On a Saturday night a month there’s a team waiting to get their chance to play under the low lights of a packed field house. Outside the plastic barriers of a taped-on circular course, 15 women on rollerskates prepare to compete. While some of the women sit across from each other and sing “Jesse’s Girl” as they tie their laces, others put their forehead against a cool beam in order to concentrate and calm their nerves - even if for a moment. These women, garnered up in helmets, skates, blue shirts and shorts, are waiting for the moment after the first whistle blows. These women are here for one thing - and that’s for Roller Derby.
For one night each month, the Jean Shepherd Community Center in Hammond comes alive with the sound of roller derby. Roller derby, a contact sport that first originated in 1922, has recently gained back its popularity throughout the country. Chicago has long been the hub of Derby for the Midwest, and within the past few years Northwest Indiana has gained a team of it’s own that is resurging the public's interest in roller derby, and they’re appropriately named the South Shore Roller Girls.
The game itself is unique compared to other popular sports. There are always a lot of moving elements, with offense and defense being played at the same time and the teams changing lines every two minutes. Knowing and learning how be a part of derby takes a lot of hard work and determination
“Some guys have told me that roller derby isn’t a sport, but I always tell them to come try it,” said Jason Garcia, aka "Coach Pain", the team's bench coach. “They’re playing defense and offense at the same time and that makes it probably one of the most complicated sports out there. They’ve got so many contact sports out there for guys and I like seeing that there’s something out there for the women too. This is up there with all of the rest.”
Most of the women who start haven't necessarily been athletes throughout their life. The South Shore Roller Girls is comprised of women who come from many different walks of life - from stay at home moms to students - but they all have one interest in common: their love for the sport.
Andrea Rivera, aka "IntimiDREtion", became a part of the derby scene two and half years ago when she saw an ad in the newspaper for tryouts.
“I had seen a derby as a kid and I had always thought ‘I want to do that, this is it.’” Rivera stated. “Many of us have wanted this opportunity for a long time. There was a group I wanted to be a part of that practiced way up north in Chicago - but that didn’t work because of the travel. I think all of us here recognize that we have a common thread of our love for things that are a little dangerous and different. When you find out that we were all brought here for similar reasons, it pulls us even closer.”
Lauren Radusin, aka "Amelia NoHeart", started with roller derby three years ago when she had heard a client talk about it - and the rest was history. She, like the rest of the women, feel as though chemistry and friendship between teammates really is what makes being on this derby team special.
“The friendship that you build with everyone is incredible.” Radusin explained. “You can come into a game or practice after having the absolute worst day ever, and with a few hugs from your teammates everything is a little bit better again. We’re lucky because we work so well together; we’re not afraid to say what’s on our minds. The game reinforces all of that as well, because we’re here for the same thing. There’s really not anything like this.”
But when it comes to the South Shore Roller Girls and seeing that togetherness in action, it’s absolutely clear that they truly do care about each other. There’s a phrase amongst the derby women of SSRG and that’s to “Bleed Blue”. They wear that phrase on their sleeve.
On the night of April 18th, when the Roller Girls hosted their first double header of the season against the DuPage Derby Dames and Bone City Rollers, the team wasn't just the "South Shore Roller Girls" - they were "Team Wonder Woman". The team was all decked out in special ribbons and any shades of yellow, red, white, and blue they could get their hands on. That night Wonder Woman wasn’t just a character - Wonder Woman took the form of Arma-Gwemdolyn, aka "Gwen Brous", a South Shore Roller Girl. Brous had been a dedicated Roller Girl since 2010 until she recently took leave from the team due to her cancer diagnosis. Looking around at not only the roller girls with their Wonder Woman themed uniforms, but with the crowd and the other two teams giving her direct support, was something she was incredibly thankful for.
“I’m an only child, so growing up I talked to stuffed animals because I didn’t have anybody,” Brous stated. “So now that I’m in this community, the outpouring of love I’ve received is very overwhelming. I’m glad I have it now.”
Brous’ husband Jim was on the sidelines with her and said that seeing the outpouring response of support really exemplifies what the derby community is like.
“It’s unbelievable to witness this tonight,” Brous stated. “It touches my heart so much. She’s an unbelievable woman and I’m so glad that everyone thinks that as well. All of this really speaks to what it’s like here. It’s a big, intertwining community that will support anyone who needs it. This is probably one of the only sports where you’ll find that.”
When it comes to the Roller Girls they not only support their own, they give back to the community as well. Charity has always been a part of roller derby. Since the beginning of the sport, teams have been giving back to their community through donations and time.
At each South Shore Roller Girls bout, they have donated a large sum of their proceeds to a team-chosen charity. They have donated to a different charity for each month they've been in existence, without repeating once. For April 2015, they decided to go a different route and support Hobart’s Kibble Kitchen Pet Pantry, which allows low-income families get the money they need to keep their pet healthy. Renci Stewart, aka "Spookie Smackhouse", who organizes their non-profit efforts, said that they try to be incredibly inclusive of organizations throughout Northwest Indiana.
“We usually go off of skater interest, or if one of the girls had already worked with one of the charities we’re interested in,” Stewart explained. “Other times, we seek out other organizations we might of heard or read about throughout the Northwest Indiana community so that we’re not just focused on the Hammond or Lake County area. This time with [Kibble Kitchen], we decided to do something a little different because we have yet to do anything relating to pets.”
Stewart went on to say that even though their monetary support isn’t by the thousands, the organization is welcome with open and thankful arms.
“It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside to help these charities out,” Stewart stated. “We even go out and donate our time to help the organization for a few work hours. They’re always so appreciative. It makes you feel good to see that.”
Though they might of been racked with nerves beforehand, as soon as they get on the track those worries fall away. When the Roller Girls went on to play the DuPage Derby Dames, they kept a double digit lead for most of the bout, even as DuPage tried to catch up with them in the second period.
They’re quick, efficient and tough, and watching them dominate the game is a marvel. These women truly go the distance for their love of the game. They proudly “Bleed Blue” and have the will to back that statement. When there’s a bout in that community center, there seems to be nothing more exciting happening anywhere else.
And with the South Shore Roller Girls, they wouldn’t you to be any other place.
To find out more information about the Roller Girls, their home matches, sponsorship opportunities and the team roster you can visit their website at http://southshorerollergirls.com/