There’s a group of women, most of them moms, in Pensacola that you don’t want to mess with. They can hit and take a hit all while skating.
Roller Derby, a pseudo-sport of the 1970s on par with today’s WWE has become a real, muscle-working sport. Women are dressed in fishnets and sparkly helmets, but that’s just to throw the audience off.
“It’s not just about the cute little outfits, the novelties wear off,” said Cheleen Figueroa, or Warrant Beauty as it says on her jersey. “I’ve seen a lot of girls join because they think it looks fun, but it’s work. If you don’t love it, you’re not going to stick with it. We pay monthly dues for girls to hit us.”
The Pensacola Roller Gurlz is a bit of a local sports underdog. The organization began in September 2010 with a rocky start. In November 2011, they got a new coach, Jody Nelson, and are facing their current season with a positive attitude.
“We’ve won one game – I won’t say how many we lost,” Nelson said with a laugh.
Nelson, or Lord O°K-Oz – yes even men get a derby name, was a regular referee at games before he was asked by the Gurlz to coach the team. Now he has the task of coaching almost 30 women including his wife.
“Sometimes I ref more than I coach,” he confessed. “My wife tells me ‘You don’t need to make that call.’”
Nelson is obviously outnumbered. Often times, he does get picked on.
“On my birthday, they threw me a surprise party. They beat me up,” Nelson said. “Oddly enough I really enjoyed it.”
Nelson’s coaching skills help the Roller Gurlz not just play well, but play well together.
“He strives to make us the best team we can be,” Figueroa said. “He’s very good with constructive criticism. He tries to build us up instead of tearing us down.”
The team practices three times a week at Dreamland Skate Center, where their games are held as well. Practices are late in the evening until 11 p.m. After the skaters have spent the day caring for their children, at work or both, they meet to workout in skates. Nelson even makes them do push-ups.
“My friends ask me, ‘How do you have the energy to do that?’” said Susan Carter who goes by Smacker Jack Suzie. “But when I’m here I don’t think about home, work, the laundry – it’s a stress reliever.”
Anyone can try-out for the Pensacola Roller Gurlz, no experience or skill required. In fact, on Nelson’s practice sheet, where he has team mottos typed out alongside practice drills, reads encouraging quotes such as “Winning is uncertain. Playing good derby is not,” and “Skills are teachable.”
When Carter saw the Roller Gurlz float in the Mardi Gras parade, she was certain that was a group of women she’d like to hang out with. She shuffle-skated through the 1980s, but wasn’t prepared for her “fresh meat” training.
“The first time I hit, I thought ‘What did I get myself into?” she said. “Who would’ve thought hitting would be so much fun? It’s real strategic stuff and it takes every muscle to do it.”
Working those muscles has its benefits. Players enjoy their derby bodies.
“My thighs and butt got bigger,” said Warrant Beauty with a smile. “I look damn good in sweats.”
“We call her Warrant Ego,” joked one of her teammates.
As one of the older teammates, Carter refers to herself as the “momma” of the group, but that doesn’t make her less intimidating.
“We have moms of teenagers on the team. They kick my ass all the time,” said Laura Herlehy, or Hurl-A-She. “They skate circles around me.”
Kim Medina, or Kimikal Imbalance, is one of the captains and “mommas” of the team. As a tomboy growing up, Medina was involved in many sports, skating was just one of them. Now she plays a game that by first glance looks girly, with its fishnet and tutu clad teammates, but can be very rough.
“For a lot of girls, your roller derby persona is like an alter ego – like Wonder Woman,” Medina said. “A lot of the girly-girls are the best ones.”
Girly-girl or not, roller derby is more of a way of life than extracurricular sport. Herlehy, for instance, can spout off the entire history of roller derby without a pause. She quotes the popular derby quote, “Roller derby saved my soul.”
“Growing up, I had a big issue with confidence,” she said. “I found confidence I never had before in roller derby. After your first 90 days of training, when you get your name, you’re reborn.”
The sport, Figueroa described as “football on wheels” has left some players on the sidelines. Nelson’s wife, Alicia or K-Oz Kitten, hasn’t been able to play this season because of knee surgery. Mary Thompson a.k.a. Spark L. Vixen also suffered a knee injury. Instead of playing alongside the girls, she referees in her glitter helmet. She couldn’t just quit cold turkey.
“Once you start playing, it’s addictive,” Thompson said. “I cried for a week after my injury.”
No matter what the next bouts – that’s derby talk for games – have in store for the Pensacola Roller Gurlz, they will continue to skate for the love of the game and each other.
“We fought so hard to bring the team to what it is,” Herlehy said. “We’re not just a team, we’re sisters.”
PENSACOLA ROLLER GURLZ VS. MOBILE DERBY DARLINGS
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Sunday, May 27
WHERE: Dreamland Skate Center, 2607 E. Olive Road
COST: $10 in advance, $12 at the door
DETAILS: pensacolarollergurlz.com or myskatecenter.com/pensacola