Jul 03, 2023

'A family you feel safe with': Hartford Area Roller Derby fosters athleticism and inclusivity

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Four years ago, Sue McFarland never thought she’d be on a roller derby team. She was 51 years old and hadn’t skated for over 20 years. But she played rugby in college, so she thought she’d give it a try.

“The rest is history,” McFarland said, as she worked the ticket booth at the Hartford Area Roller Derby’s home opener in April. It was the start of the group’s first full season since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

McFarland now skates with the Hartford Banshees. It’s one of the league's two teams. Hartford Area Roller Derby, or H.A.R.D., is one of three roller derby leagues in Connecticut. The others are in southeastern Connecticut and the Waterbury area.

Before she put her skates on, McFarland had to get fans through the door. The whole operation is a DIY, volunteer effort. McFarland handed out programs and warned newcomers there “might be contact” with players if they sit in the first row – a line of folding chairs in a gymnasium at Nomads Adventure Quest in South Windsor. Across the room, officials carefully placed tape on the floor to create boundaries for a track.

At the beginning of the first game — or “bout” in roller derby terms — players from the Hartford Wailers and Roller Derby Québec line up on the track. Each team has one player with a star on their helmet called the “jammer” who is positioned behind the other players, who are called blockers.

The goal is for the jammers to get through the blockers and score points by skating laps around the track. The whistle blows, the blockers maneuver, and the jammers do their best to break free. Once the first jammer gets by, a two-minute period begins where both jammers can score points.

After the first few jams, the Québec team took the lead. McFarland noted how fast their jammer was. “The people who have been skating a lot of seasons, the skates are just an extension of their bodies,” she said.

But she wasn’t surprised. “We intentionally booked teams to play this year to challenge ourselves,” McFarland said.

Roller derby has had different waves of popularity since its origin in the 1930s. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the sport shifted to be more a form of entertainment. It often had predetermined games and staged theatrics both on TV and in large arenas. But in the early 2000s, dozens of self-organized roller derby leagues started to form, touting a more inclusive, DIY culture.

McFarland said players on the team come from a variety of backgrounds. “Our team is made up of teachers, physical therapists, executives at publicly traded jobs,” she said. “What’s cool about derby is that you can come and do something completely different here … I guess we all have a Clark Kent,” she said.

Alicia Bray's day job is at a nonprofit. But after work, she’s known as Karma’kaz E. Killer on the track. That night she picked up the jammer’s star to score a few points.

“‘I’m fairly fast, I'm decent on my feet,” she said. “I enjoy blocking more, but I do what I gotta do for the team.”

Jess Couture, a player in training, sometimes makes a two-hour round trip drive to practice from Massachusetts. She first started playing in another league just a few minutes from her house, but said she didn’t feel accepted.

“Because I was a lesbian … I was kind of an outcast in it. Every time I wore rainbow stuff, I just didn’t feel welcome there,” Couture said.

In Hartford, Couture said she feels a sense of belonging. “The camaraderie that I feel with these women is something that I only felt in the military,” she said.

The next step in Couture’s training was to pass a skills test, after which she could pick her official name. She has a few ideas in the running — Pam Beastly, Thunder Mifflin, Luna Shovegood, to name a few — mostly inspired by characters of TV shows and movies she likes.

“It’s kind of like building your own family you feel safe with … you get to be yourself without any questions,” said Rumblebee, a.k.a. Nikki Simonelli, as she propped up her leg in a cast on the sidelines of the bout. She broke it while playing the week before. Despite that, Simonelli said, there’s a misconception that roller derby is violent.

“A lot of people think roller derby is punching and elbowing and stuff, and it’s actually not,” she said. The league plays by the official rules of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Those rules forbid skaters from using their heads, elbows, forearms, hands, knees, lower legs, or feet to make contact with opponents.

During the bout, the gym was filled with a cacophony of whistles, skates (and people) hitting the floor. There were coaches yelling and penalty calls from the referees. About 17 officials – seven on skates – roamed the floors, keeping the game moving.

Cassidy Weatherington, a.k.a. “Maverick,” head coach of the Wailers, said it’s important to maintain a careful focus. After every jam, a new group of players subbed in.

“In those new lineups, there are additional strategies you can utilize based on the strengths and the opportunities of your players,” she said. “But the other team is doing the same thing, so you’re always adjusting. So that’s why it’s always an amoeba of focus.”

Weatherington said flat track roller derby makes the sport more accessible to different communities.

“The banked track is definitely the history of roller derby. But not every community can purchase a banked track, or get a space that can house a banked track permanently,” she said.

Although the Wailers ended up losing to Québec, morale was still high when the game ended. After the final jam, the team huddled up and led a group cheer thanking the refs and the other team.

As volunteers broke down the track after the second bout, Caitlin Breen of the Hartford Banshees reflected how much roller derby meant to her.

“Realizing that I am an athlete, treating myself like an athlete, is kind of new to me. It’s something that’s really special that I did not expect in my life,” she said. “It taught me a lot of stuff about myself I didn’t know.”

Hartford Area Roller Derby's next bout is on Saturday, June 10, against teams from New York and New Jersey.