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On a roll: Roller derby women are a force to be reckoned with

By Heather Graves

BROWN COUNTY – Two teams skating counterclockwise around a flat, oval track pushing, shoving and knocking each other over – to the untrained eye, it might look like a brawl on skates, but according to a jammer and two blockers from right here in Brown County, roller derby is actually a complex and strategic game.

Niki Raabe, aka Nikity Split, Christina Merrill, aka Killdozer, and Kathi Kampen, aka Amanda Spanks, all members of the Fox Cities Roller Derby team said the sport is intense, athletic and full of quirks.

“I was never athletic or coordinated,” Raabe, a jammer on the All Star Team, said. “But I watched some roller derby and thought it looked like fun. I never thought that I would get to the point where I’d actually get to play in a game, because again, I just wasn’t athletic. I had zero muscle mass you know, but roller derby practice beats going to the gym any day of the week.”

The concept

Roller derby is played in two 30-minute halves separated into two-minute bouts.

Each team has five players on the track at a time consisting of four blockers and one jammer.

A jammer scores points by passing members of the opposing team during each two-minute jam.

The blockers objective is to prevent the other team’s jammer from scoring points.

When explaining derby to someone who has never seen it before, Merill said she tells them it’s offense and defense at the same time.

“It kind of has elements of a lot of other sports put together,” she said. “A lot of the penalties and legal and illegal targets are very similar to hockey, but then, a lot of times, because of the pack situation, that’s like rugby, like when there’s a rugby scrum.”

Merrill said at higher-level play, derby is also like a game of chess.

“Because you’re seeing what’s happening,” she said. “You’re processing it and want to stay a couple of steps ahead of what the other team is doing or what the other jammer is doing. You try to anticipate what they’re going to do, so that you can do whatever you need to to stop that from happening.”

Raabe said this is where quickness comes into play.

“I’m a jammer, again because I’m not big or strong,” she said. “But I’m quick and sneaky, squirrely.”

Merrill said it’s hard to anticipate where Nikity Split is going.

“Jammers have skating styles,” Merrill said. “That’s another thing that, as the game progresses, we take that into account. Once we’ve seen an opposing jammer after a couple of jams, we might purposely be like, ‘Okay, we know what they’re going to do out there,’ and then we might put out a specific line or do a specific play to kind of mitigate what they’re doing.”

Getting started

Raabe said she discovered Fox Cities Roller Derby through her boyfriend, who played for a men’s team.

“I fell in love with the people before I even joined,” she said. “I met the girls and they were just fabulous. This is the first group of non-catty women I met in quite awhile. I didn’t have a lot of female friends, previously.”

Kampen, an inline marathon skater, said after she injured her ankle, she was on the hunt for another activity.

“I love that competitiveness and I needed to find something,” she said. “So I found roller derby and absolutely loved it. And now I skate marathons in my roller derby skates.”

Kampen is a long-time veteran who is returning to the sport after a seven-year retirement to concentrate on raising her three children.

“It was just too much – letting the team down or letting my kids down,” she said. “Now my kids are older. So I’m back and ready to play. I am very excited about it.”

She said the Appleton-area derby team she was on before isn’t around anymore, so she found her way to Fox Cities Roller Derby and is excited to get back on the track.

“I love competing against the other girls,” Kampen said. “I mean, we play hard during practice and compete hard and push each other and it’s amazing. And then we’re still really good friends.”

Merrill said she has been skating for a very long time.

“I started figure skating when I was maybe like, two years old,” she said. “My mom took me out and taught me how to skate. I played hockey for a little while. And of course, I grew up skating at the roller rink. I’m old enough, but I won’t say how old, to remember watching (roller derby) on TV when I was really little, and thinking how cool it was and how much fun it would be.”

Merrill is in her ninth year as a roller derby player, however, the upcoming season will be her first as a member of Fox Cities.

“I’m actually originally from Michigan, I moved down here for work,” she said. “Thankfully, I already knew everybody on the team pretty much from playing against them previously. So it was a really easy transition coming into practice.”

Merrill said the modern flat roller derby track, which is what Fox Cities Roller Derby plays on, made a comeback in the mid 2000s and really started taking off in 2010-11.

“Roller derby is an international sport,” she said. “Our governing body is the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association and it’s everywhere.”

The far reach of derby extends into games – as Fox Cities plays against teams all over the country.

“We don’t just play within Wisconsin, we play in neighboring states, too,” Merrill said. “We did get approached by a team in Ohio within the last couple of weeks. They wanted us to come there to play.”

The trio said a common theme of all roller derby teams throughout the country can be summed up in one word – encouragement.

“We have a lot of respect for one another, and we just really encourage one another inside and outside of the roller derby league,” Kampen said. “It’s giving confidence to a lot of people that maybe didn’t have so much confidence before. It definitely helps them grow.”

Derby names

Merrill said roller derby names are an alter-ego of sorts for players on the track.

However, the trio said after a while, a player’s “derby persona” melds with that of their counterparts in the “real world.”

Merrill said there is a little pressure involved in selecting a derby name.

“Nobody wants a nickname that isn’t right,” she said. “In derby, sometimes people are given a name if one isn’t chosen quickly. People get names all different kinds of ways. If people don’t come up with something that everybody agrees with, then they’re usually given one.”

Merrill said she got her name from a friend

“Killdozer – it sounds scary and intimidating, perfect,” she said. “The fun thing about it is, even though it was kind of this nonchalant way that it came about, not to toot my own horn, but I’ve heard it enough from other people that I played against, that I’m very hard to knock over and I hit very hard. So little did we know, it is a very appropriate name for me.”

Getting back on the track

Raabe said teams throughout the country are all in the same boat as they try to get back out on the track after being benched for the past two years thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“After two years off, you need some time back on your skates before you’re safe enough to be hitting somebody at gameplay speeds,” Merrill said. “It’s almost like choosing to play all over again.”

Kampen said some of the players have gotten together for outdoor skates and practice, but as full team practices start up again, with scrimmages and games on the horizon, the derby rollers are ready to get back out on the track.

Kampen said the league is always recruiting new players.

“There is a little bit of a time commitment, because once we do have games scheduled, there are attendance requirements, and you need to come to a certain amount of practices and things like that,” Merrill said. 

Kampen said this is because the team wants to be able to compete at the highest level it possibly can.

“It’s really one of those sports where you get out of it what you put into it,” Merrill said. “So really the harder you work, and the more you spend the time on the skills, the better you’re going to be.”

For all things Fox Cities Roller Derby check out foxcitiesrollerderby.com/

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