Roller derby is sometimes described as playing speed chess on wheels while someone throws bricks at your head. Team Montana made a splash at the national all-star tournament last year and is preparing to exceed expectations once again.
At the Gallatin County Fairgrounds in Bozeman, the Haynes Pavilion fills up with roller derby fans. A woman with bright blue hair, a professor in a zip-up sweater and some guys in plaid all sit in the same bleacher section.
They’re here to watch Gallatin Roller Derby compete against Helena’s Helz Belles.
At a practice the morning after the match, the referee Olga Kreimer explains the rules.
“Each team has five people on the track at any given time. One from each team is the jammer and that’s the person who earns the points,” Kreimer says.
With each play, the two jammers try to push or weave through the pack of blockers. The one who gets through skates around the rink back to the pack. Each time she passes opposing team members on this second trip, she earns points for her team.
Roller Derby is the world’s fastest growing female sport and that is reflected in Montana. Since Billings and Great Falls started their teams in 2011, at least six more have popped up around the state.
Last year, some of the best players were selected for Team Montana to compete in the Battle of the All-Stars. Of twenty teams, they were seeded 14th. They placed 7th.
Montana’s splash on the national scene has been referred to as a Cinderella story. Since the state has fewer people, it can be tougher to recruit players, and teams have to spend a lot of time and money traveling.
Kelsey Clark is Team Montana’s captain. In the rink, she’s known as Mauled Whiskey.
“Distance for opponents is a huge one. So if you live on the East Coast or the West Coast you might have ten teams you can play within a two hour drive whereas here you have two teams within a five hour drive,” Clark says.
That means athletes in Montana pay more for gas, hotels and food and spend more time away from their work and families.
So why do they do it?
“Because of roller derby’s reputation as being a little bit alternative, being something that a sport that people with tattoos do, a sport that’s got a little bit of showmanship, I think it draws people who maybe didn’t do sports in high school and realize for the first time how amazing it can be to be part of a team and working towards goals together,” Clark says.
Clark’s an assistant research professor at Montana State University. She joined Gallatin Roller Derby and Team Montana several years ago after moving to Bozeman because she wanted to try something new.
Karen Hancock , or Special Chaos, is the secretary at a public elementary school, has three kids and is married to a pastor. She says she loves how the sport brings a diversity of lifestyles together.
“As an adult, we often don’t choose to do something where we might fail. We have picked what we’re good at and stuck with that. So it’s really a great experience to try something new and learn from the ground up,” Hancock says.
Here’s April Schroeder, also known as Fog Horn or Foggy.
“I was looking for some kind of adult sport that had some contact but also you could meet new people, and I had older kids and so I didn’t have to be at home all the time. I was athletic as a younger person so it was kind of neat to step back into it in my 30s. It was like, ‘Oh, yay!’” Schroeder says.
While Team Montana prepares for the all-star tournament in February, some of the local teams around the state will be hosting boot camps for people interested in giving roller derby a go.
Jess Brown, or Little Stout, has been playing roller derby for eight years.
“Roller Derby is a real sport. You should come in and expect to be tried physically. It will hurt. It will hurt both in muscle soreness and being hit on the track, but if you stick with it, you can do it. Remember, the stronger you are, the better you will fare,” Brown says.