The Santa Cruz Derby Girls’ nights of badassery
Splintered ankles, dislocated shoulders, bone bruises, sprained wrists, muscles split in half by skates, torn knees, fractured fingers, maybe the occasional concussion and broken nose. It’s all just another season in the life of a Santa Cruz Derby Girl.
In the immortal words of Kelly Clarkson: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and although it’s not their league’s anthem (yet?), the Santa Cruz Derby Girls play for love of the game, never letting a little bump or break get in their way.
“Derby becomes a part of you, and you want to give it everything that you can,” says Regan Eymann, known to her teammates as Shamrock N. Roller. “For my daughter, who’s very much into pink and ballet, I want to be a strong role model and figure in her life and I think playing roller derby allows me to do that beyond just being her mom, which I’m proud of.”
Eymann is the team’s pivot, the player who calls out the play and makes strategic decisions, and she’s had a broken ankle, a concussion, whiplash, and a bone bruise on her knee from which she’s still recovering.
Some injuries have given her pause—she’s seen a foot turned the wrong way around—but it hasn’t kept her from the rink. Eymann recently made it onto Team California.
“We’re empowering young women to feel OK about being aggressive and strong and not feel like they have to be put in a box—as a female you can only dance or participate in the things that are not considered male,” says Eymann, a multimedia producer by day.
Although derby is still a fairly new sport—the national organization Women’s Flat Track Derby Association kicked off only in 2004—it’s changed rapidly since its birth; players like Eymann and her Boardwalk Bombshell teammates are shifting the perception from performative pastime to competitive sport.
“When fishnets and booty shorts were the uniform, it was more about entertainment and less about the sport,” says Eymann. “We’ve gotten the idea out of people’s heads that we’re not responsible members of the community—that we’re not moms, when we are, or that we have bad attitudes or that we’re mean.”
They’re not mean, but they are tough as nails. The game itself involves two teams of five players on an oval track, with “blockers” trying to keep the other team’s “jammer” from getting past them to score. The Santa Cruz league has three home teams—Redwood Rebels, Steamer Janes, and Organic Panic—who all play each other, and their Division 1 competition team, the Boardwalk Bombshells. Their seasons typically begin in February and run eight to 10 months through spring and summer playoffs—“Now you know why they call the partners of derby girls ‘derby widows,’” quips Scott.
The Bombshells journey to Cleveland on Aug. 20 for the playoff tournament, fighting for a spot at the Championship games in Minneapolis in October—a coveted position they lost in 2013 by only one point.
As of June 30, they placed 42nd out of 265 teams in the international Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) rankings, which include teams from Stockholm and Helsinki.
Rachel Scott a.k.a. Kosher Assault works in public relations in “real life,” but for the Derby Girls, she’s a liaison to the WFTDA. She says the road to legitimacy has made leagues eager to streamline rules.
Penalties, for instance, were recently reduced from one minute to 30 seconds. It’s a good thing, too, she says, as one minute could give the opposing team an entire 40 points. In other parts of the country, teams are even moving toward using their “civilian names,” as Cheri Bell, who goes by Queen Litigious in the rink, calls them.
That won’t be happening in Santa Cruz anytime soon, she says, as most of the players call each other by their team names so often they have a hard time recalling their real ones.
And even though it’s primarily a women’s sport right now (“watching men’s derby is pretty funny” says Scott), the national association is working toward inclusivity of all genders and backgrounds.
Once you reach a certain age, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to play organized team sports, says Bell, so many women are drawn to derby precisely because it’s female-dominated.
By looking at her, most people would never guess she plays derby, Bell admits. A petite blonde, she has played for the Boardwalk Bombshells for five years and uses size to her advantage as the team’s jammer—the player who has to fight past everyone else to score points.
“It’s a sport with a really big rule book and a lot of strategy; you have to be thinking at all times,” Bell says.
Players quickly learn to get up and dust themselves off, she says (“dust,” in this case, probably means blood). Bell broke her nose at the beginning of a bout in Nashville and played through the whole thing—then played another match the next day before getting her nose reset.
“There’s a saying: ‘roller derby saved my life,’ and it’s so true,” says Scott. “I’m not the most innately aggressive person on the track and I could be considered a not-confident person, but derby has helped me be more confident in life in general. You see what you’re capable of.”
Santa Cruz Derby Girls is also a nonprofit organization, so when they’re not busy breaking or bruising body parts (the hospital bills for which, by the way, they do have to finance on their own) they partner with other local nonprofits by donating funds, people, time, and PR.
For many of the women, derby has changed their lives.
“As a woman, as a mom, as a lawyer in my ’40s, I never thought I’d be able to have these crazy rockstar moments,” she says. “Being in front of a sold-out crowd at the Civic, scoring the winning point and hearing the crowd go crazy—those are really special memories and moments in my life.” AMH
For more badassary, Brad Kava interviews Santa Cruz’s compeitive motorcycle rider, Yuri Barrigan in Lethal Curves.