Wrangell’s roller derby team, the Garnet Grit Betties, held their first home bout last weekend.
They skated against a team called Southeast Shakedown– composed of derby girls from around the state. Some skaters traveled thousands of miles just to help give the Betties a bout.
These aren’t just any betties. These are Garnet Grit Betties. The nitty gritty black betties of Southeast Alaska. The meaning of true grit.
And this sport- it’s not for everyone. Faint-hearted need not apply, unless you want to develop skin of steel and power to match.
This is roller derby.
“Yeah, Skatie Bright from Juneau clocked me quite a few times. She got me in the throat once with her shoulder…hurt pretty bad,” says Kooks Deluxe.
That’s team captain Erica “Kooks Deluxe” Tlachac. She’s talking through a mouth guard. Some other sports that require mouthguards? Football, boxing, and hockey to name a few.
Roller Derby is like a combination of all three plus roller skates and a propensity for fishnet tights and hot pants.
Shawna “BabyCakes” Buness started the Betties a year and a half ago. BabyCakes says the sport can be brutal, but it’s not anything goes.
“It is full-contact. But there are limitations. There are rules. You can’t elbow somebody. A penalty is use of forearms. You can use your shoulders, you can use your hips, you can use your butt and you have to be really elusive to get around but no dirty plays,” says BabyCakes.
So how does it work? Well, there’s a track. Refs in black and white stripes line the middle and outer rim. They keep track of the jammers and the pack.
“You’ll see that we have two jammers, one from each team. They’ll have the stars on their helmets. Their goal is to lap the pack. So, each time they come around the track and come through the pack and pass four opposing players, that’s four points. And you just keep going and going,” says BabyCakes.
In a nutshell, the jammers from each team try to skate full laps around the track. The pack is made up of both teams and its sole focus is to stop the opposing team’s jammer.
“Get two blockers together and get their booties together and there’s no getting through that,” says BabyCakes.
The blockers will stop at nothing to block. They smash into each other, slam each other out of bounds and give each other stares that could turn you to stone.
But roller derby wasn’t always like this.
According to the National Museum of Roller Skating, derby first appeared in 1935. It was the brainchild of sports promoter Leo Seltzer of Chicago. He envisioned a roller skating marathon- a test of endurance with two teams skating against each other.
In the years before World War II, it morphed into the contact-heavy sport it is today, with the most infamous teams skating before crowds numbering in the thousands.
Back in the 30s teams were often male-female. Now, it’s a female dominated sport that blasts through gender stereotypes as hard as it does opposing teammates.
Maybe that’s why it’s so popular in Alaska, where life is tough and the chicks are tougher.
Kay Larsen is the mother of two such chicks who just happen to be on opposing teams.
“Oh it’s brutal. I mean, they’re just like wow, just horrible,” says Kay Larsen.
Older daughter Little Lisa Larseny skates for Petersburg. Younger daughter Laura “She Ricochets” Johnson skates for the Betties.
“Well, I’m the youngest but I’m bigger than her so usually she still won so now it’s time for some payback I guess,” says She Ricochets.
Mom Kay Larsen says she’s not sure how or why she became the queen mother of Southeast derby.
“I can’t remember. But it was like a really bad infection that started spreading through the family. Now we’ve got sons and grandsons and sons-in-law and granddaughters and I don’t know what happened. I thought I raised them really good,” says Larsen.
That infection is spreading throughout the state. With teams in all the major cities and many small towns, it doesn’t look like derby will be slowing down any time soon. And that’s just fine by derby sisters Lisa Larceny and She Ricochets.
“It’s great. Derby is so much for the love of it. Like it’s a shame anybody that doesn’t get done going like that was the best game ever. No matter what the score,” says Little Lisa Larseny.
They say that even though the competition is fierce, derby isn’t just about winning. It’s about skating with some of the coolest and toughest kids on the block.
CORRECTION: In the original version of this story, the captain of the team was misidentified as Erica Smith. She is Erica Tlachac. It has been corrected in the story. We apologize for the error.