On a Roll

The Juanna Rumbel Cup pits four Chicago roller derby teams against each other for a hometown crown. Each team member boasts a punny nickname (Mia Go Hamm, for example) and glides around the arena effortlessly. Roller derby in person is nothing short of a marvel, and it completely enchanted me from start to finish. The sport, while it has a fun, wacky flare, oozes nuance and immerses the audience in an utterly unfamiliar world.

I attended the Juanna Rumbel Cup with the usual suspects, and we found ourselves at the edge of our seats whenever we weren’t standing and cheering or shaking in suspense. We desperately locked onto the arena in the hopes that Hell’s Belles, favorite team, might score those crucial last points before time ran out. Over the course of four matches, we learned more about the game than could possibly be gleaned from a quick Google sesh.


Our friend and favorite skater, Bambi Bloodlust, took home the MVP award that night just as Hell’s Belles defeated the defending champs to win the tournament. On top of it all, she was kind enough to answer some of our burning questions about the derby!

Derby 1
Danforth Johnson Photography

What’s your history with the Roller Derby? Where’d you start, and how long have you played?

I started playing right after I graduated college and was working my first desk job. I needed something fun to keep me active and as soon as I heard about roller derby I knew I HAD to do it. I hadn’t been on roller skates since probably junior high, but I picked it up quickly. I’ve always loved skating! I’ve been playing for almost 6 years now.

I found the rules of Roller Derby a bit confusing when I read about them, but my friends and I were really quick to pick them up over the course of 4 jams. How would you describe the rules to a complete newcomer? Is attending a derby the easiest way to study up?
Watching a game is definitely the best way to get a grasp of what is going on. The game is played on a circular track. Each period is divided into jams that last a maximum of 2 minutes each. Each team fields 4 blockers and 1 jammer for each jam. Jammers wear a star on their helmet, and their goal is to have their hips pass the opposing blockers to score points. 1 point is scored for every blocker she passes legally. The blockers have two main jobs: first, they keep the other jammer from passing them, and second, they help their jammer get through the opposing blockers. Part of what makes roller derby such a fun finesse sport is that offense and defense are played simultaneously.
What CAN’T a skater do? What will send you to the penalty box?
There are A LOT of little technical rules, but some main ones are you can’t cut the track boundaries (trackcut!), you can’t use your hands or elbows to hit (forearm! elbows!), you can’t hit people square in the back (backblock!), and you can’t trip anyone, even on accident (lowblock!)
How do you practice? Do you skate a lot outside of tournaments or team practice sessions?
We practice A LOT! We are amping up for our competitive season, which means there are practice opportunities almost every day. Practices mostly consist of a warm-up, skating skills, endurance, and game strategy drills. We break the game apart in little actions/moments and practice the things we want to happen when we are put in certain situations. The game may look like chaos but there is so much strategy happening every second! Since the sport is so physically demanding, players do cross-training to avoid injuries and stay competitive.
I am obsessed with rollerskating in general, so I skate as much I can outside of practice and roller derby. I skate the city streets, the 606 and the lakefront, trails, skateparks, roller rinks, at the office, in my kitchen! You can’t keep me off these things!
Have you ever been injured during a jam?
Most definitely, it kind of comes with the territory. My worst injury was breaking my collarbone, I got sandwiched between two blockers hitting me at the same time from both sides, and POP! I’ve also had a boatload of pulled muscles, knee strains, bloody lips, and a shoulder separation. Not to scare anyone! 😉
What are 5 misconceptions or little-known facts about the roller derby?
1. Most modern roller derby is played on a flat track and not a banked track like people may have seen on tv ‘back in the day.’ Transitioning the sport to a flat track is really what allowed the sport to take off and grow in the way it has. Teams are popping up in all corners of the globe because all you need to make a track is a large smooth surface and some tape and rope!
2. We use a lot of fun and strange terms. Referees are often referred to as zebras, new recruits are often called fresh meat, our helmet covers are called panties, and the phrases ‘eat the baby’  and ‘grab a goat’  are universally known strategies!
3. We are a non-profit organization, and the league is kept running by our amazing volunteer staff. We do not get paid anything to do this; in fact, we pay a lot to participate. Skaters are responsible for paying monthly dues that go to facility rental and league running costs, and we pay for all our own gear, uniforms, and travel.
4. Roller derby is for everyone! There are men’s roller derby and juniors leagues too! In Chicago, we have the Chicago Blues Brothers for the dudes and The Chicago Riots and the Second City Slaughter for the younger ones!
5. We are not allowed to clothesline anyone!
The Juanna Rumbel cup pitted 4 Chicago teams against each other, but the camaraderie between everyone was apparent. What are the relationships like both within and between teams?
All of the teams that played at Juanna Rumbel belong to the Windy City Rollers parent league. We have four home teams for fun interleague play and friendly rivalry! Then during competitive travel season, we break into teams based on skill level and play teams from other cities.
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Every skater has a pseudonym–how’d you come up with Bambi Bloodlust?
I wanted something that was kind of part sweet and part scary. I came up with this idea of a vengeful bloodthirsty little Bambi out to avenge the death of their mother!
You won MVP at the tournament after scoring 34 points in a single jam and generally kicking major butt–how did that feel?
So crazy and awesome. I mostly felt like I wanted to give all the blockers in that jam a big hug because it really was them who scored those points. I just collected them! They used such beautiful perfectly timed offense to move the opposing blockers out of the way just as I approached on every pass. They are rockstars!
Hell’s Belles took home the Juanna Rumbel trophy after taking down the defending champions. Can you walk me through the match? 
I was super nervous about that game. The Manic Attackers are a force with so many talented skaters. They are very aggressive and use chaos to their advantage to throw opponents off their game. The game was close the whole time so it was super exciting to play. The Manics seemed to have more penalty trouble, which gave the Belles a good advantage. I think we clinched it in the end by staying super calm and playing OUR game.
The teams and audience alike were incredibly diverse. What’s the larger skating community like?
It’s indescribably awesome. Roller derby is what it is today because of over a decade of the insane hard work and passion of its players. Our grassroots, DIY history is still entrenched in our culture. Both men’s and women’s roller derby has created such an amazing, accepting community. I’ve made friends from all over the world through roller derby and created bonds with people who I may never have otherwise encountered. I’m super proud to play a sport that is breaking boundaries in the realm of traditional sports and striving to create the most inclusive environment we can for athletes of all gender identities and expressions.
After attending one tournament, I think I’m hooked. If someone else catches the bug, what can they do to get involved with the league, whether or not they can skate? Are there volunteer opportunities?
If someone is interested in becoming a skater and doesn’t have any experience, we put on learn to skate clinics twice a year.  From there you can try out for the league where you participate in an amazing training program that teaches you everything you need to play roller derby! People who aren’t interested in playing but still want to get involved can absolutely sign up to volunteer with the league! We are always in need of skating referees, non-skating officials, NSOs for short! They are all those amazing folks in pink who help with all the duties that are required to play a game, timing and tracking penalties, keeping score, timing jams, etc.! You can check out http://www.windycityrollers.com for more info on how to get involved! Another great way to support the team is to be a super awesome FAN! Grab some pals, come to a game and cheer your face off!