Our Can You Kick It? story was inspired in part by photos of retro roller skaters cruising down California beaches, but if you think skating is all sunshine and dolphin shorts, you’re in for an awesome surprise. While we adore a dreamy day skating at the shore, we’re equally smitten with the action-packed, kick-butt world of roller derby. What was once considered a schmaltzy, theatrical event is now an all-out, awe-inspiring sport featuring tenacious, talented athletes, including our pal, Jennifer. This proud Pittsburgher, known to the derby world as “Snot Rocket Science” (more on that later), has been a hardcore derby enthusiast since discovering the sport in 2006. We grilled Jennifer on all things roller derby, and even got some tips to help newbies hitting the rink. Check out our Q&A, and prepare to be inspired!
How do you describe roller derby to people who are unfamiliar with it?
In roller derby, there are five players from each team on the track at a time — four blockers and one jammer. Your team wants to keep the opposing jammer from getting by, using blocking and hitting, while at the same time, getting your team’s jammer through the opposing blockers to score points. It’s intense, physical, fast, and hugely strategic. You need the footwork of hockey, fast transitions and juking skills, speed bursts and stopping power, and the strength and power of a football start to barrel through and break up a wall of up to four blockers.
How did you get started with roller derby?
Back in 2006, I saw fliers around town, and my real estate agent, Justin, was one of the starting referees for the league. I went to the first meet and greet before the Pittsburgh league got started, showed up all nervous with my best friend and some homemade hummus, and they shot me down saying they were full. Kelly and I sat on a stoop for an hour under the moon filling notebook pages with our plan to take over roller derby. I started with the first group of rookies (“fresh meat”) a few months later. In the next years, I won MVP awards from Denver to London. I’ve been with Pittsburgh’s travel team ever since and have played with Team USA Roller Derby at two Roller Derby World Cups since 2011.
Does roller derby have a championship to work towards? What are your goals for your derby career?
Roller derby travel team seasons run anywhere from January to November. There are four WFTDA Division 1 playoffs in September around the country, and the top twelve teams from those tournaments compete in the championship playoffs in November to determine the best in the world. Currently, the best is Gotham, New York City’s team. They’ve won the Hydra (the champion trophy) for years now. Men’s teams play under MRDA and have a similar structure, but fewer teams. Their championship is incredible too. The game has changed a lot since I started in 2007. Players have gotten bigger and stronger. Weightlifting is a must. I’m out to show all the players that are my size that they can still have that edge. It’s strength and skill and constant problem solving — how do I effectively beat a wall of women that are a foot taller and weigh twice my weight? It’s so doable.
Say it’s someone’s VERY first time on skates. What are your tips for brand new skaters as they step onto the rink?
Take some time to find your balance on wheels. Step side to side, walk on your skates, bend your knees. Wait, let me repeat… BEND YOUR KNEES. Keep those knees soft. When you get uncomfortable, the first reaction is to straighten up. That’s when you get more off balance and fall. So, when you get uncomfortable, remember — soft knees. Have fun. If you fall, then fall. And try again.
What was the hardest skill for you to master?
Patience. Besides that, hockey stops are the hardest. They’re a scary skill — you have to go at speed and feel like you’re falling. That’s tough to teach to adults — it’s way easier when you’re younger and not afraid yet. I’m lucky I learned hockey stops when I was about 9 years old. I was a total rink rat.
What does participating in roller derby do for women?
Derby ups confidence like nothing else. Everyone has a their own unique experience in derby, but overall, derby is a place, for men and women, to learn how to use your body in a completely different way than anything else. We’re “sitting” on each other to block an opponent from getting by. We call it “butt to gut” — you want to be touching as much of their body as possible so they have no space to make a move. We’re grabbing and pulling and giving feedback to one another with what works best. We’re pushing our teammates’ butts to move them forward, past someone who’s about to clobber them. It’s a learning experience for men, but especially for women, this is new and pretty eye opening. Having someone say, “Use your butt, your butt is strong. Knock them over, take their space, own it.” Everything we’re doing as skaters on our path to getting better is taking control of situations. Learning to communicate about our own and each others’ bodies, whether those bodies are 5′ 2″ and 100 lbs, 5’2″ and 150 lbs, or 6’5″ and 300 lbs — every size has its strengths and weaknesses on the track. I’ve struggled hard with body and eating issues in the past, but not for many years thanks to derby.
Okay, “Snot Rocket Science”, how the heck do you pick your roller derby name, and what’s the deal with those? Does everyone have one?
Most skaters have a derby name. It’s fun and it’s separate from your real life persona. Oof, it’s hard! It took me a long time to decide on a name. I liked the idea of having a kind of gross name, while also saying “it’s not rocket science” [get it? ‘Snot Rocket Science?] to play this sport. This past World Cup, I played with my real name on the back of my jersey. I was surprised how different it made me feel . I loved having my family name on my back to show how proud I was and as an homage to my parents who travel for my games all the time. But it definitely made me feel “outed” as a real person. It’s a bit hard to explain, and I’m still deciding if I like it — my derby name is a big part of me and the fun I have. That said, my boyfriend introduces me as Snot, and all of my workmates and my boss call me “Snot”, too. It’s infiltrated everything.
+ What would YOUR derby name be? Share your ideas in the comments!