Roller derby grows as women embrace inner strength

A quick change of name and costume releases a fresh identity and attitude, along with remarkable new powers. Sound familiar? It's the standard blueprint for the change from mere mortal to superhero. They might not be superheroes, but the women of...

A quick change of name and costume releases a fresh identity and attitude, along with remarkable new powers.

Sound familiar?

It's the standard blueprint for the change from mere mortal to superhero.

They might not be superheroes, but the women of Forx Roller Derby are using the same formula to turn themselves from professionals, students, mothers and wives into shoe-leather tough goddesses on roller skates.

They're part of a rough-and-tumble sport that is exploding across the region and beyond.


Forx Roller Derby has had enough interest to form a second team, the Red River Syrens, alongside the longstanding Sugarbeaters club. Crookston has a team, and, last month, two women announced their intention to bring roller derby to Devils Lake, joining teams in Fargo, Bismarck and Williston.

In 2006, the website Roller Derby Worldwide listed 50 active amateur leagues, all female, and all in the U.S. Now the site counts 1,242 leagues worldwide, from Ada, Okla., to Antwerp, Belgium.

Stronger, tougher

Before Christin McWaters became derby girl Special Agent Foxy Smoulder, she was a self-described wall flower who struggled at speaking in front of groups at safety meetings she had to run at work.

Now at age 26, she is the operations director for Forx Roller Derby, and credits derby participation for her newfound confidence and empowerment.

"My family has seen how I've grown," she said. "Roller derby helps build strong women. Two years ago, I was a shy person. Now, I'm performing in front of 1,000 people."

Cassandra Scherr, 28, a.k.a. Jinx E. Jones, has been in physical sports like rugby and tae kwon do since before she was a teenager.

She said toughness is the common denominator between women in derby.


It's needed in a sport where physical contact is nearly constant between competitors often skating as fast as they can go around an 88-foot-long oval track. Points are scored when skaters lap opposing team members, but those opponents don't make it easy, putting up a block to keep them from passing.

"There is no formula for making a derby girl," she said. "Everybody comes from a wide variety of backgrounds. There's a lot of independence, a lot of strengths, both strength of character and physical strength."

It's a trait the group tries to pass on to a younger generation. McWaters said Forx Roller Derby's biggest fans are two young girls from Red Lake Falls, Minn.

"We feel like we give them local role models, local heroes," she said.

New personas

There is no shortage of individualism in roller derby.

Every skater takes on an alter ego, complete with a new, usually diabolical name such as Shandibal Lector or Mad the Impaler, both from the Forx Roller Derby.

"If something is missing in your life, your persona is what you want to be," McWaters said.


Pepper Razzi, an amateur photographer away from the track, wears No. f1.8 to symbolize a film exposure number.

The fashion of derby mixes a punk aesthetic with a kaleidoscope of different colors from helmets, skirts and socks down to the roller skate wheels.

Sex appeal is undeniably part of the sport's draw to spectators, but McWaters said that's not what puts fans in the seats.

"We wear fun little outfits, but our fan base is not coming out to watch girls in fishnets," she said. "Our biggest crowd is friends and family."


No longer able to compete in organized sports as she did in high school and college, Scherr searched out something that would fill the void.

"I want to do something social with girls that are like me and also enjoy these types of sports and the alternative look that's going on in derby," she said. "It's a place I can go where it's exercise and sports, but be accepted and not be the weird one on the team."

McWaters said the derby, which is completely volunteer-based, operates as a non-profit organization and has donated more than $5,000 to charities in its two years of existence.


This year, they have donated to Altru Health System's Spin for Kids and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Kris Peterson, 34, is one of many volunteers that keep the wheels of derby rolling.

After helping on a variety of levels, he recently completed his first refereeing assignment.

"I just got bit by the bug," he said.

Team members are required to put in a serious time commitment, both by attending practices 12 to 15 hours a month and helping with team operations.

"We all come together to run the team," McWaters said.

There's also a community amongst competing teams. They work together to promote and market the bouts and often act as hosts for out-of-town competitors.

Demanding sport


Ronda Hermanson is fresh meat, the term her teammates attach to newcomers.

Hermanson, 36, still in training six weeks into her career as a derby diva, is experiencing the level of dedication needed to get into rink.

Before skaters are able to compete on a team, they need to pass a number of minimum skills tests, which includes being able to do 25 laps around the track in five minutes.

"The first practice I didn't think I would make it, I was sore for a couple of days," she said. "I'm grateful they've been teaching me the skills I need to use. I'm just trying to survive. You have to pass all the skills. Some are faster than others. I still have a lot to go."

The risk for injury is significant with every turn around the track though competitors wear pads and helmets.

Two women have suffered serious injuries in the past two bouts, one in the warm up.

"It's a little rough," said Chris Ulibarri, watching his wife Jenniffer of the Williston Wreckhers compete against Syrens last weekend. "I'm kind of concerned about my wife."

It's a danger that friends and family dwell on more than the competitors, who take names like Ivanna Smackachick.


"My family has grown to respect the derby," McWaters said. "They don't love it, but they respect it."

What makes a derby girl?

• Training: Derby participants must pass a minimum skills test. For Forx Roller Derby "fresh meat," that includes being able to skate around the track 25 times in five minutes.

• Persona: Once they have passed the training, they are allowed to develop their derby name and persona. Forx Roller Derby names include Ivanna Smackachick, Shandibal Lector and Mad the Impaler.

• Gear: Derby participants wear helmets, shoulder pads, knee pads, tights, socks and skates. Some wear shorts, but others opt for a skirt.

• Bouts: A match in roller derby is called a bout, which takes place on an 88-foot-long oval track. Skaters called "jammers" score points for their team by lapping opposing team members. "Blockers" try to slow opposing jammers from moving and assist their own jammers getting through the pack. The "pivot" is like the quarterback of the team, trying to control traffic to their team's advantage.

Reach Bieri at (701) 780-1118; (800) 477-6572, ext. 118; or send email to . Herald reporter T.J. Jerke contributed to this story.

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