This summer, I was spending some time visiting family in California and noticed that rollerblading was a huge trend there. It looked so fun, and it made me remember how much I loved it as a kid. Along with my (very athletic) cousin, I strapped on a pair of rentals and was ready to hit the ground blading… Until I discovered that rollerblading is actually really hard and passerbys will absolutely heckle you when they see you clutching to a barrier for dear life. It took me less than 20 minutes (and that’s generous) to hang up my skates and hit the taco stand instead.
The roller derby girls of Greensboro take on a slightly different attitude towards moving on eight wheels—instead of simply trying to master the art of rolling forward, they slam other people around, do jumps and participate in general bad-assery. When I sat down with Wrecking Belle, the vice president of the Greensboro Roller Derby, I was expecting a rough and gruff individual. Instead, Shannon Scott-Spillman (her given name), was petite and soft-spoken. When she began to describe her role in the derby, however, I could see how she would be really good at this. A quiet confidence took over and she described hits and falls with a delightful hint of menace in her tone.
To give you a breakdown of the sport, derby is a full-contact game. The participants wear skates, elbow pads, knee pads, wrist guards, helmets and mouth guards, and the game (or bout, as they call it) is rife with opportunities for penalties, like accidental tripping or hitting a person in the wrong place. Like basketball, there are ten players on the track at any given time, broken into two teams. Four of those players are blockers and two are jammers. “The idea of the jammer is to get through the pack, get all the way around, and start a scoring pass. They have to make an initial pass of everyone before they score,” says Wrecking Belle. “That sounds really easy, like just go through the pack, but then you have four blockers of the opposing team that are trying to keep you from going through.”
And these opponents are no joke: Wrecking Belle describes herself as a “bad-ass blocker” who uses physics to maneuver her petite frame into stopping someone full-force. “I’m not a big girl, but I can stop a girl twice my size,” she tells me.
The Greensboro league was established in 2010 and includes two travel teams, with about 45 members total. “Our A team is Gate City and our B team is Counter Strike, like the sit-in, so it’s got a little bit of Greensboro history,” says Wrecking Belle. “Within the league, we have home teams and they are named after the streets of Greensboro, so we have the Mad Dollies, based on Dolly Madison Avenue; we have the Battleground Betties; we have the Elm Street Nightmares.”
Guidelines for joining the league are provided by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). “When you come into the league and you’re fresh meat, you go through the whole program and once you finish their minimum skills- we are part of the WFTDA, it’s kind of like the NBA or the NFL, they give you guidelines,” explains Wrecking Belle. “They say you have to skate this many laps in this time; you have to be able to step; you have to cross over; you have to be able to block. We don’t pass anyone until they pass that. Once they do that, you get drafted to a home team. It’s sort of like a round robin as the coaches go through all the new people. After you get some bouting experience, you’re eligible to try out for travel teams, after three games.”
Wrecking Belle started her journey in an unsurprisingly independent fashion: “I grew up on rollerblades, so when I decided to do derby, I had to relearn how to skate because I had never skated on quads previous to doing derby,” she says. “I was in college at UNCG and one of the girls that was in one of my studio classes did derby. I went to see her and thought it was really cool, but at the time I was still in school, newly married and had a kid. I just did not have time or the energy or the finances to want to do it,” she says. However, fate brought her back to the sport.
“A couple years later, I found myself with a lot of time, so I went to a sporting goods store and I bought a pair of quads and I was like, I’m going to teach myself how to skate. In that six months, I taught myself how to skate on quads before I went to the fresh meat class that year. When you get into the fresh meat, it’s like four months and then you go to scrimmage school. Fresh meat, they teach you how to skate. It’s great if you already have balance, but they teach you how to fall; they teach you how to take hits. In three months, you are taught the very basics of roller derby. After the three months, you go to a month of scrimmage school and learn how to play derby. You learn the rules and then you learn how to apply them.”
After getting drafted to the Battleground Betties, Wrecking Belle made the A travel team, Gate City. “For my next six months,” she says, “I practiced with Gate City and I learned a lot. I felt like I went through fresh meat again on the different level of the play. From home teams to travel teams, there’s different strategies, different intensities. It was like a completely different game, so it felt like fresh meat for another six months. The rest is history, really. I’ve been on Gate City since then.”
Being on the roller derby has changed Wrecking Belle’s life—she even met her partner through it, who’s a ref and goes by the name Richard Cranium, and she has made it so far as to play for Team North Carolina. What she’s gained most, however, is the mental and physical toughness of an athlete: “The thing I love about derby is that it’s a journey,” she says. “And it’s not only a skill journey, it’s a mental journey, like how many times can you fall and get back up; how many times can you get hit and get back up; how many times can you go to the penalty box and get back in and do it with the same intensity or better than you were before? It’s amazing to see people come in and be like family and they’re doing amazing things by the end of the year. That’s what I love about derby. It’s so fluid and you can see people’s journey right in front of your eyes.”