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Roller derby a big hit in the mountains

fr rollerderbyBy Katie Reeder • SMN Intern

No hitting, punching, elbowing or tripping people — and definitely no biting or yelling at the referees. Fourteen-year-old Autumn Pine, or “Fall Out Girl” as she’s known on the track, will quickly tell you there are rules to roller derby.

“Everybody thinks you can punch and kick people,” she said. “But it’s not like that.” 

Roller derby is all about strategy, said Katy Shackelford, one of Pine’s teammates whose skater name is  “Anne E. Archy.”   

The sport is gaining popularity as more skaters strap on kneepads, wrist guards, elbow pads and helmets to hit the track. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association lists roller derby as the fastest growing sport in America. 

This trend seems to hold true in Western North Carolina, especially in the junior leagues. Pine and Shackelford’s team — the Lil’ Nemesisters — sprang up in Swain County just a year and a half ago under the Smoky Mountain Roller Girls. Once only open to girls ages 11 to 17, the team recently started allowing 10-year-olds to play, one of the team’s coaches, Mary Smith, noted. 

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Smith said only four or five girls came to the first practice. She said some of them didn’t know how to skate in the beginning and had to hold onto each other’s arms. 

“We’ve kind of been the bad news bears of roller derby,” she said. 

With a roster of 18 skaters, the team has come a long way since then and recently won its first bout. Pine and Shackelford have also experienced individual success on the track, each earning awards for their play in some bouts. 

Another local team, Balsam Mountain Junior Roller Derby in Haywood County, has grown as well. What began as an all-girls team for ages 11 to 17 in 2012 now boasts a co-ed junior team and even a Minis team that has skaters as young as 4 years old, Coach JoLynn Bryant said.  

Bryant said this expansion came in response to popular demand. 

“They’re sitting on the sidelines going, ‘I want to skate,’” she said.  

Some of the boys on the co-ed team admitted they were initially surprised by how good their female teammates were, but 10-year-old Sebastian Hornbuckle said he likes seeing what the girls are capable of. 

However, Chloe Alvarez said the girls know what they’re getting into when they sign up for a co-ed team.

“If you’re in roller derby, you sign up for the fact that it’s going to be hard,” she said. “Boys play hard, and you have to be ready for that.”

This physicality of the sport was another highlight for Hornbuckle, who said he likes to make hits on the track. 

“You don’t get to do it a lot,” he said. 

Smith and Bryant are excited to see their teams growing. They believe the sport teaches skaters valuable lessons that extend beyond the track. 

“It teaches them how to fall down and get back up,” Bryant said. “It’s something you use in real life.” 

Smith said roller derby feels empowering for many women, noting the physically demanding nature of the sport. She hopes the girls she coaches will gain self-confidence and learn they are capable of more than they may think. 

“It’s a good feeling to do something you didn’t think you were going to be able to do,” she said. 

Shackelford said the sport always brings new expectations for skaters, expectations that keep her excited to learn more and that teach her about dedication – even if that means being willing to fall, something she said was one of the challenging parts of roller derby.

“When you get hit, you just get back up and get back going,” she said. 


The rules of the game 

Games, called bouts, and are divided into jams that can last up to two minutes. During a jam, each team has five skaters – one jammer and four blockers — on the track. One of these blockers can be designated as the pivot, meaning this skater can switch positions with the jammer. 

The skaters race around the track as each team’s jammer tries to pass members from the opposing team, which is how a team scores points. 

Skaters must play offense and defense simultaneously as blockers try to keep the other team’s jammer from getting through while also trying to clear a path for their own jammer.  It often looks like chaos, Smith said.  


Newcomers welcome

Both the Lil’ Nemesisters and the Balsam Mountain team want to keep growing. The teams encourage new players to join whether or not they have any prior skating experience. 

Bryant said she hasn’t met anyone who is willing to learn whom she can’t teach to skate. By the end of the first practice, most people are even ready to slide on their knees – provided they are wearing kneepads.  

Although the Lil’ Nemesisters is an all-female team, Smith said there are still ways for males to participate by becoming a referee or a non-skating official. Referees skate along the track and watch for penalties while the non-skating officials keep track of the points and run the penalty box, where players go if they have been called for a violation. 

The Lil’ Nemesisters practice from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday and from 5 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Swain County Recreation Building in Bryson City. Contact Mary Smith for more details at 828.371.6252. 

The Balsam Mountain team practices 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday and Thursday nights at the Smoky Mountain Sk8way in Waynesville. Call 828.246.9124 for more details. 

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