As we get older — especially as our age starts creeping into our 30s and beyond — it gets harder and harder to make true friends.
Until they found the Soul City Sirens, Augusta’s only roller derby team, that was the case for many of the women who play and practice with the team.
The team hits a milestone this year, as it turns 10 years old. The team changed the life of its founder, Jessica Christian, now 41 and a library manager at Aiken Public Library, who put together the team in 2008.
Each roller derby team member picks a derby name, and Christian’s derby name is “Inskatiable” (like “insatiable” but with a spelling twist, because of skating… get it?) At the time she formed the team, she was going through an early midlife crisis.
“When I first started trying to get the team going, I was 30,” she said. “I think it was like in the fall of 2007 when I first had the idea. And I had kind of a series of failed relationships that I thought were gonna go somewhere and ended up not going anywhere. And I was 30 and having this like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just turned 30,’ and having this crisis. Like, ‘I should have been married by now; I should have had children, my career should be taking off,’ and none of those things were happening for me. Not even close. So I guess I had a little… I had a mid-life crisis, just early, at 30.”
Around the same time, the big television writers’ strike was going on. She didn’t have cable, and she was getting sick of reruns. She ended up going online in search of entertainment.
“I started looking online more, trying to find something to entertain myself when I wasn’t at work. And you know, I was getting over my last relationship,” said Christian, whose last name back then was Thompson. “And I found roller derby, and I don’t remember how I stumbled across it or where I found it… I know I was looking on MySpace; I’m not sure if I saw it posted on somebody’s page. I had a friend in Atlanta who had friends who did roller derby, so I’m not sure if that’s where I saw it. Like I really can’t remember; I just know I found it. And then I started looking more into it, and I was like, ‘Well, what is this, do you get paid to do this?’ and then I found out that no, you don’t get paid, it’s amateur, like anybody can go play, and in fact anybody can start a team, if they want to.’”
And so she researched and found there was no roller derby in Augusta but there was a team in Columbia, S.C., and in Aiken.
“So at the time, gas was kind of high, and so I wasn’t sure about driving an hour or an hour and a half one way to go play, so I went to go practice with Columbia one time, and I actually chickened out, like I didn’t go in. I looked through the door, like I was late, and I was really nervous, so I got back in my car and drove back to Augusta. I didn’t even get out,” she said. “And so then, a few weeks later, I was like ‘OK, I’ll try this again,’ so I went to the Athens practice, and I loved it, it was great. They were really nice and welcoming, and showed me some stuff. And my skating skills weren’t that bad to start with, so I was actually able to participate in a lot of the drills with them, like the leading drills and stuff like that.”
Taking what she learned, she launched Augusta’s first team, and it has been growing ever since. And so has Christian.
After her failed relationships, roller derby actually helped bring her a husband — he plays on a men’s team in Columbia. They now have two kids together. And Christian has grown as a person from playing roller derby.
“Mentally, I’d say it’s made me tougher,” she said. “Like I used to be more of a pushover type of person, and I wouldn’t say I’m like that anymore — I’m less likely to take crap from people. I also really feel like it helps me learn how to deal and work as a team, and how to cope with strife. Like when you’re on a team, you have things that come up that you have to, like challenges that come up that you have to work around and different personalities, how to work with different personalities. Because there’s a way to approach different personalities that’ll get you different results, and you want good results, so I’ve just learned a lot about human nature and how to be a good team. And I don’t mean like a good team on the floor, like we’re gonna win, but a good team as in how we do organization together and how we reach our goals that we’re trying to reach, which is basically keep our team going and recruit more people so that the team doesn’t die out and so we can still play roller derby without driving out of town.”
SO, HOW DO THEY PLAY?
When people first see a bout in roller derby, they probably think the point is to beat the crap out of each other — it’s kind of a common misconception about the sport. But like most other sports, there are all sorts of rules against tripping opponents and so on.
The game is played in two 30-minute halves, with a 15-minute halftime in the middle. Each half is divided into what is described as “jams,” which are similar to a play in football. A jam can go up to two minutes. Each team has one “jammer,” the person who scores points and is wearing a star on her helmet, as well as four “blockers,” who are working to keep the other team’s jammer from scoring points. One of the blockers is also a pivot — this person is wearing a stripe on her helmet, and she can become the team’s jammer if the jammer passes the job onto her for whatever reason (but it can’t go back).
No points are scored during the jammers’ first trip through the pack — they’re just trying to get the best position because the first jammer through the pack is lead jammer. That means the lead jammer can possibly score more points, as well as call off a jam earlier than the two-minute max by putting her hands on her hips for the refs to see.
Why would she do that? To keep the other team from scoring points. Jammers have to think strategically.
Jammers score by passing people — one point per opponent while they’re in bounds. But it’s the blockers’ job to keep the opposing jammer from getting in the lead position and to keep her from scoring points. That’s when you’ll have a lot of contact and probably some crashes.
“Some people are more inclined to be jammers… it helps to be fast and high-enduranced,” said Lydia “Ethyl Agitate” Mitchell, 36. Mitchell has been with Soul City Sirens since 2008. “Some people can do both, and some people are just destined to be blockers. They don’t like being singled out. So it’s really, it’s personality, it’s physical fitness, it’s just whatever, if you want to take on that role or not. Some people want to be in the spotlight, so they take more to the jammer role, because they’re, they wear stars and they’re basically the star of the show because they’re scoring points. They’re really displaying the most dynamic footwork, so people look to them. If you’ve never been to a game, you’ll probably watch the jammers more than blockers. The blockers are kind of unsung kind of heroes. It’s not necessarily like a coach thing, like ‘you are this and this is all you’ll ever be.’ Sometimes you can see those skills shine through, but usually it’s just whatever you gravitate to. And whatever you’re willing to work for.”
Anyone who plays roller derby will tell you that the game play is kind of confusing to explain, and the official rules handed down by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association change every six months to a year. See these videos on YouTube for a more visual explanation of how the game is played: tinyurl.com/rollerderby041201 and tinyurl.com/rollerderby041202.
IT’LL SHAPE YOU UP
The women on roller derby teams seem to develop a certain toughness — a toughness that they didn’t tend to have before joining the team.
Mitchell said injuries are probably one of the biggest challenges that come with being on a roller derby team.
“In 2013, I broke my leg and it was a simple break; it just didn’t want to heal, so I went for a while thinking it was gonna heal on its own, and then I had to have surgery, so it kind of extended the healing process,” Mitchell said. “But that was probably the biggest. The low lows of just going from practice every week, seeing people every week, to being couch-ridden, trying to adjust to that, was very difficult. And then coming back from that was difficult, because I was off my legs for so long. The atrophy was so bad that having to walk again was kind of difficult, and then there’s that fear there, ‘Well, what if this happens again?’ And that’s a pretty big hurdle, just coming back into the sport that the rules change six months to a year, every year, and so I came back into a different style of playing than I left.
“But I don’t know if everybody can do that. I don’t know how I did it.”
Amanda “Slamus Aran” Wingler, 36, is one of the newest people to the team. (By the way, just because a woman is on the team doesn’t necessarily mean she participates in tournaments. It takes quite a while to get to that level, and the women have to pass certain tests, written and physical, in order to be able to bout.)
Wingler said she grew up in a skating rink, so when she got into roller derby, it was like riding a bike.
“I picked the skating part up, but there are fundamentals that we’re learning that have been pretty difficult,” Wingler said. “So it’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of fun; everybody’s really welcoming and nice, but there’s elements to it that are a little bit frustrating sometimes. … Just really some of the techniques we have to learn to be good on our feet and to be safe.”
Like the others, Wingler said she loves the team aspect of it.
“So once you’re out there, you’re on your skates and you’re flying around the track, and it’s really freeing, and you get helpful comments from all the vets,” Wingler said. “And it’s not like a ‘you’re doing this totally alone kind of thing’; it’s really constructive, and it’s just really awesome to be out there with them and be a part of the team. … And I learned that I can make friends. You know, after you leave high school and college, it seems like you sort of isolate yourself, and so I haven’t had really any close friends since then. And I know it’s only been three weeks (since I joined), so I don’t have what I would call close friends right now, but I can see that getting back together in this group of people, it feels natural to be able to talk to them about their lives and about what’s going on and everything.”
Nina “Lil’ Ariehell” Hunter, 34, has been with the team since 2015. She learned about the Soul City Sirens in the course of conversation with a then-team member, who was talking to her at a farmers market.
“I’ve always liked inline skating, and I figured it would be somewhat similar, and it was something new, something fun and new, and I’d just had a baby two years before, and I just wanted to do something for myself,” Hunter said. “I absolutely love how it makes me feel good about my body, because I can tell how strong and resilient my body can be. And I never thought of myself as an athlete, until I started roller derby.”
Like many women, Hunter said she had a lot of body issues, but participating in roller derby has done a lot to squelch that. Hunter’s advice to anyone thinking about getting into the sport?
“Give it a try. Just give it a try. You may like it — you may not like it, but at least you know you’ve given it a try,” she said. “Because I actually, my husband told me about roller derby a long time ago. It’s now almost, probably 10 years ago, he talked about, he said ‘look at that, these women, they’re doing this!’ And I was like, ‘Mmmm, no. That is not for me. They’re getting bruises, and they’re doing physical activity — ugh, no. And then, as you can tell, a few years later, I checked it out, and all of a sudden, it was something for me. A sport that I could do, that I would find fun. I mean, I go to the gym now to get better at roller derby. I used to go to the gym to you know, ‘lose weight, or try to be skinny.’ Now I actually go to the gym and it’s so my body can get stronger for roller derby. It has not as much to do with these beauty standards that I used to try to fit in.”
Right now, there is only a women’s team in Augusta, but anyone of any gender can become a referee for the team. The Soul City Sirens practice three times a week — on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays at Red Wing Rollerway, 3065 Washington Road. Any woman aged 18 or older who is interested is invited to boot camps, held every so often. The team’s next boot camp will be at 7 p.m. Monday, April 30, and 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 1.
Anyone who shows up to the boot camp will need to bring $10 as well as a pre-fitted mouthguard (you can buy them at sporting good stores and boil them before fitting to your mouth). Skates and other gear will be provided, but the women who show up should wear leg protection, like leggings or tights.
The team meets for practice throughout the year, slowing down around holidays, such as Easter Sunday. Visit facebook.com/events/2494265257465345 to find out more about the boot camp.
The team’s next big bout will be this week, from Friday, April 13, to Sunday, April 15, at the Columbia County Exhibition Center in Grovetown. The Low Down Throw Down Roller Derby Tournament features D3 teams. (There are three levels of roller derby teams, and D3 is the lowest, meaning that unlike D1 teams, they don’t go to international championships. Augusta’s team doesn’t progress very high simply because the city just naturally has a population that moves in and out a lot, with the military and colleges being here.)
Low Down Throw Down features 16 total games over the weekend, with a Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (wftda.com) sanctioned/seeded bracket.
Tickets cost $15 per day or $25 all weekend. All military gets a $5 discount, with kids 12 and under getting in free. Visit facebook.com/events/573976796327622 to find out more about the Low Down Throw Down tournament.
Low Down Throw Down
Columbia County Exhibition Center
All day Friday, April 13, to Sunday, April 15
A roller derby tournament featuring 12 teams from across the Southeast (including Augusta’s Soul City Sirens) playing a total 16 games over the weekend. $15 per day; $25, weekend pass; $5 discount for military; free, kids 12 and under.
Visit soulcitysirens.com or call 706-650-5000.
Roller Derby Boot Camp
Red Wing Rollerway
7 p.m. Monday, April 30, and Tuesday, May 1
$10; bring a pre-fitted mouthguard. Open to women ages 18 and older.