By Dylan Doherty and Meghan Christian
Grace Seymore had been a roller derby skater for a year before her team dissolved as she was considering moving from Clarkston to Flint. Looking to join a team again, she dropped in on a practice session of the Flint Roller Derby crew.
What she saw there immediately got her attention, and she tried out.
“These people are fucking amazing,” she remembers thinking, “This is terrifying. I need to do this.”
Now Seymore, 24, a paramedic in her day job, is league president, with Coach Nick Cotton, 38, of Flint guiding the team into official stature in the Women’s Flat Track Association and drawing packed stands for its games at Rollhaven Skate and Fun Center in Grand Blanc.
The Flint Roller Derby played their first home game at Rollhaven May 5 against the Downriver Doll Stars from Woodhaven. FRD lost by 14 points with the final score being 206 to 220.
Regardless of the outcome, members of the team, now thriving after about a dozen up-and-down years, were happy to see so many people in attendance.
Gail Stone, 24, of Flint, a new member of the FRD team, said she was proud of their efforts. “It was such a good game and I’m really proud of my team,” Stone said. “Also, it was really cool to see how many people came out to watch the game. Not everyone can pull in large crowds, so I think it says a lot about the Flint community,” she added.
FRD practices twice a week at River Church in Goodrich on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with optional speedskating practices and team crossfit workouts. Regularly scheduled practices feature scrimmaging and strategies specific to their upcoming opponent.
Roller derby terms: jamming, blocking, “the pack”
Figuring out what’s happening in a roller derby match, called a “bout,” can be a bit daunting at first.
A bout is broken up into two 30-minute periods, which are themselves broken up into “jams,” which last a maximum of two minutes. At the start of a jam, four “blockers” from each team position themselves in a 30-foot long space bounded by the “pivot line” in front and the “jammer line” in back. One “jammer” from each team is positioned behind the jammer line. The goal is for the jammer, wearing a helmet with a star, to pass the blockers once, and then to score points for each opponent she passes again, for a total of five points per jam. The first jammer to pass the “pack” of blockers becomes the “lead jammer,” who is able to end the jam at any point by repeatedly touching her hips.
Seymore says this simple description belies a stringent set of technical distinctions, including the definition of “pack.” “The pack is defined as the largest majority of players from both teams skating together, so there can be a point where there is no pack if the pack splits itself or if [they] are not all within 10 feet of each other and so then you can’t hit anybody, so you have to reform the pack.” This requires constant vigilance amongst players to calculate the size and dimensions of the pack during a jam to ensure their defensive tactics are legal.
Even the apparently simple idea of passing an opponent is bounded by rules. The jammer must be upright and inbounds for a pass to be legal. A pass is also defined by passing the hips of an opponents, as opposed to just passing their feet.
Seymore was initially perplexed by this technical minutae. “I’m not a sporty person, so learning all this, I was like ‘Excuse me? I just want to skate around.'”
In practice before a game, the team holds hands in a circle a repeating affirmations recited by Cotton, including “I’m a good jammer,” “I’m a good blocker,” “I am great at skating,” and “Our walls are impenetrable.”
Seymore says this practice “on a personal mental level, helps as a team to be in that environment where you are physically connected to these people right now and also thinking about my place in the team.”
Team nicknames part of the fun
The atmosphere at the games is a combination of noisy fun and serious athletic effort. Each player adopts a nickname – often hilarious plays on words highlighting their competitive instincts. Seymore’s moniker is “Graced Lightning” and others include “Allen Wench,” “Al Funk You Up,” “JoJo McBruiseher,” and “Tyrannojanna Wrex.”
Stone, whose team name is “Gail Force,” shares Seymore’s ongoing awe of the team. “Many of the girls on the team have been playing for years, and they are so graceful on skates. Honestly, it’s inspiring. I’m constantly working at improving and learning new skills,” she said.
Another player, Jess Duncan, 30—team name “Duncan GoNuts”—says she started playing roller derby as a stay-at-home mom looking to “get out, get active and socialize.”
“Roller derby definitely helps release some pent up aggression but most of all it is a great way to get fit and make new friends,” she says.
Bumps and bruises part of the game
The games are physically demanding and can get a little rough.
“I played in my first scrimmage recently,” Stone says, “and of course I was tired but more than anything I felt accomplished. I went home with a few bruises but nothing I couldn’t handle.” Stone says. “It’s an outlet for me to forget about things I’m worried about.”
“Immediately after a game, I feel great,” Duncan says. “The following day is when I start noticing the bumps and bruises and then the day after that is usually when the soreness kicks in. It really isn’t that bad, though.”
Alex McCarley, 26–her team name is “Al Funk You Up,” though she usually goes by “Funki,”–says she piles up on carbs and “tons of water” before a game, and increasingly focuses as game time approaches. Then there’s the aftermath.
“We put so much energy into each game (physical, mental, emotional) that you end up riding a huge high off your team’s victories, big and small, but at the same time feel extremely drained,” McCarley says. “I always consider going home and straight to bed, but usually I can’t resist going out to celebrate and talk about the game with my teammates.”
Bonding and challenging stereotypes
“In general, women’s sports are a good resource for community bonding, for meeting those people that are kind of like-minded in that they’re a little out of the ordinary,” Seymore says, “especially with roller derby that attracts a lot of people who aren’t necessarily run-of-the-mill individuals that you are going to meet every day of your life. Especially in Flint it’s a really good example of people coming together, doing good things,” she says.
Seymore says it is important “from a feminist standpoint to show a strong community-oriented organization that’s doing good things thats reclaiming the stereotype of a female athlete or even female groups in general.”
According to Stone, FRD fosters a positive atmosphere while pushing team members to try new skills and improve. “It’s always a challenge, but everyone on the team is so nice and supportive,” Stone said.
FRD also serves the wider Flint community, knitting blankets for the Humane Society, passing out bottled water, sorting food for the Food Bank, and planting flowers near the College Cultural Neighborhood, where several of the team members and Nick Cotton live. Participating in two to three community service events a year is part of the FRD by-laws.
Legitimizing the team
FRD began the process of becoming an WFTDA Apprentice League in 2017, part of legitimizing the team and making it a real sport with competitive teams to match up with. The process was spearheaded by Seymore and Cotton.
FRD voted on the decision as a league to pursue WFTDA membership. Cotton says FRD had been running out of non-WFTDA leagues to compete against who posed a challenge, and more competitive WFTDA leagues are reluctant to play against non-WFTDA leagues because such matches won’t count for world rankings.
“It was either keep beating up on these little teams that supposedly are our equals or move on to the next level where we can compete in regional and international tournaments,” Cotton said.
This isn’t the first time FRD was a WFTDA apprentice team. They got the status back in 2011, but due to not completing the rest of the application, their apprentice-status lapsed in 2013. Between their first acceptance as an apprentice and their current apprentice status, Cotton says the team and the sport as a whole has changed.
“You didn’t have a lot of real athletes on your team. It was more bruising, solo battering sport,” Cotton said. FRD was split between players who wanted to move in the direction of a serious, legitimate sport and those who still prefered the sport as it had been played.
“We had people who really wanted to go and be competitive and people who just wanted to be in these uniforms and have these pictures to show their kids and grandkids,” Cotton says.
Not just “some stupid skating game”
Seymore adds that the WFTDA—and the Flint Derby Girls—want to show that roller derby “is not just some stupid skating game. People can see that this is really a competitive sport. These people are athletes. They’re not just skating around in fishnets anymore, flopping on top of each other and hitting each other with chairs.” Seymore says.
Now that FRD is an apprentice league, moving on to full membership requires “more money, more paperwork” according to Seymore, including more letters of recommendation. In addition, they have to hold a mock sanctioned game to demonstrate that FRD can run an official game correctly, ensuring track measurements are WFTDA compliant, accurate scorekeeping, and that safety standards are enforced.
The pursuit of legitimation, Cotton and Seymore believe, is warranted after decades of roller derby as a mode of sports entertainment akin to professional wrestling. Roller derby has transitioned away from the past and now seeks acceptance as an Olympic sport in the 2020 Summer Olympics.
In the midst of this instability in the sport, the Flint team has survived its own challenging history. A few years ago, a roller derby team in Mount Forest disintegrated, and two of their coaches started working with the Flint team, which had expanded to 50 members. Cotton, who disagreed with the approach of the other coaches and was just starting grad school, quit the team. “There was a lot of people who hated me,” said Cotton. Six months later, the team was down to only 12.
Cotton returned at the beginning of 2012 to help with training. Because of the animosity that still existed between Cotton and the coaches, he did not join in any official capacity. As Cotton started bringing in new players, the team pushed for him to return to coaching. At the end of 2013, he was voted head coach.
Going into the 2014 season, there was still a divide. At the state tournament, FRD suffered a devastating loss, bringing the morale to a new low. At the end-of-year meeting, “a miracle happened,” according to Cotton: nearly half of the team quit. FRD went into the 2015 season with only nine skaters. Cotton says “2015 was truly the rebirth of our team.”
But after years of leaving the past behind, Seymore says roller derby players can relax a little. “Now people are feeling…they can show that we’re having fun again. If we’re on a really good winning streak, we’ll do a little bit more of a fun warm-up where we can go out there and be a little more relaxed.
“We don’t necessarily have anything to prove. As we’re legitimizing roller derby, people can go back to wearing fishnets and having ridiculous halftime shows because now it’s taken a little more seriously. It’s come full circle and a half.”
The Flint Roller Derby next home game is 7:30 p.m. June 23 at Rollhaven, 5315 S. Saginaw Rd. Tickets are $10 at the door.
EVM staff writer Dylan Doherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. EVM Managing Editor Meghan Christian can be reached at email@example.com. Banner photo by Meghan Christian.