It’s a Sunday afternoon, and Kim “Kimproper Konduct” Stewart is taking her brand-new roller derby league through hopping practice.
“The idea is so you can jump over someone’s arm or leg,” she explains, before 13 women — all in knee and elbow pads, wrist braces, helmets, mouth guards and often colored tights or fishnets under their shorts — start skating around the multi-purpose gym floor at the Windber Community Building and taking one-footed hops over a piece of paper.
The Johnstown Roller Girls are new. They just started practices in May, and most of the women have to master skills before they can play in games.
“We’re almost there,” Stewart said. Some of the 35 women have passed their skill tests while others are still working.
In roller derby, the goal is for one person, called the jammer, to make her way through a pack of blockers. Each time she breaks through, her team earns a point.
Both teams have a jammer, and both have packs. The pack tries to block the opposing jammer while clearing the opposing pack out of the way of their own jammer.
“It’s challenging, but rewarding. You get great exercise and then a lot of new friends,” said Holly “Lil’ Red FireKracker” Moyer, of Robinson, a member of the Johnstown team. “We’re still learning.”
She said she liked skating when she was younger, and thought roller derby might be something fun to try. So she attended a start-up meeting where expectations were explained. They were told about practices (twice a week), equipment (it’s expensive) and injuries.
“It’s a contact sport, you still get hit, you still get knocked down,” Moyer said.
But this isn’t the roller derby of the ’70s.
Sarah “Tammy ToeStop” Jacob, who plays for Westmoreland Roller Derby, said she used to watch the old roller derby games with her father.
“It was all scripted, punching and throwing people over the rails. They’re trying to make it real (now),” she said.
Now there are rules and officials governing what sort of contact is allowed, and that’s one of the things the new Johnstown team is practicing.
“Who knows the legal target zone for hitting?” Stewart asked her team that Sunday afternoon.
On the front, it’s from the mid-thigh through the collarbone. You have to avoid the middle of the back, the tailbone and the spine. You can’t use elbows, but may use shoulders, hips, chests and butts when hitting or blocking someone.
“Swing your butt back and forth, this is power,” Stewart says when they practice blocking one another around the track.
Jacob said hitting was hard for her to learn.
“I’m a shy, quiet person and hitting people was really intimidating at first. You’ve got to get over that,” she said.
Instead, she’s watched her confidence grow. “I don’t care any more what people think,” she said.
Jacob started playing in Cleveland, after she met a woman who played at a gym. She transferred to the Steel City league in Pittsburgh, then joined Westmoreland.
“I liked skating,” she said. “(It was) something that’s fun to do on skates and (would help me) get better. That was just my main goal, to get better.”
Not only did she get better at skating, but she made friends and gained confidence.
And she gained bruises. A knee injury left her out for six weeks.
“I get black and blue all the time,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to take that risk.”
Chris “Karma McGitcha” McAninch, of Smicksburg, said playing roller derby is like playing football; injuries are par for the course.
“If you’re a big wimp you might as well forget playing because whether it’s practice or a game, you are going to have bruises and if you don’t you must be sitting on the bench or something. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re going to have bruises,” she said.
McAninch plays for Northern Allegheny Roller Derby out of DuBois, also a new league that started last summer. She joined last October, along with two former roller hockey teammates from her youth.
“When I was younger I played roller hockey and I always wanted to do roller derby, I saw it on TV, obviously we were already on skates,” she said. “I thought, Oh, that would be so cool.”
She never did play, though, until she read about the new roller derby team last year. She sent a Facebook message to two former hockey teammates with whom she’d lost touch, and all three gave it a try.
“I love it, I love it,” she said. “Twenty-something years later the three of us are back, hanging out, it’s like we never skipped a beat. It’s pretty cool.”
McAninch said she loves forming bonds with her new friends, being part of a team again, and just skating.
“I love to skate. The rinks are going downhill and (roller derby) is bringing it back,” she said.
Roller derby itself is making a comeback, she said. New leagues are forming, like Northern Allegheny and Johnstown.
“You’re going to see more and more derby leagues around — as long as they can find a place where they can practice and where they can have games,” she said. “That’s the big problem for them, they don’t have a place for (official) bouts.”
Stewart said she started the Johnstown league after driving to State College to play. She lives in Ebensburg and knew of other women who were also driving all that way.
“It’s growing like crazy,” she said.
The new team has 35 members, ages 18 to 50, and “any woman can play it,” she said.
Age isn’t really a problem, McAninch said. “That’s a big misconception.” Anyone can learn to skate, any league will teach the skills necessary, and older women who grew up skating on roller skates rather than the in-line skates that are more popular now are at an advantage over their younger counterparts.
“Roller skates are kind of like (riding a bike). It comes back to you,” she said.
What can be a bigger problem is time and money. It’s a significant time commitment, with two practices a week plus games on the weekends. And without many sponsors, most of the women are providing their own equipment and covering their own medical bills.
Those became prohibitive for Megan Short, a single parent of two young children. She joined the Johnstown league because “it seemed like something I could do for myself,” but bruised her tailbone at her first practice and hasn’t been able to get back to it.
Instead, she has converted to a fan, attending bouts.
“It’s really entertaining. If you don’t know how it’s played it just looks like a bunch of girls skating and pushing each other around, but when you’re watching and you know what’s going on it’s really exciting,” she said. “It’s impressive; you wonder how they don’t fall.”
And she still made friends through roller derby.
“They’re the nicest group of girls. They kind of seem intimidating but they’re like Care Bears,” she said. “Everyone is so encouraging and so understanding. It’s more like a family.”
McAninch said they need more fans to cheer them on, and more volunteers for non-skating positions like scorekeepers and timers and, yes, sponsors.
“It seems like any fan that we can get in the door, once they’ve actually seen a game, they’re hooked, they really like it,” she said. “That’s a big thing, we need fans. We need people to support us to get money in at the door. … You really need a big fan base to bring the money in to help keep it going.”
That Sunday in Windber, practice winds to a close with several women practicing laps. One of the skills they must master is to complete 27 laps in under five minutes, and each is taking time off her previous record today.
One breaks the barrier, collapsing to the floor surrounded by congratulatory teammates with a time of 4:57.
“What are we cheering for?” Stewart asks her fledgling team when they gather in the center of the track at the end of practice.
They cheer for the broken time barrier — another step toward playing in official matches.
PHOTO: Members of the Johnstown Roller Girls practiced blocking techniques at a recent practice in Windber.
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