as some say that the silly additions keep roller derby from being seen seriously. Friesner said, “[In South Bend] we got rid of the costumes so we could be seen more respectably.”
But there are still some places that use the costumes. As of now, costume wearing is a personal choice rather than a rule.
Friesner has seen tailbones broken and skates detach from feet but the feeling of empowerment is what brings her back. The sport can be rough but; the team knows how to have a good time, injuries or bruises become medals, and you’ll at least leave with a cooler name than you had going in.
But for the most part, Friesner’s advice about derby is simple: “Grab a pair of cheap skates and come try derby-101.”