A Day With the Texas Rollergirls

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A homemade sign at the end of Trade Center Drive reads “ROLLER DERBY TONIGHT.” It’s an All-Star night at “The Blood Shed,” the Texas Rollergirls’ home facility, and the Texecutioners will be taking on a team from Tampa at 6PM.

It is only a little after noon, but there are already quite a few cars in the Shed’s parking lot, ushered into their spaces by caution cones painted black with splattered red “blood.” That’s because for the Texas Rollergirls and the members of their hodgepodge crew, derby day doesn’t start when the first whistle blows. The games, or bouts as they are called in derby, are just part of the experience. The hours leading up to them are just as crucial.

“Stone Her” – a TXRG Hotrod Honey and Texecutioner in her derby life and food and beverage server named Amber Schultheis in the real world – says the day actually started an hour and a half earlier with the Texecutioners' team meeting. Stone says meetings usually involve the team captains and “Texies” discussing how to conceptualize the upcoming game. How many points they want to score based on the opposing team’s ranking (in this case, #23; the TXRG are #5), what defensive techniques they want to use, and so on. Today’s goal is simple, according to Stone: “We want to score a fuck-ton of points and have the other team not score any.”

After the meeting, the Rollergirls were expected to settle into their bout day jobs. Everyone has one and they range from setting up the visiting team area to dealing with merchandise, which is Stone’s bout day job. She supervises a small crew, keeping inventory of the merchandise room, rolling t-shirts, and making sure the merchandise table out by the track is good to go for game time. She’s done with her duties by 12:30, but she doesn’t use the extra time to rest.

Stone is a charismatic character. When she finishes with the merchandise prep, she zips around to help set up chairs and hang a tarp. She is a total sweetheart when she’s off her skates. Even if the bloody saw charm around her neck – a Texie symbol, also donned by several of her teammates – might suggest otherwise.

Despite the early hour, people like Stone are milling around everywhere, getting the Shed ready for the bouts. The signs directing fans out to the food trucks and Porta Potties – that read in big black letters, “FOOD AND the LOOS” – are already hanging above the Shed’s back entrances. TXRG legend and current announcer Electra Blu supervises the seating situation. Fellow skaters Fifi Nomenon and Olivia Shootin’ John work on a complicated spreadsheet involving the score spreads Stone mentioned. A group of guys called the Derby Brothers, friends and sometimes husband of TXRG skaters, work on taping the track, which they maintain throughout the bouts. One of these Brothers, whom Stone calls “Big Tom” is also the Texie mascot. Later, he’ll be decked out in a “blood-splattered” white jumpsuit, plastic chainsaw in hand. “He’s also a big Hotrod Honeys fan, so I love him on multiple levels,” Stone says with a grin.

When there is no set-up left for Stone to help with, she’s off to the Thundercloud Subs off Riverside and Burton to get her signature pre-bout meal of a chicken salad sandwich sub and SunChips. It wouldn’t be a bout day without it.

It’s a big commitment to set aside an entire Saturday for a single bout. And that’s in addition to the multiple hours a week that skaters spend practicing and the entire weekends members of the Texies and the All-Star b-team, the Firing Squad, have to dedicate to traveling for tournaments. But, for the women of the TXRG, it’s worth it. They all get something out of the experience.

For Stone, who’s been playing for six years total (two for TXRG) following a career skating competitively, derby is a means of tension relief.

“I play for just a sort of escape from myself,” Stone says. “I’ve roller-skated all my life, so I knew I was good at that and I just wanted a little bit more advanced form of skating and recreation. And competition. I think I really skate because I’m a super competitive person.”

Stone plays as a jammer – the skater responsible for scoring points – for her home team, the Hotrod Honeys, but even there, she’s more competitive than average.

“People think I’m a very defensive jammer. Usually, jammers just go, skate really fast, try to get out, score – but I like hitting the other jammers and making more contact than I probably should,” Stone says. “I think just a truly competitive, game-face-on, not taking any shit type thing is important.”

A competitive nature is a common reason for participating among the TXRG. “DeBella DeBall” (real name Lisa Benson), a Hotrod Honey and Texie, who started skating competitively in 1982 and has been a TXRG since 2009, cites it as well.

“I’m just very competitive. As most people, I don’t like to lose. But I make sure that I don’t lose,” DeBella says. She shrugs, adding, “I wanted to play football when I was in high school and I wasn’t allowed.”

When one of her fellow TXRG skaters, “Virgo Vengeful,” laughs at her insistence about not losing–“she’s like, shanking you as you’re going through the pack”–DeBella smirks.

“I don’t need to shank you,” DeBella says. “Hitting me is like hitting a brick wall.”

Virgo, whose real name is Jessica Duran and who plays for the Hell Marys and is captain of the Firing Squad, names another positive reason for playing derby: camaraderie. 

“Everyone has different personalities and that’s what’s great is I’ve been exposed to so many people that I probably would have never, in [the] ‘real world,’ talked to. Or been exposed to,” Virgo says. “I’ve found some of my really, really good friends this way…[Difference] doesn’t matter when you play derby. It just all goes away. You don’t hang around with a certain clique or certain whatever – everyone’s different. Race, creed, everything, just so different. It is awesome.”

That camaraderie is visible among the skaters who stick around the Shed’s greenroom during the downtime they have before off-skate warm-up starts at 3:50. Firing Squad member BabyFace Assassin naps soundly on the coach. Fifi and a few other skaters can be heard laughing at Parks and Recreation bloopers from an adjacent room, at one point breaking into an impromptu rendition of Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window.” When someone brings up Dashboard Confessional as the skaters put on their makeup, a couple more start singing one of their songs. 

The intensity and aggression starts to ease back in during warm-ups. Off-skate warm-ups go from 3:50 to 4:20 and include running, stretching, and drills. It’s a clear example of the true athleticism involved in derby, which Stone says often gets overlooked.

“[Derby] has been completely authentic and true sport and legitimate athleticism,” Stone says. “Can’t cram for a roller derby game – you have to train for it.”

After off-skate warm-up, the skaters grab their rolling suitcases, full of equipment, to get geared up for on-skate warm-up starting at 4:40. The gearing up process is a work of mechanics and routine, a paint-by-numbers situation, where one thing must always be done before another. There’s shorts, jerseys, sports bras, socks. Kneepads, armbands featuring names and numbers, elbow pads, skates. Helmets. Mouth guards. For some, there is colorful tape around knees and above elbows to prevent strain. For others, like Stone, there are braces because strain has already happened.   

At one point, Jackie Daniels hobbles across the floor in the midst of getting ready, one skate in her hand. She flashes a smile – showing the purple plastic of her mouth guard instead of teeth.

Once they’re geared up, the skaters proceed to on-skate warm-up until 30 minutes before the bout starts. They do laps and drills, while sharing the track with their Tampa opponents and shouting out chants led by Fifi. When the on-skate time is up, they go their separate ways for half an hour, to prepare for the bout and do whatever rituals they need to to be ready when the whistle blows. The preparations vary, but usually involve trying to achieve mental clarity. Some are stranger though – if Olivia Shootin’ John weren’t out with a leg injury, she’d probably be brushing her teeth. As it stands, she’s done it five times today anyway.

Stone skates back down the hallway to the greenroom, where she plops down in a chair and unlaces one of her skates for a few minutes, to give her foot a chance to breathe and not cramp up. In the room where she stores her gear bag, two women are practicing the National Anthem. Stone grins. The National Anthem is one of her favorite parts of a bout.

“I love just getting up and starting off a sporting event with the National Anthem. It makes me so proud to be an American and part of the sport,” Stone says. “I feel like, if you are playing the National Anthem at a sporting event, that just legitimizes it more than anything.”

When it gets close to time for the skaters to be back out on the track, Stone laces back up her skate and stands up. She’s still bubbly and smiling, but there is a sense that that competitive drive has kicked in. The charismatic woman who helped set out chairs earlier in the afternoon is transforming into the skater who likes hitting other players for fun. 

She skates down the hallway from the greenroom, through the fans now surrounding the track. She’s ready to win.

It’s game-time.