Photos by Ryan Williams
“Fall on one knee!” roars Shawna “Honey Guns” Ritter. Each girl drops to the ground with a resonant thud. “Go, go, go!”
With a shrill blast of her whistle, the girls jump up and sprint forward in a flash of green, pink, red and blue wheels. “Fall on two knees!” And again each drops hard.
With another quick “tweet,” the girls launch forward again and again until they pant, chests rising and falling in synchronized waves.
This isn’t Olympic endurance training—but close. This is High Altitude Roller Derby.
Until now, Flagstaff has not known a sports team to enrich the community while embodying the energy, strategy and self-awareness of the female form. Nor has a team so diversely bridged age and skill gaps allowing each woman to stand taller than the San Francisco Peaks.
In 2001, roller derby experienced a renaissance like it had many times in the past 50 years, this time on a flat track in Austin, Texas. The original idea was to have a derby game as part of a fundraising carnival sideshow. The hits and power of the sport quickly took hold like a feverish pandemic across the world.
One thousand leagues have evolved the sport into more than an over-the-top spectacle of two girly teams caught in seemingly embittered rivalry beating the living snot out of each other. It became a way to showcase powerful athletes. It became an outlet for pain, frustration, companionship, empowerment and femininity.
In 2009, Cat Jalet-Andre needed an outlet, too. She channeled her emotions through the aperture of Fresh Meat recruitment with Pioneer Valley Roller Derby in Connecticut. After losing her mother to breast cancer, she returned to Flagstaff a hooked roller girl named “Mira Image.”
She told friends tales of derby and was encouraged to start a league.
“What did I really know about running a league?” she says. “I had less than a year of derby under my belt, but I did have a good business sense and desire to bring derby to Flagstaff.”
After a year of planning with a friend, Cat remembers being terrified that no one would show up that first day at the Flagstaff Athletic Club Sports Stop in November 2011. She says less than 10 ladies came to skate.
Most had never derbied before or skated at all, and some hadn’t strapped on skates in decades. Each practice grew with social networking help and countless small fliers passed around town. The fruitful end of that uncertain first month saw almost 50 skaters.
Tireless work and dedication from players, refs and supporters evolved H.A.R.D. into a quad skate family devoted to promoting their mission of fostering sportsmanship among women while benefitting charities and the community.
The league now boasts three home teams—Apocalips, Black Flag and Rage of Innocents (R.O.I.)—as well as a Fresh Meat (new recruit) team and a travel/all-star team, the Dark Sky Starlets, who held their first bout, Romp in the Swamp, against the Dirty Verde Roller Girls on June 30.
“Our first bout was absolutely crazy,” says Kim “KiMalicious” Sargent, new owner of H.A.R.D. and Apocalips blocker. “We didn’t know how much community support we would get.”
The derbiers sold out of their first 200 tickets. By bout time the Sports Stop brimmed to capacity with old-time derby fans and newcomers eager to catch a glimpse of Flagstaff’s newest extreme sport.
Most of those in attendance knew nothing about derby, but came to learn. That day, Flagstaff saw these girls really do hit H.A.R.D.
“I have three things on my list of life changing moments: backpacking across Europe, the birth of my son and roller derby.”
Risa Garelick is a lively blonde whose gigantic blue eyes mirror compassion and love. She is a supportive mother to her 16-year-old, a sociology professor at Northern Arizona University and a world traveler. She is also called “Starla Cupquake”—a proud derby girl.
“I heard about (derby) and I got in my car and drove the three hours to Phoenix to buy gear, and back up in one day,” says Garelick, a blocker for Apocalips, “Which I don’t think I’ve ever done.”
Margo “Pippi Wrongstockings” McClellan and Shawna “Honey Guns” Ritter both play for Black Flag now, but spent many “rink rat” years roller boogying around a disco ball. Neither had strapped on skates in at least a decade, but something in the universe called them to play and jump full-force into the empowered fervor of derby.
Although the sport may have a penchant for collecting competitive team players, most of the ladies have never played on any team.
“But derby is a team sport,” says Sargent. “A full-contact team sport.”
She thumps a fist into a cupped hand and says that the right attitude is key. You don’t have to be built like a tank or even a pixie to derby.
“Now that I’m playing, it’s so interesting,” says Sargent with a wily grin. “I look at women and think, ‘Oh, oh! She’d be good. She needs to play derby!’”
McClellan says conquering fear is the name of the game, and with a roster of people to impress—the team, sponsors, vendors, friends, peers, family—it’s a daunting undertaking.
“(These people) had to put up with our incessant derby talk and insane practice schedules and sprains and bruises and broken hearts and sometimes even broken bones,” McClellan writes in her derby blog. “Well, that’s a lot of local pressure to finally live up to all the blood, sweat, and tears that are the basic chemical makeup of a derby girl.”
Derby girls are known to TKO, and a referee’s job is to make sure everyone’s safe and playing fairly. That’s why Gary “Czer Callsit” McClellan, referee and husband to Margo McClellan, helps the Flagstaff girls interpret and apply the rules of Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby.
Bouting is serious business, and the girls train hard with coaches like Clara “Fern Aldahyde” Cureton and Shawna Ritter for months to even compete.
The girls have been pushing themselves so hard they have even piqued the attention of big-name guest coaches like Pitchit Davis—Phoenix men’s derbier and host of Derby Deeds podcast.
“So much of this game is about staying together,” Pitchit said to the H.A.R.D. girls as he emphasized the need to roll as a pack.
Each player defies physical, mental and emotional limits in the hopes of bouting.
A bout consists of two 30-minute halves where spectators see five derbiers from each team clad in punk rock spikes and glittery ensembles on the oval-shaped track.
The “pack” is lead by the pivot. She stands out with the striped “panties” on her helmet and controls the ebb and flow of the group.
The pack starts to roll when Gary McClellan blows the first whistle. When all eight players (four blockers per team) have crossed the pivot line, a double whistle signals both “jammers” to charge into battle through the pack.
“Learning to see specific chains of events in the sea of chaotic actions of a bout is quite challenging,” Gary McClellan says. “It requires continually sharpening my observational skills so I can become a better referee.”
The jamming ladies wear the starred panties on their helmets and get to score the points. Blockers knock them around, trying to keep them from getting through. Yet, these ladies have the agility it takes to break the pack. The first to emerge becomes “lead jammer.”
“You have to have that confidence, or you’re gonna be on you’re a**,” says Keri “Skary B. Cheezus” Stiverson, Fresh Meat coach and Apocalips jammer.
This is a crucial advantage in derby strategy, and the lead jammer gains this exalted status after blasting through all blockers legally and in bounds on the first pass.
Jammers start scoring the second time around, but the lead can end the jam at any moment by putting her hands on her hips. She will call off the jam after she has scored, leaving the opposition little to no scoring opportunity.
“Size doesn’t always matter,” Sargent says. “This is strategy.”
If game play didn’t sound tough enough, here’s another trick: If the jammer gets tired or hurt, the pivot can jam and the jammer becomes a blocker.
The anatomy of the ever-essential blocker is generally designed by Mother Nature to keep the opposing team’s jammer from getting through the pack. She simultaneously helps her jammer through using whips (grabbing her arm and using centripetal force to launch her ahead) and pushes (usually to the booty).
Girls can still beat down like the old days of derby—within the legal zones. Gary McClellan and other refs watch for pushing forward, tripping and hands. Dirty derby play will get skaters sent to the penalty box. Hip checks, shoulder jabs and booty bumps—all OK and all wicked mean.
“Derby’s the perfect (and legal) way to get your aggressions out among friends,” says Margo McClellan, a Black Flag blocker. “Where else can you get slammed across the room by someone and then go out for a beer with her an hour later?”
These ladies are not just team competitors and swanky skates on the track. They back their league values with a 100 percent volunteer-based service commitment to the community.
“One time a group of us went to a Cancer walk in Cottonwood,” Sargent says laughing, “dressed in derby gear.”
Cat Jalet-Andre, who is not currently skating, says these ladies have solidified their foundation and are operating wholly the way she envisioned two years ago.
“We have the best group of women involved,” she says, “and I am so happy to have been a small part of something so wonderful.”
Right now, the league operates as an LLC. Sargent is the owner, and says she and the league are establishing a board of directors working to become a universally beneficial nonprofit organization.
When she’s not skating for R.O.I., Risa Garelick loves to research. Being a sociology teacher, she keeps herself abreast of management tactics within different national teams. She found most roller derby teams dedicate themselves to community support and operate as nonprofit organizations.
Furthering H.A.R.D.’s stewardship principal, the ladies are adopting part of the urban trail to help beautify Flagstaff. They also hope to aid other local organizations, sustaining inter-connected community involvement.
“I think we’ve gotten to this point now,” Garelick says with tears in her eyes, “with a new formation of leaders, and moving forward to becoming a nonprofit will allow us to really have that solid foundation and help the community in ways we couldn’t have before.”
H.A.R.D. is not only an intense spectator sport, but interactive as well. The girls will be hanging out at Headlines 2000 and McSweeney’s Salon representing Flagstaff roller derby in force at the First Friday Art Walk on Sept. 7. Also, supporters of their October bouts will be encouraged to bring an item to donate to local charities.
“Right now we pay dues to sustain ourselves,” Garelick says. “When we’re a nonprofit, I feel we’ll be better able to give back to the community, hopefully other businesses and organizations will help sustain us and we’ll be able to pass that along.”
Fresh Meat Mistress Amber Belt’s keen smile matches the luster of her competitive nature. While in derby gear, she is “Belt Sander” with a scathing sneer to match her R.O.I. number, 80 grit.
“I think one of the most positive parts of our evolution is that the opinions of the league members is taken into consideration before decisions that affect the league are made,” Belt says. “I think our greatest strength is in the fact that we really are building from the ground up.”
“As a league, H.A.R.D. feels like a family,” says Belt. “We can critique our teammates, compliment our teammates, bicker with our teammates, and party with our teammates.”
The ladies are encouraged by this palpable supportive energy, and know any issues in the “real world” cannot be taken onto the track.
“There is so much more to roller derby than getting out there and bashing another skater,” Belt says. “We work on strategy, skate skills and fitness.”
Each practice, scrimmage, and bout is a learning experience from past mistakes and other seasoned skaters. These ladies have learned to trust that they have the skill to compete.
“If I can skate for two hours with frighteningly athletic women,” Garelick says, “I can do anything. I feel that power and I absolutely carry it in my daily life now.”
Roller derby isn’t an outlet for young, fit women only. H.A.R.D. welcomes adults 18-and-up, varying viewpoints and all genders.
“When I joined the league I became part of a family of Flagstaff Derby skaters,” Gary McClellan says, “where mutual peer respect is earned by contribution and commitment to the league, its mission and its members.”
“It is quite exciting to watch the progression of tentative, wobbly, self-conscious new recruits,” Gary McClellan says. “Through practice and determination, (they) grow into confident and highly skilled athletes.”
The ladies credit cross training for helping them compete and brush off minor injuries. Getting hurt is a part of the derby life, no matter how safely hits are delivered—the nature of the game is to show no mercy on that rink.
Acceptance of the inevitable, leaving judgments behind and absence of fear create a confident skater pursuant of a fun and motivating world-class sport.
To put the game in perspective, Gary McClellan says, “The world in general always looks a little brighter when viewed from skates.”
Meet the members of High Altitude Roller Derby Fri, Sept. 7 outside of Headlines 2000 Hair Studio, 113 E. Aspen, from 6–9 p.m. Prints of the derby taken by photographer Ryan Williams will also be on display. Stay up to speed with all the H.A.R.D.-hitting derby action at www.highaltituderollerderby.com. E-mail Denise “Taco Tuesday” Bravo-Stanga or Amber “Belt Sander” Belt at email@example.com for all the details on how to get involved.
To read recent Flag Live cover story features, see www.flaglive.com/index.cfm?section=cover.