News Local/State

A Roller Derby Revival in Champaign-Urbana

The Twin City Derby Girls and Cedar Rapids Roller Girls meet for a bout in Danville.

The Twin City Derby Girls and Cedar Rapids Roller Girls meet for a bout in Danville. (Jeff Bossert/WILL)

A sport that originated in the 1930’s is trying to build a new audience, in cities worldwide, including Champaign-Urbana. 

Roller derby leagues have sprung up throughout the United States, Canada, the UK, and other countries. In all, more than 150 leagues are part of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, including Champaign-Urbana’s own Twin City Derby Girls.

The first thing about today's roller derby is that it is by and large a flat track rather than a circular one. 

Bad knees and all, Andrea Rundell found a way to get involved. She is one of the coaches. At a recent Wednesday night practice at Skateland in Savoy, Rundell led about 30 members of the Derby Girls home and traveling teams. She conducts drills to build up players' endurance.

“Wednesday night league practice, everybody in the whole league comes, regardless of their skill level," she said. "So, we generally do some relatively basic stuff, and endurance, because it’s a really tough on your body kind of sport.”

About 30 skaters from the Twin City Derby Girls home and traveling teams are under her instruction at a recent practice. Players range in age from 21 to 49. Tami Tunnell, or ‘Hot Tamale’ as she is known out on the floor, is the oldest derby girl. She is a breast cancer survivor, and she said getting involved in roller derby was therapeutic.

“I come out - and the nice thing was, they didn’t treat me like I was a cancer patient," she said. "Everybody else I was getting  - even at work, people would tiptoe around me, but they didn’t treat me like that. They still beat the crap out of me, they don’t care.”

Just like on the old circular track - the object of flat track roller derby is fairly simple. One team’s ‘jammer’ must get around the opposing team’s skaters - also referred to as blockers. These women attempt to clear a path for their own jammer. The jammers score points on their second and subsequent passes.

Participants in roller derby come from all walks of life – you even come across the occasional university professor, like Kate Clancy…or as she is known on the track by her derby name, “Anthrobrawlogist”.

“The idea of getting to play rugby on wheels is really appealing to me – and just being a professor and a mom means I have a lot of pent up aggression from various stressers in my day," Clancy said.

Her husband, Brendan, one of the many ‘derby widows’ connected to the team, nervously looks on with their 4-year old daughter Joan in tow.

“It’s not quite like I’m petrified she’s gonna be injured, I just hope she does well," he said.

Joan even has even adopted a derby name - Monkey Express.

The Twin City Derby Girls take their fair share of hits, but not the kind you might expect based on movie depictions of the sport - including the 2009 film 'Whip It," in which Ellen Page played a teenager who lies about her age to play on a circular track derby team.

Despite a torn ACL this season, Ashley Waters of Cedar Rapids, Iowa is making the most of her season by coaching.

“When I first found I made the team, I watched that movie (Whip It) – and I was like, aw, I hope I can be as awesome as them," she said. "But we’re not really that aggressive – but I’d like to be sometimes.”

Waters' Cedar Rapids Roller Girls took on the Derby Girls in a bout in Danville on Sept. 8.

There was a sparse crowd at the David S. Palmer Arena, maybe 50 people, but that didn't dampen the spirits of fans like Gay Cullum, who is cheering on her daughter Susan.

'That's just her, she's always loved to skate," she said. "So this doesn't surprise any of us at all."

Susan Young, AKA Cattyness Evermean (a play on the title character in the book and film 'The Hunger Games') said ultimately, roller derby is a friendly competition.

"That’s what kind of weird about it, is as aggressive as you are, and you knock people down, and don’t want people to get hurt, and you want to slow them down as much as you can -  then afterwards, everybody’s friends – you come out and play the best game that you can," she said.

Two Twin City Derby Girls league teams, the Damagin' Dames and the 'Paign, meet up in a League Championship match at Skateland in Savoy this Sunday, Oct. 7.