Jaden Bowman came into Skate South late last Thursday evening in her maroon nursing scrubs, about an hour late to practice.
In the dimly-lit rink, about 20 of her closest friends skated laps around each other, learning new techniques for proper blocking.
One woman was floored by a big hit in the rink, and as she crawled to the side of the rink to catch her breath, her teammate told her, “You’re going to die someday, but it’s not going to be today.”
Once Bowman had changed into her black ICT Roller Girls uniform and laced up her skates, she entered the rink a new person: Nuclear Holly Caust.
The ICT Roller Girls, Wichita’s women’s flat-track derby team, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year.
Perhaps nothing better encapsulates the Roller Girls’ rising level of prestige than the fact that they’ve been picked to host an international roller derby tournament this weekend.
The Roller Girls are hosting the 2016 International Women’s Flat Track Derby Association Playoffs from Friday to Sunday at the Wichita Sports Forum, 2668 N. Greenwich.
The Roller Girls are not quite skilled enough – yet – to compete in a tournament of that caliber, but they say just watching it will help them improve their own play.
“Having this tournament, it means that we’ll have these people that are at a level that we aspire to be (at),” Bowman said. “We’ll be able to watch them and interact with them. Our end goal is to be the best. … Even to just be part of it and not just in a local way is a big step in doing that.”
What is roller derby?
Modern roller derby is a contact sport largely pioneered by the Austin-based Texas Rollergirls in 2003.
Roller derby has existed since the mid-20th century, though it looked much different. Back then, roller derby was played on banked tracks and was seen more as “sports entertainment,” not an official sport.
After the formation of the Texas Rollergirls, the sport burgeoned in popularity, and it became a serious pastime – the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association was formed in 2004.
“Roller sports” were briefly considered for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics, though it’s not entirely clear whether that would have included roller derby. The proposal ultimately fell through.
The rules of the game are fairly simple.
There are five skaters from each team on the derby track at all times.
One person on each team is designated as a “jammer,” while the rest are “blockers” or a “pivot.”
Each team’s jammer attempts to skate through the other team’s pack, which are actively attempting to prevent the jammer from passing.
Points are scored when a jammer laps the members of the opposing team in each pass around the track.
Injuries common, expected
Injuries are commonplace on the ICT Roller Girls – on its official website, next to each player’s bio, it prominently displays “injuries survived.”
Most have endured broken ankles, broken tailbones, concussions.
The women on the team, though, relish the roughness of the sport.
Everyone says it’s not if you get injured, it’s when you get injured.
Jaden Bowman, who goes by the derby name “Nuclear Holly Caust”
“Everyone says it’s not if you get injured, it’s when you get injured,” Bowman said. “We all go in being like, ‘Today might be my day.’ … Everybody knows it’s going to happen, but there’s things you can do to reduce that.”
Before each skater joins the team, she goes through “newbie training,” learning how to fall and absorb hits.
“We have a lot of rules and safety precautions in place to make sure hits are done legally so we can have the least amount of potential injuries,” said Jessie MacArthur, better known in the rink as Chewblocka. “The more you skate, the more you learn how to take a hit. … It almost becomes like a muscle memory.”
The women on the team emphasize the hits are not merely done for show – it’s all part of scoring strategy.
“Once you start doing it, it really does bring out this different side of you,” MacArthur said. “It’s not just about hurting the person next to you. It’s about what that hit does to manipulate or change the strategy of the game.
“So yes, there’s aggression. Yes, there’s rough days at work where you’re ready to go hit some people out on the track and get it out and it’s a stress reliever, but a lot of it too is just that strategy.”
The selection of a “derby name” is one of the first steps toward becoming part of the Roller Girls’ family.
In the rink, the Roller Girls are known exclusively by that name.
Ann T. Histamine.
“Derby names, for us, are kind of like our alter ego,” MacArthur said. “For a lot of us, we have a day job where we are nurses or we’re teachers – that’s part of us – and roller derby is this aggressive, fast-paced, strong side of us. It’s cool for us to have a symbolization as to what that is.”
Those that roll together stay together
Perhaps more importantly than the game itself, the members of the ICT Roller Girls say the club gives them camaraderie and strong female fellowship.
“The way that roller derby is now, it was founded by women – it’s all about empowerment, not just for women, but like everybody,” Bowman said. “Not just that, it’s a contact sport, which is kind of bucking the norm for female sports, which I really enjoy.”
Modern roller derby was essentially started by the Austin-based Texas Rollergirls in 2003.
The team regularly draws more than 100 people to its home games, and the diehard fans who watch their home games at the Cotillion from February to October say they feel like they’re part of the team themselves.
“They’re amazing,” said Rhonda Newberry, who has come to the Roller Girls’ games with her husband for about six years. “I’ve never met a group of people that is so kind and friendly to everybody.”
Newberry, who lives in Wellington, said she can text any of the Roller Girls when she is in Wichita and they will meet for drinks or dinner.
When Bowman is at work, caring for patients in the interventional cardiology unit at Wesley Woodlawn Hospital and ER, she sometimes invites them to her roller derby games.
“It’s something that makes it so that I can bond with the people I take care of,” she said. “I think it’s something that people … wouldn’t associate the RN that’s taking care of you, someone that’s a professional like that, to play this game.”
There are doctors, nurses, graphic designers, hair stylists, mothers and even grandmothers on the team – “all walks of life that all come together for this one crazy thing that we believe in that’s bigger than ourselves,” Bowman said.
There’s some sort of crazy that makes you want to skate and spend all your money from your day job to do this kind of night job where you get hurt.
Jaden Bowman, who goes by the derby name “Nuclear Holly Caust”
“There’s some sort of crazy that makes you want to skate and spend all your money from your day job to do this kind of night job where you get hurt,” Bowman said. “Everybody knows that we’re all in this together. It’s the most family that you can have outside of your blood.”
The Roller Girls have been steadily climbing in the national rankings since their inception 10 years ago, but the team has yet loftier ambitions.
One day, they hope to compete in tournaments of the caliber that they’re hosting this weekend.
But until then, Bowman said the team will continue to improve and break stereotypes about female sports.
“Once you skate and you do it every day, you don’t think of it as you’re doing something so groundbreaking and against the norms that you’re taught to live by, of being a nice, soft-spoken girl and things like that,” she said. “You’re out there, you’re hitting people and showing girls can be aggressive too, and that’s not a bad thing.”
2016 International Women’s Flat Track Derby Association Playoffs
What: Ten of the top 100 teams in roller derby will compete for a playoff championship
When: 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Wichita Sports Forum, 2668 N. Greenwich
Admission: Ticket prices vary. Three-day passes are $65 for people 13 to 54 years old, and $45 for people 9 to 12, or 55 and older. Single-day passes are $28 for ages 13-54 and $20 for ages 9-12, as well as 55 and older. Single-day, evening-only (after 5 p.m.) passes are $18 for ages 13-54, and $15 for ages 9-12, as well as 55 and older. Ages 8 and under are free.
For more information, visit www.wftda.com/wichita.