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Roller derby dames get rough and tough on the rink

by Shana Graves

Special To The Japan Times

The whistle blows and Kristina “Ragin’ Redhead” Owens Hawkins, a jammer for the Yokosuka Sushi Rollers roller derby team, darts quickly as she approaches an aggressive pack of blockers. She scans for a weak spot between two ladies in the back. She spots a gap. It’s not too big, but it’s large enough for Hawkins to get through. Without pause she breaks through the wall of women onto her right skate, before she pulls her entire body through she quickly searches for a another breach and a teammate to help her. Six women stand between her and lead jammer status — seven if you include the jammer for the Yokota Scary Blossoms team. Four of them are allies, but the other two have a mission to take Hawkins down. She bounces back and forth between skaters, hip checked from the left, shouldered from the right, but manages to stay on her skates. As she catches up with the last blocker, she’s delivered a hard bump to her hip that sends her flying out of bounds. The check costs her lead jammer status and her Scary Blossoms opponent skates past. It’s not over, though, she still has a chance to redeem herself in later jams.

Hawkins says being a jammer in roller derby is a lot of pressure. Not only does she have to score points, she does so with a huge target on her back.

“You know they’re all out to stop you from getting through,” she says of the sport, noting that there’s nothing better than earning the title of “lead jammer” and preventing the opposing team from scoring any points. “It’s just an amazing feeling.”

Roller derby has been growing in popularity since the newest incarnation of the sport popped up in Austin, Texas, at the turn of the century. Prior to that, it was more a form of entertainment than sport. Women used the same basic game-playing techniques that are used nowadays, like skating close in packs and delivering hits to opponents, but they performed them in a more exaggerated way. This exaggeration resulted in more than a few women flying over the barriers and into the crowd.

Roller derby is now winning enthusiasts around the world and has spread to Australia, parts of Europe and Japan.

Tokyo Roller Girls (TRG) is one of three roller derby leagues in Japan and is comprised of four teams, 92 skaters and 14 referees. It was started by American Beverly “Drag ‘N Roll” Conrad on the U.S. Naval Base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 2010. She and a few other women there formed a roller derby team they called the Yokosuka Sushi Roller, which now has 30 skaters. Since then, however, there have been a few changes as many of the founding members have moved away. Emily “Kamikaze Barbie” Morris is now president of the Yokosuka team and the 2012-13 league president position is now held by Marina “Killa Cali” Behrendt, head coach and president of the Zama Killer Katanas, who operates her team from the U.S. Army base Camp Zama, also in Kanagawa Prefecture. The Yokota Scary Blossoms are based at the U.S. Yokota Air Base in Fussa, Tokyo.

The sport isn’t limited to the capital region, though. There are two roller-derby leagues in Okinawa that are recognized by the U.S.-based Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), a nonprofit organization that supports and promotes women’s flat track roller derby around the world. There’s also a team skating at the Misawa Air Base in Misawa, Aomori Prefecture.

The latest addition to the TRG family came in May in the form of a team of skaters called The Tokyo Bomber Girls [Full disclosure: I joined the Bombers after they formed]. The Bombers are based out of the Tokyo Dome’s Roller Skate Arena in Bunkyo Ward.

While there is an obvious U.S. military connection with most of the teams, whose skaters are primarily non-Japanese women, the Bombers are unusual in that six of the seven skaters are Japanese.

“I joined the Bombers because I wanted a new hobby and to experience something that people don’t normally do in Japan,” says Fumi “Feisty Fu” Tsuyu. “The drills we do can be tough sometimes, but the sense of accomplishment after finishing practice is always pleasant.”

Well, the roller derby season got off to a pleasantly aggressive start at Tokyo Dome on Oct. 27. With an enthusiastic crowd watching that evening, the Sushi Rollers faced off against the Scary Blossoms in an intense battle of strategy and power. Despite the hours of practice that the Blossoms put in, the Rollers prevailed will a final score of 231 to 224.

Roller derby matches are referred to as bouts. There are two types of bouts: a regular bout between two teams, or a mashup between multiple teams. The object of the game is to score as many points as possible and prevent the opposing team from scoring.

One bout is divided into two 30-minute periods in which a number of short games called jams are played. A jam can last up to two minutes and involves five skaters from each team: three blockers, a pivot, and a jammer that skates counterclockwise around an oval track. A blocker’s job is to stop the opposing team’s jammer from passing while helping her own team’s jammer to break through and score. The pivot is a blocker who’s positioned at the front of the pack to regulate speed and can become a jammer if necessary.

The blockers and pivots from each team form what is referred to as a pack. It is the jammer’s job to acquire points for her team. No points are awarded for the first time a jammer passes through the pack, but she can subsequently score a point for each opponent she passes on the track. The first jammer to get through the pack becomes the lead jammer. It’s a good position because the lead jammer has the strategic advantage of being able to call off the jam before the two-minute time limit is up, therefore preventing the opposing team’s jammer from scoring more points. Along the way, there are hits, falls, penalties and lots of yelling, but despite the aggression, the players consider themselves sisters.

“The camaraderie and support within the teams is amazing,” says “Killa Cali” Behrendt. “Once you’re on the team, you instantly gain 25 derby sisters.”

Roller derby isn’t governed by sisterhood alone, though, in fact it’s governed by the WFTDA or the leagues themselves via rules that ensure the game is played safely and fairly. For example, players can’t hit their opponent’s back, head or lower legs. Also, elbows and feet can not be used to block an opponent.

The assurance of safety is especially important when prospective players see the game played for the first time. It can look quite rough. Behrendt notes that the Japanese women she has spoken with at her bouts have expressed a lot of curiosity about the sport, and the women involved in the sport stress that anyone who wants to play, can.

“Derby isn’t geared toward one specific kind of body, ability, or look,” Behrendt says. “Derby will accept anyone regardless of size.”

Hawkins says she benefits from being a part of a roller derby team in more ways than one.

“First and foremost (it’s) pride,” she says. “I am proud of everything I have achieved (and) it helps keep me physically active and in shape.”

Of course, there’s also the part where you get to hit other chicks which is, Behrendt jokes, “The best part of roller derby.”

The next bout will be held Dec. 8 and it pits the Yokosuka Sushi Rollers against Okinawa’s Kokeshi Roller Dolls. There will be a little mashup action on the same day when members from all four TRG teams compete in a bout for fun.

For an action-packed video of the bout mentioned here visit ow.ly/fkXDS. For bout times and locations check out the Tokyo Roller Girls Facebook page or follow them on Twitter @TRGderby. For information in Japanese visit www.tokyorollergirls.jp