My Date with The Derby Demons – Part One: Reno’s Derby Little Secret

“This makes me feel like I’m a rock star,” says blocker Eat Schmidt.

Veronica Schmidt, 31, 6-foot-2, full-figured woman, works as a baker for Whole Foods Market in Reno, Nev. During her workday, she prepares breads and bakes Star Wars-themed cakes for children’s birthdays while wearing a white baker’s apron. On this Sunday, however, she sheds her mild-mannered secret identity, arriving at the downtown Reno concrete park dressed in a camouflage sports tank, black shorts and fishnets.

Her hair, dyed bright red, sits atop a face covered in black, white and blood red. Her eyes are covered in gunmetal black makeup with streaks of black running down her cheeks.  Her lips, colored bright red, emote a devilish grin over her pale white face. She puts on her helmet, with the name fans of roller derby know her by written on the side: Eat Schmidt.

As she laces up her black roller skates with red wheels, she talks about how she became a part of the Battle Born Derby Demons, Reno’s only flat track roller derby team.

While working at her baking job at the market, two other employees cornered her in the back of the store.

“You have to join our derby team,” they told her with the zeal of religious converts seeking to proselytize a new member into their church. Schmidt had played, in her words, the “big girl sports” in high school like volleyball and basketball, spending most of her time on the bench.  Worse, she had no idea how to roller-skate.

She began attending training sessions as “fresh meat,” a term applied by the team to new members, learning to skate and play the game.

Today, 18 months later, she is a blocker for the Derby Demons. Her job is twofold – prevent the other team’s jammers from getting through and create space so the Derby Demon’s jammer can break through the pack and score.  Her shoes laced and helmet secured, she rolls out to the derby arena for the team’s final game of the season.

A Close-Knit Family

“Okay beauties, gear up!” hollers Mary Maulher (real name Jessica Ebbe) to the team as the sun sets in Reno, back-dropping the buildings with a blue curtain. The twilight sky grows darker as the park’s lights turn on, providing just enough light to see the track. Maulher, like a sergeant in boot camp, orders two players to move laterally from the inside line to the outside line of the track, drawn out in white tape and chalk.

“Inside line! Outside line! Now sprint!” she orders. The two skaters waste no time following her commands, skating around the track.

Once a woman becomes a derby girl, she sheds her identity as a teacher, social worker, housewife, psychologist, or nurse. She adopts a derby name, one that reflects her personality in the rink. During practice or games, the Derby Demons never use the names given to them for their ordinary lives. Desiree Williams, Amanda Buell and Kirsten Malen are no more. They become Gnarly Nailer, Spacey Lords and Anita Jambayou.

The Reno streets are saturated with the sounds of motorcycle engines. This week is Street Vibrations, an event drawing bikers from all over the country. As the dusk darkens, the sound of bikers riding Harley Davidsons and visitors congregating down Virginia Street, the city’s main street, which has been closed off to car traffic for the event.

Tonight’s practice is the last of the season. Sunday the Derby Demons will play against the Wild West Outlaws, a confederacy of players from the Southwest United States.

On the other side of the track, team members practice the whip, a move in which a blocker grabs the jammer and throws her in front of the pack. As they practice, the move fails about half of the time and the jammer gets thrown too hard, slamming into the unforgiving concrete. But after each failure, the jammer arises, dusts off her clothes and tries again. The move is practiced in static formation. But in a few days, it will be applied while the players dynamically skate with speed and aggression around a crowded track.

“Around the world guys!” yells Maulher as she skates the track with the two pivot blockers of the team.  The pivot travels around during the jam, providing an overview to the players of what is going on during a jam using signals both verbal and by hand gesture to direct the team.

“These people out here,” Maulher says as she stops at the edge of the track, pointing to the women skating, “are not people I would normally spend time with. We all come from different backgrounds.” Having just skated around the track many laps, her voice labored from the workout, she talks about her time with the team. These people now are her closest friends and she says she would do anything for them. Her voice at the end of that statement sounds more choked-up by emotion than by the stress of exercise.

A Growing Sport

Roller derby has developed into a worldwide sport, with leagues in Europe, Australia and Asia. According to the 2012 documentary Derby Baby, more than 16,000 women in the United States participate in roller derby. Junior leagues have started surfacing in cities, allowing young girls to play the sport. A February 2012 Yahoo article reported that roller derby is being considered as an event in the 2020 Olympic Games.

Everyone, from the fresh meat to Sweet Ruin participate in all levels of the club. No one is given a free pass to simply skate. All members promote the sport. The club survives financially by sponsorships, donations, paying spectators and the Derby Demons, who donate much of their free time running the organization. Others volunteer to be referees and non-skating officials (NSO).

“Skating’s easy. It’s the fun part,” Maulher says.

As the practice session winds down, skaters move to the side of the park, sit down and begin removing their skates. Gnarly Nailer, one of the team’s pivots, approaches me and invites me to Noble Pie, a pizza restaurant a few blocks away to celebrate the end of the season.

Nailer skates to three other players, hands them postcard-sized flyers for Saturday’s bout and orders them to hand them out to people on the street to “earn their pizza and beer.” As the ladies skate off into the crowd of bikers on the streets of downtown Reno, catcalls and whistles echo back to the park.

Walking west on Second Street to the pizza parlor, we pass large crowds on the street, some dressed in leather from head to toe and others in jeans and t-shirts.

Approaching the parlor, techno music from a nearby nightclub fills the air with beats and the odor of beer and wine saturate the street.

The players and their families and friends pack the narrow-spaced pizza parlor. Some children sit at the front of the restaurant, watching a large-screen television, while skaters Spacey Lords and Anita Jambayou sit on the floor talking about guys.

Two men, one the brother of a player and the other, the husband of one, talk about what to order at the counter. They decide that they must try “The White Boy,” a pizza featuring a white garlic sauce, rotisserie chicken, fresh basil, red onion, asparagus and sun-dried tomatoes. For the next 30 minutes, the two men can be heard blurting “Hey, where’s my ‘White Boy?’” while drinking beer and laughing.

Everyone talks at the same time, tossing bits of information around about their kids, work, music, movies, skating, sports and jokes. It is like Facebook turned up to 11, audible real-time statuses posted by shouting. The cacophony is sometimes overwhelming, but the tone is consistent: jubilant!

Whiskey Ginger, an NSO who coordinates much of the logistics of getting everything and everyone in the right place at the right time for the games approaches me with a glass of beer in her hand and a smile on her face.

“How would you like to be an NSO and officiate Saturday’s game?” she asks.

I wash down my mouth full of White Boy with my beer and respond “sure.”

Note: Sweet Ruin and Whiskey Ginger are stage names.

Go to Part Two!

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