First published in The Record, Aug. 19, 2018
The rolling sorority of broken knees.
With six minutes and 24 seconds left in the game, the Gateway Grim Reapers were getting their butts kicked by Jersey City Bridge & Pummel. Finally, when the score hit 148-to-109, someone called time out, and both roller derby teams skated off the track.
Anita Chainsaw collapsed onto the bench. Ozzie Clobberpot, Swiss Misschief and ShenAnakin Skywalker rolled to the sideline and sweated in silence.
Double Tuf Oreo, known to her friends back home in Mahwah as Suzy Ross, bent at the waist and squeezed air into her lungs.
"It's ... hard!" said Ross, 36.
Michelle Scott has served as coach of the Grim Reapers since June, when she tore a ligament in her left knee during a tournament in Philadelphia. With her team looking demoralized, Scott pulled them into a circle to plot a new strategy.
" OK, guys. Look into my eyes," said Scott, 34, from Somerset. "Is my mascara OK? Just kidding."
The Reapers and Bridge & Pummel are practice teams for Garden State Rollergirls, the oldest, biggest and best of New Jersey's eight roller derby clubs. Garden State is ranked 77th among the Women's Flat Track Derby Association's 465 teams worldwide.
This places them within striking distance of Grand Raggidy Roller Derby, a Michigan-based team currently ranked No. 64, and comfortably ahead of the 104th-best team, England's Nottingham Hellfire Harlots.
"This team is really competitive, and I'm a pretty competitive person," said Dana Arose, 26, a mechanical engineer from Garfield who skates as Ivy Lethal. "So that works out well."
As one of the best teams on the East Coast, Garden State Rollergirls attracts women willing to make big sacrifices. Arose quit smoking five packs of cigarettes a day so she could skate faster. Lauren Wade broke her tibia and fibula during a tournament last year. Even so, she drives from her apartment in Brooklyn to practice with the Grim Reapers three times a week, her ankle and knee riveted together with screws and bolts.
"Yeah, all that stuff is going to stay in there forever," Wade, 33, said of the hardware in her leg. "I've been back and skating for a month and a half. Now I'm cleared for full contact."
Kiersten Koopman has hyperlordosis, a deep curvature of the spine. Recently she moved from Jackson Township in Ocean County to Lyndhurst so she could play with the team, even though a fall during a tournament four years ago left her with two broken vertebrae.
"I moved 100 percent for roller derby," said Koopman, 19, who plays as BlackEye Betty.
Such devotion to such a dangerous sport strikes some outsiders as slightly insane. But in exchange for the constant risk of debilitating injury, people who love the sport find in roller derby something rare in this, our sometimes misogynist culture: a community that celebrates women of every size, color, sexual orientation and personality.
"Honestly, roller derby saved me," Koopman said. "Before this I was shy and intimidated. I had no friends whatsoever. In roller derby I found a group of friends and a sense of belonging. And I never want to leave that."
A star appears
Three minutes before the starting whistle, at 7:57 p.m., Coach Scottswung her broken left leg into the locker room and looked for her star player.
"Where's Meggo?" Scott said.
Out-Break Meggo, known outside roller derby as Megan St. Marie, lives in Williamstown in Gloucester County, south of Camden. It's more than 100 miles from her job as a Bed Bath & Beyond store manager to the Inline Skating Club of America, the roller rink in North Arlington where the Grim Reapers were about to play Bridge & Pummel.
St. Clair left the store Saturday at 4 p.m. She was hoping to arrive early, especially because this would be her final game before retiring from roller derby and moving with her fiancé to North Carolina.
But she got stuck for hours on the New Jersey Turnpike.
"She says traffic is crazy," said Carla Garnett, 32, a Grim Reapers defender, reading St. Marie's latest text. "She's three minutes out."
The Gateway Grim Reapers is Garden State's newest practice squad. Before Saturday's game it had never beaten Bridge & Pummel, which includes some of the team's best defenders.
"These home games are more intense because we're playing against our friends, and we want to brag," said Amanda Carrig, 29, a Carlstadt resident whose skater name is Hound. "We're more upset about losing these games than we are about losing a tournament."
So Scott looked for ways to stall.
"All right, this is what we're gonna do," Scott said. "We're gonna take a pee break. We're gonna have some hydration."
At 7:59 p.m., St. Marie ran into the roller rink wearing her gray team uniform and thick lines of mascara drawn in dribbles, like black wax melting from her eyes. She pulled on her skates, zoomed onto the track, took three practice laps and declared herself ready.
"I'm a little tired," she said. "That wasn't much of a warmup."
Her teammates looked relieved.
"Meggo is un-blockable," said Garnett, a North Brunswick resident and a chemist who plays as Clara Form. "It doesn't matter where you are or how situated you think you are, she just dances around you. I think she was born on skates."
A whistle sounded. The game began. About 100 people, mostly friends and family members of the players, screamed from their folding chairs, which sat in a clump just beyond the outer lane lines of turn one.
"It's nice to see her doing something she loves," said Brian Ross, 37, who married Suzy two years ago in a ceremony held at halftime in the middle of the track.
Between the cheers of the crowd, the announcer's play-by-play calls, the players' screams, the sport's byzantine rules and the rink's terrible acoustics, first-timers experience a roller derby match as a confusing blur of echoes and colors.
At its simplest, roller derby is played by two teams, each with five players. Each team designates a jammer, whose job is to pass everyone else on the track. The first jammer to succeed becomes "lead jammer," who tries to lap as many defenders as possible. Every lapped competitor equals one point.
"Roller derby is super confusing," said Brenna Mead, 42, a Newark resident known as Oxford Coma. "It basically makes no sense the first time you see it."
Bridge & Pummel took an early lead as Ivy Lethal, the team's top jammer, slipped through the pack and lapped the Grim Reapers' defenders, seemingly at will.
Scott became frustrated. She sent St. Marie in as a defender, to little effect.
"Sit on her!" Scott screamed. "She should not be able to move like that! She is not superhuman!"
Johanna Pitcairn, a Carlstadt resident who plays for the Reapers as Kiki'n Da Teef, tried to pass Amanda Leroux, known on the track as Ozzie Clobberpot.
Leroux is president of the Garden State Rollergirls, and she outmatches Pitcairn by about 80 pounds and half a foot. Pitcairn went nowhere.
"They're big, but they don't hit," Pitcairn, 35, said after the play. "They just squish you."
With 15:32 minutes left and her team losing by 22 points, Scott asked her star jammer for ideas.
"I am not the coach. I am not the captain," St. Marie said. "You tell me what to do."
"OK, but hypothetically," Scott said, "if you were the captain, what would you do?"
"I would put me in as jammer," St. Marie said.
Scott smiled. St. Marie skated onto the track. At the whistle she drove toward the pack and faked left, stopping on her toe brakes. Next she lunged right, hit the far side of the track and spun left 90 degrees, peeling her torso around the pack of defenders like a person peels a banana. Then she spun left another 90 degrees and ran -- backwards, on her toes -- accelerating away from the pack and leaving Bridge & Pummel's fastest defenders behind.
Three more times she lapped the track, juking and toe-stepping for 24 points.
As she rolled off the track, St. Marie laughed.
"I might have started my retirement too early!" she said.