Portland’s roller derby queens

Roller derby is a sport that finds its roots in 1960s Americana and could be considered a distant cousin to speed skating. In 2006 it’s become a rock show where the bands have been replaced by sexy women who enjoy laying out bigger hits than NFL linebackers and play the game for the best reason – because they love it.

Portland’s own all-women roller derby league debuted Saturday at the Expo Center to an over-capacity, amped-up crowd that overflowed from the bleachers onto the floor of the cavernous arena.

Kim Stegeman founded the Rose City Rollers back in August of 2004.

“We were talking about it,” Stegeman said, who captains the elite Guns N Rollers team and goes by Rocket Mean when she’s on the track. “Someone heard that roller derby was going on in other parts of the country and the Mercury gave us free advertising. We got a pretty good response, something like 30 girls.”

The league has expanded to over 60 women who have joined the High Rollers, Heartless Heathers, Breakneck Betties and Guns N Rollers. After a year and a half of practicing and an exhibition match late in 2005 the Rose City Rollers were ready for their first official bout.

A bout is derby lingo for the show in its entirety, but you probably didn’t know that, or anything else about roller derby. Not to worry. The rules of the game are simple. Five skaters are on the track at one time: a pivot, a jammer and three blockers. The pivot wears a stripe on her helmet and controls the action and dictates the speed of the pack.

The jammer is charged with scoring points and wears a star on her helmet. The goal of the jammer is to break through the pack while staying in bounds. Each opposing team member she passes scores a point, with a maximum four points available with every full pass.

Blockers have to stop the jammer. Blockers can do almost anything to stop the jammer from passing them, including bumping and knocking and mostly just dishing out massive hits while trying to maintain control themselves.

Games start by the pivot and blockers from both teams up front and the two jammers in the back. When the first whistle blows the pack takes off. Moments later, a second whistle cues the jammers to start their sprint.

“Jams” last two minutes, but the first jammer to break through the pack without falling out of bounds becomes the lead jammer and may call off the jam at any time. This is where some strategy comes into play. If a jammer has passed through the pack and scored well, she may decide to call off the jam to prevent the other jammer from scoring.

Confused yet? That’s why five referees oversee each frenetic match, with a ref watching each jammer, two watching the lines and one making sure the pack plays nice.

“You kind of have to play up the spectacle aspect,” Stegeman said. “We’re training the public to watch a new sport.”

Despite the spectacle, which included the thunderous DrumCore drumline, rock show lighting and a constant bombardment of music, there are games to be played. And they are not boring. Games are a constant, frantic war of jostling for position broken up by painful hits that allow the jammer to sneak by for points. Jammers are often sent flying by blockers and often end up on their backsides and far behind the pack, which is when the other jammer shoots ahead for scores.

Back in the ’60s, roller derby was a somewhat scripted event akin to pro wrestling. These days there is nothing scripted about it and the skaters play to win. The inaugural matches featured a blowout and a tightly contested upset, but the highlight came at halftime when the Guns N Rollers and the High Rollers got into a knockdown brawl that took out rinkside reporter Cat Daddy.

The Guns ended up pulling away late for a 116-77 win over the High Rollers. In the other game, the Heartless Heathers broke the Breakneck Betties in a 95-90 upset win despite trailing at halftime.

“Our team prides ourself on our jammers and how fast we can skate,” said Itzo EZ, a speedy jammer with the dominant Guns N Rollers. “But it was a total team win. You can’t do anything without your blockers.”

TerrorEyes, a blocker with the Betties, can’t get enough of the sport despite losing her first bout of the season.

“I used to skate a lot as a kid but I hadn’t skated in 15 years,” she said. “But I love roller derby. It’s my life now. I love being able to let out the aggression.”

Her dedication is the norm in the DIY league that practices four times a week.

“It’s all skaters doing all the work, we have some volunteers but it’s all skaters,” said Tara Heartout, a skater with the underdog Heartless Heathers. “We say league, team, skater – that’s the order. This has so much more than other sports.”

The time spent was well worth the effort. Stegeman wanted the inaugural bout to be impressive, which required professional lighting and sound, advertising, halftime entertainment and a bikini-clad roller-equipped flag girl.

“It takes quite a bit of coordination,” Stegeman said. “All the girls in the league pretty much volunteer.”

Whenever possible, girls used their connections to make the show happen, with volunteers picking up the slack. After the show, everyone stayed to clean with many girls picking up trash while still on skates.

“Saturday went great despite a few minor things from a production standpoint,” Stegeman said. ” We had everything nailed down and the crowd was great. People got a whole lot for their 10 bucks.”

A traveling team composed of the Rose City Rollers elite will hit the road to Tucson, Ariz., on Feb. 24 ?” 26 to compete with 20 leagues in the first-ever National Women’s Derby Flat Track Association tourney. The next home bout is scheduled for March. Go to www.rosecityrollers.com for more information.