Despite doubters, the Windy City Rollers keep rolling along

Members of the Windy City Rollers vie for position at a recent bout. Photo by Steve Stearns.

By Bob Chiarito

Chicago is a sports town. In the summer, we are divided over the Cubs and White Sox in baseball, and then the fall comes (when baseball is usually irrelevant in this town) and Chicagoans are united again by the Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls. The most widely known and loved players are from the teams of the four major sport leagues, but the  longest tenured athletes still active in Chicago play on the Windy City Rollers, Chicago’s all-female roller derby team and go by the names of “Mo Vengeance”, “Val Capone,” and “Varla Vendetta.”

That’s right, –because of the season ending (and possibly career ending, as it’s his last contract year)  injury suffered by Chicago Bear Charles “Peanut” Tillman and the recent retirement of Paul Konerko of the White Sox, one can arguably say the longest tenured athletes still active in Chicago are the women who skate fast, hit hard, and maneuver quickly — Capone, Vengeance, Vendetta and Vendetta.

These women skate with the Windy City Rollers. (WCR) , taking on other teams from across the country at the UIC Pavilion, location of the teams’ home bouts. You may not know this because they aren’t covered by any of the city’s sports media. But the team has been around 10 years now, and these three (which are their stage names, as if there was any doubt) have been active members since the team’s inception in 2004. (Vengeance departed for a year and played for Angel City Derby Girls in Los Angeles before returning).

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Mo Vengeance stares down an opposing blocker. Photo by Steve Stearns.

Unlike other “pro” athletes, roller derby players don’t have agents or equipment managers. They carry their own luggage, and when they travel, it’s usually by bus or van rather than chartered plane. They work regular jobs, because roller derby doesn’t pay. But while their dedication and love of their sport is unquestioned, there are some who debate whether roller derby is a sport at all — according to Capone, the reason for that is partly of roller derby’s own antics and some of it is because of a lack of awareness to the current state of roller derby.

Background

Roller derby has been around since the 1920s, but for years was regarded  much like professional wrestling — because it featured with staged fights, skaters wearing makeup and fishnet stockings, and many of the bouts were rigged.

Over the last 10-15 years, roller derby has had a rebirth throughout the country, emerging as a competitive activity — if not yet a mainstream sport — but without the staged fights and rigged bouts that made it more of a show than competition.

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Val Capone, as pictured on her WCR trading card — another way the team reaches out to kids.

“The only thing fake about it is the name on the back of my jersey,” Capone said after a recent home bout at the UIC pavilion. Capone, who does not divulge her real name, works as a bartender at the United Center when she’s not tearing up the UIC Pavilion a few blocks away.

The Windy City Rollers are part of the WFTDA (Womens Flat Track Derby Association) and consists of more than 200 teams from across the nation in three main divisions.  The rules for flat track derby differ slightly that with a banked track, but overall the object of roller derby is the same no matter what type of surface it’s played on.

Five players from each team are on the track at the same time. (1 pivot, 3 blockers and 1 jammer). A pivot sets the pack pace and wears a striped helmet cover. The pivot is often the last line of defense. Blockers wear no helmet cover and tries to block whomever she can to make sure her jammer gets through the pack first, while blocking the opposing jammer. Jammer’s wear a star helmet cover and tries to break through the pack to be lead jammer.

Three blockers try to get their offensive skater, called the jammer, through the line. When the jammer clears the line ahead of the other team’s jammer, she becomes the “lead jammer.” After circling the track and coming up on the blockers again, there are also three blockers from the other team, and the jammer will attempt to pass opposing blockers, scoring a point for every opponent she can pass. This is done while the other team’s jammer is also trying to get past the line and score points. Two teams, eight blockers and two jammers combined, playing offense and defense at the same time at speeds up to 17 mph. (Skaters are required to wear helmets, , mouth guards, elbow and knee pads and have skates with toe stops.

In addition, skaters must have outside insurance and WFTDA insurance ($60 a year) through the league, to cover any incidents at practices and WFTDA events, Vengeance said.

The Windy City Rollers are actually a “league,” or group of four teams: The Double Crossers, The Fury, Hell’s Belles, and Manic Attackers. Newbies start on the WCR farm team, the Haymarket Rioters, until they are drafted to one of the four teams. The best skaters end up on the Windy City Roller’s All-Stars, who represent the league in competitions throughout the country.

The WCR is a non-profit organization and all of their workers are volunteers, from the referees to the play-by-play announcers to the workers who set up and dismantle the track before and after bouts.

The Players

Jammers, like Sarah Steele, known as Jamburglar, are usually smaller and quicker than most of the other skaters — equivalent to a kick returner in football as opposed to a lineman. Jamburglar has been with the Windy City Rollers for 13 months and is still considered a new kid on the block. She grew up a hockey player in Michigan, even playing for Michigan State. Five years ago she found herself living in Florida and with no women’s hockey leagues available to her, she got into roller derby.

“I just love skating,” she said after a recent home bout.  When she’s not skating with the rollers, Jamburglar is working on her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago

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Jamburglar makes a break for the front of the pack. Photo by Steve Stearns.

Her skill is evident, as she speeds past a most of the others and maneuvers to avoid being knocked over. Despite her agility, in 2010, she suffered what she described as a major injury, having her ribs shifted out of place. But with only one injury, Jamburglar is in the minority.

Mo Vengeance, who works by day as a front-end developer for a e-commerce company, has suffered from chronic neck pain and several hamstring pulls throughout her 10 years with the WCR, summed up by her as “nothing major,” while Val Capone has endured a stress fracture, rolled ankles, concussions and eye gouges, and had two knee surgeries — all blocked out by the love of the game.

“None of it matters. All the physical suffering is evened out by the emotional gain,” Capone says with a straight face.

The women who skate for the WCR all have regular jobs — and dedicate a lot of free time to practicing and keeping in shape.

“It’s a huge time commitment,” Windy City Roller public relations manager Mack Savage said. Savage is also a WCR skater who goes only by her derby name.

Jamburglar estimated she dedicates 15 hours a week to roller derby practice, while Mo Vengeance says she does a lot of cross training to keep in shape. In addition to practicing and working out, the women of the WCR are required to do volunteer work to keep the league running, such as making personal appearances, according to Capone. Additionally, Capone said they study their opponents on film and spend many hours on strategy.

Skaters also are responsible for buying their equipment, often at several hundred dollars and more — a cost that initially kept Mack Savage from trying out.

“I came to a bout and thought, ‘these girls are badass.’ I couldn’t afford it initially, but two years after graduating college I took skating lessons and made the team,” Savage said, adding that the cost of good skates can cost nearly $1,000, and that’s without the cost of the other equipment and insurance costs

The bouts

The WCR began their first season playing at the Congress Theater, but left after a year after realizing the small track at the Congress was hampering their success on a national level. The following year they plated at The Stadium in Cicero, where they began selling out the 1,500 seat venue.

In 2008, they moved their home bouts to Chicago’s UIC Pavilion.

Today, the bouts are attended by people of all ages and although the crowds are large, the 9,500 seat venue looks relatively empty, allowing for most seats to be general admission.  Before a recent bout, the public address announcer asks for a show of hands from first-time attendees, and many hands go up, indicating that although they’ve existed for 10 years, there is still a lot of people who haven’t seen them and a lot of room for growth.

Before a bout,

Sitting near the track, one can really hear and almost feel the hits of the blockers. It’s especially exciting to hear the crowd roar when a jammer dekes and flies by the faked out pack, none better than crafty veteran Mo Vengeance, although Jamburglar is sure to give her a run for her money.

Val Capone, as one of the longest tenured skaters of the WCR, also serves as an ambassador, helping with the play-by-play announcing (when she’s not skating) that goes on during the bouts. In addition, Capone also coaches a men’s roller derby team — The Puget Sound Outcasts.

Although the WCR hasn’t given up the fake names, and a few skaters still wear “war paint,” conjuring up the days when it was more of a show than a sport, the crowd seems to love the names, which are quite original — even the officials have them, with names like “Frank Lloyd Wrong,” “Phil in the Blank” and “Death Knellie.”

Because they are women, the league caters more to girls than boys, and promotes youth roller derby, and hands out packs of roller derby skater trading cards and sign autographs after most bouts.

According to Capone, catering to the kids is one of her main goals, along with the hope that the same questions from new fans stop.

“My goal is to help little kids know what roller derby is without explaining it to them, and for people to stop asking people if it’s fake,” Capone said.

Is it a sport?

Despite the fact that there is a bid by Roller Derby to be in the 2020 Summer Olympics, roller derby is not covered by any sports media in Chicago, which begs the question: does coverage bring legitimacy or does legitimacy bring coverage?

The Chicago Ambassador reached out to several sports news outlets in Chicago for an answer, and received no response. None of the city’s sports media responded to a question of why roller derby isn’t covered nor if even they consider it a sport. The silence of the sports outlets speaks for itself, according to CBS 2 Chicago sports blogger Dave Wischnowsky, who was the only sports media person in Chicago who responded at all.

Capone said “I’d love to have a box score in a newspaper” and Vengeance said while they are used to not being covered, “there are a million ESPN channels, covering poker.”

Savage said while WGN has had a couple feature stories on the WCR, she said roller derby is still a specialty sport but that may change depending on the Olympic bid.

Whether or not roller derby meets the criteria to be an Olympic sport is debatable, but teams from 29 nations will be competing at the 2014 Women’s World Cup in Dallas in December. One traditional sports writer who believes that roller derby is a sport is Jim Almy.

Almy, a former sports reporter who covered pro, college and high school sports for newspapers in Michigan, later moved to Washington where he owned and published the Eatonville Dispatch. Now retired, fell in love with roller derby after being invited to a bout a few years ago — so much so that he now reports weekly on roller derby for a Seattle Times blog. It should be noted that he submits bout summaries and stories to the Times free of charge, which may be partly why the paper runs the items.

“If they [the newspaper] knows its coming on a regular basis, they start to look for it,” Almy said.

As for his opinion, having covered traditional men’s sports for years, Almy said there should be no debate.

“There is no question that these skaters are major athletes,” Almy said. “The sport involves speed, agility and quick thinking.”

Almy surmised that roller derby isn’t covered by mainstream sports media because “space in the papers is limited and there is a lack of bodies working these days” and also because “if women are involved it gets less attention.”

As for whether coverage makes a sport popular or of popularity dictates coverage, Almy said “it goes hand in hand. Roller derby needs to persevere.”

So far, roller derby has survived in Chicago and based on where they played in the beginning to where they play now, it’s fan base has increased immensely — something Savage said will continue now that the illegitimate aspects are gone, something she believes should also put the debate to rest.

“Ten years ago we could be compared to the WWF, which choreographed fights. There was and a lot of drinking after the events and fighting during the events. Now it’s about being in peak shape. It’s a legitimate sport,” Savage said.

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