Anyone who has seen the 2009 film Whip It or any of the 1970s and 80s depictions of the sport have probably formed an idea about what they think roller derby is. Most people think It’s two teams of hostile, pushy women slamming into each other for maximum injury, right? A lot of people aren’t even familiar with how the sport is played. Do you get extra points if you make someone cry, is there a ball involved?
No, to all of that.
I too, had expected to meet a group of rough and tumble girls with an excess of aggression, throwing elbows at anyone who looked at them wrong. The girls of Swan City Roller Derby shattered all preconceptions I had about them. They are a collective of mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends. An eclectic group of badasses, all ages, shapes, and sizes. Laughing and joking with each other, having fun on their skates, the Swan City Roller Derby seems to be a sisterhood that anyone would be lucky to be a part of.
I met with six teammates, Tess Tapia aka “Slamazon Princess,” who is a case manager for new clients at VISTE by day and is a blocker for the team. Cynthia Fulco aka “Deadly Cinn” is an insurance title agent and jammer for the team. Sonia Jaimes aka “Bettie Bombas” is a stay at home mom and blocker. Mary Leslie aka “Shrimp N Roll” works in film production and is a blocker. Adrienne Hodge aka “Yo Adrienne” works at the same title agency as Cynthia and is a blocker. And finally, Holly Buxman aka “Hell Oh! Kitty” works in accounting for Publix and is also a blocker.
Swan City Roller Derby previously belonged to another Lakeland team that disbanded. In January of 2016, several of them wanted to continue the sport and started a non-profit league of their own, dubbing it Swan City Roller Derby to pay homage to their home city. Tess explained the name, “We didn’t want to make it too niche and just make it clear that we’re a Lakeland team.”
The team spent the first year training and recruiting, with 2017 being their first competitive season. They have around 15-20 active league members and of those, about 11 compete.
Their season lasts from January to October, and they compete with teams from all over the state. Last season they played bouts from Jacksonville to Miami, according to Tess. They practice 2-3 times a week for 2 hours each practice.
Mary explained how the sport works. Each team has 4 blockers and 1 jammer and, “They’re lined up so that the jammer is supposed to get past the opposing team’s blockers. Once they make the initial pass, they loop back around and get a point for every opposing team member that they pass, scoring up to 5 points, because if they lap the jammer, that means it’s a grand slam.”
The girls wear plenty of padding and the chances of getting hurt participating in roller derby are no higher than any other physical activity. Leading the way with the topic of breaking bones and aggressive players, I asked the team if there were any other misconceptions they’d like to bust about the sport. Mary chimed in with, “There’s no ball!” They all laughed. “We don’t throw elbows,” said another teammate.
Tess said, “For most people, the reaction that most skaters get from people that watched it back in the 70s when it was much more of a show, a spectacle. We’ve really grown to evolve into more of a professional, competitive sport so we are more similar to football than…”
“Fake wrestling,” someone chimed in.
“They think we’re the WWE on skates or something,” said another, laughing.
Mary also wanted to bust the misconception that you have to be a certain body type to play roller derby, saying you can be any size and play the sport.
Where do they get their creative names? Either they or the team comes up with them. Mary “Shrimp N Roll”, “When I started with the team, they tried to give me a nickname. I was doing a documentary on the team at the time, they wanted to call me ‘Documary’ and it just didn’t stick.”
“You agonize over it for a few months knowing that when you pass your test you’ll get to pick your name. Then you tell people that you trust dearly and then they make fun of you and then it’s back to the drawing board,” said Tess with a smile.
I asked the group of friends and teammates what made them want to try the sport. Cynthia answered, “I personally was drawn to roller derby because I was enamored by the sisterhood that teams that I witnessed had. I’d never played competitive sports and I really liked the way they all worked together. It also seemed really family oriented off the track too.”
Mary cut in, “I like hitting people!” The group erupted in laughter and Sonia “Bettie Bombas” seconded that notion.
On a serious note, Mary remarked, “The amount of growth you see in people from the start to once they’ve been doing it for a year or two. Actually, even just through our “Fresh Meat” program.” The “Fresh Meat” program, something the team has dubbed their “Ugly Duckling” program because of their namesake, is 2 sessions of 8 weeks in which the first 8 weeks, the ladies learn how to skate and the second 8 weeks they learn how to play the game. Mary continued, “To see the difference in people who go through that training program is amazing and super encouraging.”
For many on the team, it was obvious what a big part of their lives it was and just how invaluable roller derby was to them. “I feel more confident having been involved with roller derby because I think it gives you more confidence in your day-to-day life. Where you wouldn’t probably have been as aggressive or assertive, you tend to speak up for yourself, try things, be a little bit more adventurous than you maybe were prior,” said Cynthia.
Holly “Hell Oh! Kitty” added, “I’m very introverted and I’m very shy and I hate people looking at me honestly. For some reason once I put on a jersey and everything, I don’t even think about that,” she continued, “It’s fun and I guess I don’t feel the judgment that I would feel in day-to-day life so it has definitely helped me come out of my shell.”
Adrienne had a touching story of the part this sisterhood played in her life. “Three or four months prior to derby I had lost my dad unexpectedly from a heart attack. I was looking for something, I guess as a distraction initially. I had played sports when I was younger, but it had been a ten-year span since I had played.” After watching their game and picking up a recruitment flyer, Adrienne knew she had to do this. “Roller derby was my grief therapy,” she concluded.
Swan City Roller Derby has set some goals as a new league. According to Tess, they want to go to bigger competitions, win more games and continue to grow together. “Our goal for next season is to find a home venue so we can start growing our community and our fan base here in Lakeland,” said Tess.
Thinking of joining the team, but reservations are stopping you? “Deadly Cinn” has some advice, “If you think you can’t, you’re wrong.”
“I’m in my 40’s and if you asked me at age 20 would I be playing roller derby in my 40’s, I would’ve said hell no. I have no plans to retire so I may be the 80-year old on the team. I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes,” she joked.
Adrienne and Holly went through the “Fresh Meat” program 3 times before they made it to the veterans where they were able to play in games. Adrienne said, “Doggone it, we were going to pass if it took 10 times!” She added, “Everybody learns at different speeds so don’t give up if you don’t learn it as quickly as the next girl beside you.”
Holly added to Adrienne’s thoughts with the determination that the team embodies, “When you really want it,” another girl finished her thought, “you’ll do whatever it takes.”
You can find out more about becoming a part of the sisterhood with these ladies by joining them on the track or supporting them in another way through refereeing, becoming an NSO (non-skating official) or a volunteer.
Follow them on Facebook:
@swancityrollers for updates on recruiting, schedules and more.
“Shrimp N Roll” encourages everyone that wants to give it a try to check them out exclaiming, “Come play with us!”