Slice of Life

Assault City Roller Derby is not for the faint of heart

Sam Maller | Staff Photographer

Assault City Roller Derby's motto is, “Strong, proud, focused.” Every skater wears multiple pieces of protective gear, including helmets, knee pads and elbow pads.

Bunny N Clyde caught the black shirt launched across the track by Esprit de Corpse, the room filled with the screeching of roller skates across the track.

Turning on a dime, she began to hurtle toward the other end of The Vault, flying past a sign reading “Skate like a champion today.”

Bunny slammed the shirt down on the back of a chair, which was met with the sound of a whistle and an announcement of “Red point.”

Members of the Assault City Roller Derby Team were playing capture the flag during an evening practice in The Vault, a boarded-up, cave-like space that’s hidden in the back of Shoppingtown Mall. Just feet away from moviegoers snacking on popcorn, 12 skaters circled the track in preparation for their upcoming bout, or match, against the Utica Wonder Brawlers at Onondaga Community College.

Roller Derby is a full-contact sport played on an oval shaped track that can be flat or sloped. Each team has five players consisting of one jammer and four blockers. Points are scored when jammers lap members of the opposing team.

Assault City, whose name riffs off Syracuse’s nickname of the Salt City, trains three times a week for 2-3 hours. With Rihanna’s “Work” blasting through the speakers, Coach Blair Genther started the workout with pushups, planks, sit ups and squats — all on skates.

Sam Maller | Staff Photographer

Sam Maller | Staff Photographer

“Some days I’m super tired and having the worst day ever and the last thing I want to do right now is go and get sweaty and out of breath,” said Bunny, the captain of the team. “Then I do it and it’s super cathartic and I feel so much better. It’s bonding with your teammates and also physically exerting yourself is a great medicine.”

Hard work as a team pushes the women to achieve its motto: “Strong, proud, focused.”

Gone are the days of caricature-esque roller derby “boutfits,” said Tough Buck, a skater for Assault City. The sport is now presenting itself as something to be taken seriously.

Each skater is clad in protective gear from head to toe, including knee pads, elbow pads and helmets. They wear red tank tops featuring the team logo on the front with each skater’s name and number emblazoned across their backs.

Names such as Tough Buck, Bunny N Clyde, Esprit de Corpse and Riot of the Valkyrie all flash by as they fly around the track; their stride occasionally cut short by a stumble or collision. In the corner of the cavernous hall, there’s a well-stocked first aid kit and other medical supplies. Injuries are fairly infrequent, but head referee Celtic Knightmare said he’s seen a few broken bones, and the “geek sport” requires special insurance to play.

Each hour-long bout is watched by up to seven referees on and around the track. Skaters aren’t allowed to use elbows or trip each other, which can lead to full body checks instead.

Skaters will also team up to block the opposing team’s jammer from passing, preventing them from scoring a point. Linking arms and blocking with what Genther described as a “magnetic booty,” the skaters do-si-do back and forth, knocking jammers from the track and sometimes, from their skates.

A lot of girls and women are told their whole lives, ‘don’t be aggressive, you’re supposed to be the meek one, the one that’s quiet.’ What derby allows is for girls and women to see that they don’t have to sit in that role.
Blair Genther

The skaters agreed that the sport is empowering to women because it challenges stereotypes and, as Genther said, express themselves “on that primal level of battle and competition.”

He added that derby could be summarized into the words “chaos” and “family.”

Family is a big part of the sport: Anyone can tie on a pair of skates and anyone can cheer them on from the stands. All skater names are family friendly, and children under 12 receive free admission to bouts.

The “grassroots sport” extends far beyond the track, Buck said. She said she loves that the team is DIY — the women have to keep the team financially stable and learn the ins and outs of running a business.

“It not only shows that we have the ability to play a highly aggressive contact sport, but it also shows that we have the ability to run a business, make it successful, make it grow, watch it change, work with those changes,” Buck said.

Sam Maller | Staff Photographer

Sam Maller | Staff Photographer

The team faces off with other teams in the league at least once a month and often sees a turnout of 200-300 people cheering them on. At their last bout, the Syracuse University Club Quidditch team came to support the skaters.

“Roller derby fans are die hard roller derby fans, and they love how intense a women’s sport can be,” Bunny said.

The next time the team will hit the track is March 25 in the SRC Arena at OCC. The bout carries a theme: Women’s History.

“I think all of us in the league are pretty mindful about what it means to be women in athletics and I think going into the OCC bout, we’re going to try and represent women in athletics pretty strongly,” Bunny said.

Coach Genther echoed this sentiment, but said the theme doesn’t change how hard the team will work to prepare for this bout. Genther explained that coaching in the sport hasn’t really “caught fire” yet. He said there are many male and female coaches, but there are also a number of successful teams that don’t even have a coach.

Genther started coaching Assault City in January, just a few months after he moved to Syracuse in October.

They are the team around here, they are the one that represents Syracuse and Assault City, and if I’m going to be in this city, I’m going to coach our team.
Blair Genther

Genther is the first coach for the team in about a year, joining at a time when older members were transitioning out and newer ones were coming on. An hour before practice that night, Genther was testing out the “fresh meat.”

The team takes skaters of all levels, many of whom have never skated before. Rookies are taught the rules of the game and the basics of skating before passing a skills test. Then, they’re ready to hit the track.

Some people may get onto the A team within six months, while others might not. It’s a personal journey where members learn at their own pace, Bunny said.

Buck added that the sport doesn’t require a set skill, but rather a skillset to fill different positions. She emphasized that the most important thing to bring to the track is a good attitude.

But roller derby isn’t for the faint of heart: Skaters often leave the track sweaty, bloodied and bruised – Bunny has a permanent dent in her shin to show for it. But Assault City skaters leave everything they have on the track.

“It’s really hard to deny the reality when your muscles no longer work and you’re vomiting in a can because you just put in that much work,” Genther said. “I think it allows people to explore their limits and really find out who they are.”

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