Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
As a pile of bodies tumbled to the track, Haylee Peace tried to reassure me and anyone else fascinated by roller derby.
“It’s not as scary as it looks,” Peace said.
Peace is a member of the Junior Rolling Rebels, a local youth roller derby team featuring members from Sarasota and Manatee counties. The Rebels were based at Sarasota’s Stardust Skate Center before it closed in 2018. Now the co-ed team practices and hosts matches at Bradenton’s Astro Skate, the same location as the adult Bradentucky Bombers team. I took in a practice session June 25 as the team prepared for a June 29 bout in Jacksonville.
Peace, known as “Hail Storm” on the track, may be right about the looks, but what about the sounds? Each screech of a wheel as it takes a turn and stops short of a major collision sounds like a 1920s freight train coming to a halt. Because of the echo in the skate hall, each body tumbling to Earth hits with a thud you feel in your chest, even standing on the sideline.
Thankfully, players wear helmets and plenty of padding. You might get a few bruises, Peace said, but you generally walk away from bouts unscathed. Everyone who fell — multiple times — during the hour-long session got back to their feet. When I talked to the Bombers in 2017, many members said they joined the team in search of community. Was it that same reason that caused the Rebels’ players to try roller derby?
Not really. Peace, Ashley Britt and Liam Emmons all said they joined because they knew someone associated with the sport. They were around it, they saw it, they tried it and they loved it. But even if a community wasn’t what they searched for, it was what they found in the 16-person club. Peace and Britt, for example, have been best friends since Peace joined six years ago. (Britt has been on the team 11 years). Roller derby isn’t a common denominator between most people. Those who share in the experience treasure it.
They find the grind of the sport fun, too. Britt, nicknamed Demolition Darling, said it’s nice to exert her physicality and not get in trouble for it. She’s also learned skills that will help her off the track, like patience.
“People will not listen to you, no matter what color panty (roller derby cap denoting position) you are wearing,” Britt, who mainly plays the pivot, said.
Peace said the rush of the crowd keeps her going in the most difficult moments.
Roller derby — the names, the energy, the communication, the perseverance — is hard to imagine without seeing it. So go see it, or try it, if you’re reading this and under 18. Emmons said he thinks it is something everyone should discover for themselves. Maybe you’ll hate it. Maybe you’ll fall in love.
The Junior Rolling Rebels’ next home bout is July 14 against Pinellas Park’s The Attack Pack, so mark it on your calendar. These kids would pound me into submission and not feel bad about it. They are tougher than a well-done steak.
I was fascinated watching them, and the sounds of the sport will stick with me for a long time.