Roller derby by and for Walla Walla women

Eleanor Dudley, Feature Reporter

Whipping around the track, the Walla Walla Sweets Rollergirls navigate offense and defense in tandem.

Solidarity and strength dominate their sport; power is channeled into play. This transformative atmosphere is created by a community of badass women who show up for themselves and each other.

Roller derby is a full contact sport played on roller skates. During a bout – a roller derby match – four people on each team block while one “jammer” skates around the track attempting to score.

The sport is not new to Walla Walla. Roller derby has come and gone in town, along with the community it creates.

Historically, the Atomic City derby team in Richland served as a central location for women from all over. This changed in 2009, however, with the creation of the Walla Walla Sweets Rollergirls team.

Heading into their eleventh season, today’s team practices every Tuesday and Thursday at the Village Youth Center in College Place. Finding practice spaces can be a unique challenge to roller derby due to the hestistancy of organizations to allow skates on floors. With space secured, the team can focus on playing the sport they love and having fun.

“We are here to have a good time and it’s very much based about empowerment, and we have people varying from every walk of life on our team,” senior Madi Hofbauer, who plays for the team, said. “Fun is a very big thing on this team, while we do take it seriously we are here to play a game.”

Hofbauer attended her first roller derby meeting in October. Amidst a difficult semester as a resident assistant (RA) in Jewett Hall, Hofbauer was looking for relief. Finding distance from campus was essential for her mental health. By chance, the student listserv answered her calls.

“It was a very fluke thing. It was pure luck,” Hofbauer said. “I was going through a lot of tough things and I just checked the student listserv one day and it was like ‘Do you like sports and want to have fun?’ … I was like ‘yes please!’ So I gathered my friend [junior] Avery Leclair and we showed up and it was all history from there.”

That first meeting revealed the tone of the team as individuals’ motivations to join the team tended to be similar. Hofbauer recalled her shock and comfort from the stories of the women surrounding her.

“At our first meeting, before we were even on roller skates, they asked what brings you to roller derby and it was a lot of … I just went through a really bad breakup and am looking for an identity … I’m going through a divorce and I need a release,” Hofbauer said. “I was absolutely shocked by how a lot of people’s poor relationships were what was bringing them to roller derby in looking for a good one.”

From her first encounter, the team presented itself as a space for solidarity. Despite vast differences in their ages, abilities and motivations, their desire for community united players. While hurt and heartbreak brought many to their first practice, the empowering community of roller derby kept them coming back.

“A very recurring theme in roller derby at least from what I’ve seen is people come to that first meeting looking for something besides a sport,” Hofbauer said. “Knowing that all these people on the team are looking for a community makes it easier to reach out because you already know you are all looking for the same thing.”

Whitman’s assistant director of academic resources, Antonia Keithahn, joined the team in July 2018. She recalled growing up with an awareness of the sport and watching roller derby on TV, yet never imagining she would be playing one day.

“When I first moved to Walla Walla in 2013, I saw the skaters volunteering at a community event, but didn’t think about doing it myself until after I had fortuitous back-to-back conversations with two skaters and then went to a recruitment event in July 2018,” Keithahn said. “I’ve been participating since then.”

The knowledge that one is not alone makes everything easier for many women on the team. Establishing common ground among players mitigated fears and created immediate connection. Welcomed by the community and surrounded by inspiring women, Hofbauer was hooked.

“The women on the team are the coolest people in the whole entire world. It was at a time where I was starving for community and support and felt like I had none,” Hofbauer said. “It was a complete accident. I’ve just stuck with it ever since then.”

While Whitman-affiliated staff are among these inspiring women, Hofbauer noted that their strength and community was separate from campus culture.

“In the grand scheme of things, I would say our Whitman identities are pretty low on what connects us,” Hofbauer said.

A potential issue with participating on the team as a Whitman student, according to Keithahn, is timing.

The majority of home bouts happen in the summer – usually when Whitman students are away from Walla Walla. This, however, does not discourage  Whitman students’ participation during the academic year. While limited, Whitman students do attend and cheer on the Sweets, although Keithahn sees potential for greater involvement.

“Our home bouts are often from May to September, so there is only a bout or two that overlaps with when most Whitman students are in Walla Walla. I worked merch and concessions at a couple of bouts last season, including the final bout of the season in September, and the turnout from Whitman students, staff and faculty was great” Keithahn said. “It would be fun if more student groups, especially sorority groups (since there is a natural connection with mission) did group ticket purchases and came out in big numbers as a bonding experience.”

While Whitman students are occasionally found on the sidelines of bouts cheering the Sweets on, Hofbauer finds involvement and awareness generally low. She believes that more connection comes from the Walla Walla community.

“I wouldn’t say it’s very well known at Whitman. It’s not super spoon-fed to Whitman students,” Hofbauer said. “As far as the community goes, it’s more well-known in Walla Walla; there is a following and there’s a lot of people in town who once skated for Walla Walla.”

This relationship is fostered with charity events and community gatherings, such as Food Truck night performances. Both Keithahn and Hofbauer described a recent cancer research benefit dinner in town where the team skated and sold tickets.

“For each home bout, we have a benefit organization that gets a significant portion of the proceeds of our ticket and raffle sales. Other groups and businesses reach out to us or have connections to a particular skater and will ask if we are available to serve in particular roles at an event,” Keithahn said. “ I love the work we do in our community.”

With representations in popular culture and growing involvement globally, the sport is gaining speed. While becoming mainstream offers regonication and rewards, exposure carries the risk of diminishing the alternative character at roller derby’s heart.

“It is a fun balance of wanting to be mainstream, but also wanting to maintain the alternativeness to it – that’s kind of the draw,” Hofbauer said.

The concept of derby names epitomize the alternative character that cannot be lost. Players choose a derby name and use it exclusively at practices. Hofbauer – or as she hesitantly chose, “Hoff with her head” – warmed to the character aspect slowly. She associated the naming with practice and skill, finding herself holding back until her ability reached her comfort level.

“I think going by a derby name is such a right of passage and I hadn’t felt like I earned it yet. I didn’t want to be an imposter,” Hofbauer said. “ I knew I wanted to eventually get more into the character aspect of it all but it took my awhile.”

Hofbauer is getting there, especially after successfully completing minimum skills testing, which allows new players to engage in full contact.

The testing bridges the seasons. New players called “fresh meat” join and practice in the fall and winter, until they attempt testing around March. If passed, players are cleared to compete in the spring and summer seasons. Despite this timeline, the team offers rolling enrollment and emphasizes flexibility for all.

“You can always come,” Hofbauer said. “Theoretically, by the end of fresh meat you are ready for the next season, but that doesn’t always happen and then you just keep practicing with the team until you can pass and be eligible for full contact.”

Individual determination and drive coexists with sportsmanship and support in this uniquely female arena. The essence of roller derby revolves around empowerment.

“The core of roller derby is inherently a feminist act in that it is a reclamation of space. You are literally taking up as much space as you can and there are not a lot of spaces where that is available,” Hofbauer said.

Men are not excluded from the world of roller derby; however, the sport is not theirs. In a world of gender inequality, roller derby offers something special, where women from all walks of life come together and battle it out on the roller rink.

“Some of our biggest supporters are men and there are ways for men to be involved in the league but it is made by and for female-identifying people,” Hofbauer said. “From that, I think people feel a lot of release whether they know it or not.”

Spatial awareness is foundational to roller derby. The instability of skating as well as the close contact of the game demands knowing your own body and sharing space with others. Hofbauer describes this contact as spirited and strong, rather than purely aggressive.

“There is an aspect of touching and close physical contact and pain that build this community in that you are riding this balance between playing really hard and supporting your teammates but also needing to be safe,” Hofbauer said. “You are very aware of the space you are taking up and how to help your teammates take up more space.”

Along with taking up space comes lots of physical contact and potential for pain. Injuries are commonplace and often critical for players. Like many sports, safety must come first because injuries can end careers and affect players for a lifetime.

“There is a really high injury rate, and that’s a very scary thing and a very salient thing as I’ve gotten more and more into the contact aspect,” Hofbauer said. “If I get hurt, I could be done forever in my first season.”

Safety is prioritized by the team. Precautionary measures and protective gear are in place and the community comes together to care for one another. Despite their best efforts, however, there is no guarantee of security.

“Injuries do happen, but the team leadership is very careful in making sure that folks are skating as safely as possible and that skaters skills are assessed regularly so that they are involved at a level that matches their current ability,” Keithahn said. “Gear is also designed to keep skaters protected and there are clear rules about wearing gear properly whenever you are on the track, so I feel like the sport is very thoughtful about the health and safety of skaters.”

Within the supportive community, challenges are still ever present. The diverse background and ability of players brings an inevitable clashing of ideas and learning styles.

“Tensions do sometimes arise,” Hofbauer said. “There’s disagreements, but you will get that on literally any team. I think that given the physical aspect of derby and literally being in each other’s faces for the game, kind of makes things fire up a little bit.”

The intimate play and community creates physical and mental closeness. The size of Walla Walla and the team contributes to this tight-knit and restricted team.

“Being that we only have one team in town it means skaters from every level are skating on the same team,” Hofbauer said. “You can’t put a fresh meat skater with a vet and expect them both to go all out, someone is going to have to step up and the other person is going to have to step back. It can be difficult when you are on a team with these goddesses to not feel bad about holding them back.”

As with all sports, roller derby requires balancing. Between safety concerns and no-holds barred play, between women of all ages, abilities and experiences, between fun and seriousness, between independence and community – it is a sport unlike any other.

Uniquely feminist in creation and action, roller derby brings empowered women together on the team and in contact on the rink. Welcoming in nature and forceful in spirit, the Walla Walla rollergirls invite participation. For those seeking strength, whether in themselves or among others, roller derby might be just the place.

“If anyone is ever interested, they should just come. It’s a good space to try things out and it doesn’t matter if you’ve touched roller skates before in your whole entire life. You can absolutely come and people will help you get to where you want to be,” Hofbauer said. “There is a level of personal accountability that comes with it, you are really doing this for yourself with the help of other people.”

The rollergirls remain united, even in today’s difficult circumstances. While practices and bouts are canceled, the Sweets look forward to future competitions, where they will continue to show up for themselves and each other.

“Right now we’re in the midst of a challenging situation with COVID-19. We’ve had to cancel/postpone many of our bouts for the season, and it is likely that more will be impacted,” Keithahn said. “We haven’t been able to practice either, so it’s been disappointing and means we’ll be working extra-hard when we are able to come back together.”