Although it had started out as a legitimate sport back in the 1930s, in the decades that followed roller derby gradually devolved into the female equivalent of the WWE. Scripted fights, fishnet stockings, and miniskirts which doubled as scientific studies into how many sequins a square inch of fabric could support before erupting under its own sparkliness took priority over athleticism, and the outcomes of the matches were often predetermined. Roller derby experienced something of a renaissance last decade, however. The showmanship angle with its stockings and sequins has endured, as have the athletes’ funny stage names like “Honey Basher” and “Princess Cut” — but the aggression, and the results of each bout for that matter, are very real indeed.
When Rena Mehlhoff, who now skates as Anne Thrax, joined Bismarck-Mandan’s very own roller derby team the BisMan Bombshellz in 2010, she did so simply because she saw the new team’s sign-up poster and thought that it sounded like fun. “I never played sports when I was younger,” said Rena, “so it’s weird that I was drawn to a full contact one. The physical competition really makes you grit your teeth and bear it, and giving and taking hits makes you tougher outside of the arena as well. Who would have thought that I’d love it so much?
“I’m only 5’2”, so my job is more to slow down the other team’s skaters by getting in their way. Fortunately our team has women who are a lot bigger and stronger than me to deal out the pain. Of course, you can’t just beat the tar out of people indiscriminately in roller derby. You’ve got to hit below the shoulder and above the knee, the back is off limits, and you can’t trip people. Our team appreciates going home from bouts with the same number of collective teeth that we started with.
“Although men compete in roller derby too, it’s mostly a women’s sport because our bodies’ geometries are better suited for it. Our hips give us the lower center of gravity that’s perfect for keeping balance on skates, and we also use our hips to bump other players out of the way and score points.”
This of course begs the important question: Just how is roller derby played? To begin with, it is no longer done on a banked track like in the old days — a flat oval track is now the thing. The hour long bout is broken down into units of play called jams, which last as long as two minutes each. Either team has one jammer and four blockers. It is the jammer’s job to lap opponents in order to score points; It is the blockers’ job to make this as difficult a feat for the opposing team’s jammer as possible, while at the same time helping their own. The whole thing can seem like an imbroglio at first, but after a couple of jams you’ll quickly see just what is going on.
“After eight long years building this team up, we were finally accepted as a full member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association last July,” Rena continued. “That means we can compete against other teams from around the world to increase our ranking on the global circuit. We’ve already squared off against teams from Montana, Nebraska, and even Canada. Getting ranked has always been the BisMan Bombshellz’ goal, and we’re well on our way to bringing that honor to our hometowns. But to be the best in the world? That distinction currently belongs to a team in Australia. It would take these 20 ladies from North Dakota a long time to get there.
“It’s hardly about the ranking at the end of the day, though. The feeling of comradery we all share after building this team up from nothing, that moment of anticipation before each jam when anything can happen, even the horrendous smell of the locker room as we peel off our sweat-soaked padding after a bout…I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
The BisMan Bombshellz skaters are currently enjoying a well-deserved Epsom salt soak after their last rough and tumble season. They’re now gearing up for their next season which begins in April, with home games you can go see at the Capital Ice Complex or VFW Sport Center. To learn more about the team and their upcoming bouts, visit bismanbombshellz.com.
By David Scheller