Roller Derby in Oakland is only for the rough and tough
on November 12, 2009
Some families hand down dishware and handmade quilts. Other families hand down aliases, casino luck, and hip-smashing, hard-hitting, skirt-rocking roller sports. Jane Hammer’s family falls into the second category.
Team captain and coach for The Oakland Outlaws roller derby team, Hammer got her skates, alias, and red-ringleted curls from her grandmother–the original “Jane Hammer.” She also inherited the grit and focus necessary for today’s all-female sport, which is a far cry from the last century’s roller derby.
“People think of roller derby and they think, ‘Oh, how cute,’” says Hammer, 32, who in her civilian life is named Jen Atherley. “But then they come out and see us on the track–and they step back.”
In its first incarnation, roller derby was a co-ed spectacle on wheels. Originating in Chicago during the 1930’s as depression-era entertainment disguised as endurance sport, it featured contestants “skating across the country” by clocking up to 4,000 miles around a banked circular track. Derby founder Jerry Selzer added staged fights and falls to keep audiences intrigued and, with the rise of television, the choreographed race enjoyed a love affair with Americans through the ’40s and ’50s. By the 1970’s derby had morphed into a hard-hitting team sport in which the goal had shifted from simply winning a race to actively using one’s torso to physically bump opposing players off the track or hem them in. A New York Times article from 1972, headlined “Roller Derby Women Have Ups and Downs” opened with: “You don’t have to love violence to be a woman Roller Derby skater, but it helps.”
If it helped to like violence in the seventies, skaters in today’s tough, athletic version of the sport have to crave it. After diving underground for a couple of decades, roller derby rose again in new form–women only, and raced on an unbanked oval track–in 2004 with the formation of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. This version plays like a mash-up between rugby and a flat-out skate race. Teams play offensively and defensively at the same time, skating side by side in the same direction as fast and hard as they can, with each side fielding a “jammer” whose job it is to push past the other team’s players and complete a lap. Each lap scores a point. The rest of the team jockeys to help their own jammer advance while simultaneously thwarting the other team’s scorer. This often involves slamming directly, and with considerable force, into skaters from the other team.
“It’s a very physical sport.” Atherley says. “It has actually become a movement, in terms of women’s full-contact sports.”
Atherley’s road to derby queen began in her hometown of Las Vegas, where she skated mainly at friends’ birthday parties. Her childhood of casual skating changed, however, when she was nine and her grandmother hit the $35,000 jackpot at The Horseshoe Casino.
“My grandmother loved two things–wrestling and roller derby,” Hammer says. Her grandmother, whose real name was Margaret Scoogle Tribbey, was a bill collector who like many collectors used an alias to protect herself from angry debtors. The alias she used was “Jane Hammer.”
First thing after winning it big, Tribbey took her granddaughter down to the Crystal Palace roller rink and bought her a pair of toothpaste-white speed skates with bright orange wheels.
“They were beautiful,” Atherley says. “They were low on the ankle, which made them cool, and they had really stiff leather and were three sizes too big. I loved them. They gave me blisters for years and I had to wear three pairs of socks and stuff tissue into the toes, but I loved them. I cleaned the wheels every time I wore them. They were an absolute vision to me.”
Nine-year-old Atherley joined the Crystal Palace roller rink’s speed skating team and quickly became addicted.
“I would lay in bed at night and dream of skating,” she says. “Skating was my life.”
Speed skating is a race on wheels. Individuals compete as part of a team against other individuals and teams, the way a track runner might compete individually in the 100-meter dash as part of a school team. The Crystal Palace had a particularly good coach, and even though Atherley never made it to the regional or national level, she learned a good deal of technique for whipping around a track.
She raced until a “super traumatic” fall at 11 left her with three broken teeth and a split chin. Her parents encouraged her to continue skating, but the hours spent in a dentist’s chair were too much for her. She quit the speed skating team and instead took up Jam Skating which she describes as “break dancing on wheels.”
Atherley didn’t come across women’s flat-track roller derby until she moved to San Francisco in 2007. After years in the restaurant industry, she was holding her first day job as an office manager at an engineering firm, which left her nights free to skate. She joined a newbie derby class.
“When I walked in, the home teams were scrimmaging,” she says, “and women were flying across the track. I mean through the air. Flying.” Flashbacks of broken teeth and split chin flooded her mind. “I had to go into the bathroom immediately to collect myself.”
Despite the dentist flashbacks, Atherley left the bathroom and continued with the class. Even with her background in skating, she describes the class as incredibly hard. After the class came try-outs and, once she made the team, she needed to choose a roller derby name and number. Atherley adopted her grandmother’s collecting name and chose her winning jackpot number: 777.
On the official, nationwide skating name website, “Jane Hammer” looks tame beside the likes of “Everlasting Broadstopper” and “Bloodweiser.” On the track, however, Hammer is anything but. “The Hammer” is the team’s lead scorer, inspiration and coach.
“I totally had a little derby crush on her,” says Nicole Makris, aka Tramplesteelskin (or, less formally, Trample). Unlike Atherley, Makris first learned to roller skate on the derby track. She skated along the wall, using it for support, for several weeks during the training class last year.
“I was really struggling,” Makris says. “I remember one time Hammer gave me this huge whip that I just wasn’t ready for”–in a “whip” one player grabs the forearm of another who pivots her body to swing the teammate around and propel her forward– “and I completely face-planted. I got up saying, ‘Sorry, sorry,’ and she just said ‘Good recovery, great job. Way to get back on your feet.’ I was super embarrassed, and kept thinking ‘I just fell on my face in front of the coach of The Outlaws,’but she was so nice and cool about it.”
Skating skills are great, Atherley says, but they’re not what lands a skater a coveted position on the Oakland Outlaws.
“Tenacity,” she says. “Tenacity, fire and drive is what we look for. Trample broke her wrist in our beginner newbie class, and she came back with a cast to finish the class and tried out for the league. I mean, there’s no way we could not put her on the league. She clearly wants it. You can tell.”
Wanting it pays dividends on the track.
A late October championship match-up at Herbst pavilion in Fort Mason between The Outlaws and the Richmond Wrecking Belles was an adrenaline-fueled, floodlight washed, punk-music backed battle between the league’s two toughest teams. A record 1,400 fans packed the house for the end of season nail-biter.
Roller derby rules go something like this: Each team fields three skaters known as “blockers,” plus a “pivot” who serves as a goalie or last line of defense. Pivots and blockers from both teams skate in an eight person “pack”. Several yards behind the pack are two “jammers” who try to break through the opposing team’s pack and then skate around the track in order to score points. Each lap scores a point. The pack uses every imaginable torso slam–no forearm, hand, foot or lower leg blocks allowed– to prevent opposing jammers from breaking through while simultaneously using their bodies to create holes for their own jammer to skate safely through.
Games, called “bouts”, are played in two halves, and the team with the most points at the end of the second half wins.
The Outlaws and the Wrecking Belles traded leads back and forth for a while, with Hammer using strong fast strides to barrel through Belles and score for Oakland. When she was off the track Hammer coached from the sidelines, welcoming roughed-up players back to the bench or yelling to her players over the stadium-throbbing music. Because she believes in getting everyone in the game, Oakland sent a rookie blocker in for a couple of rounds. But the Richmond team hit hard, the newbie was flung around on the track, and by the time she came back, Hammer used the word “annihilated” and let her rest. At the half it was Belles 40, Outlaws 35. In derby, like basketball, that’s pretty much neck and neck.
The second half started ugly–“utility failures,” Hammer calls them. Rough House Rhonda, for example, kept losing a wheel that disrupted play as it wobbled across the track. The Belles ratcheted up. Maybe they smelled blood. Hits in the second half came thick and fast. Hammer plugged the gaps as fast as she could off the track and continued to score when she was on, but Richmond was too strong. With thirteen minutes left , it was Richmond 94- Oakland 44.
Hammer yelled from the sidelines, huddled her team in vigorous pep talks, challenged penalty calls from the refs. But in the end it wasn’t good enough–the Wrecking Belles beat the Oakland Outlaws, 118 to 74.
Hammer was philosophical in a veteran coach manner. “As far as dealing with the unexpected,” Atherley said afterward, “as far as applying duct tape and glue to keep wheels on and keep the machine running until the end, I think I did a good job.”
She’s harder on herself when it comes to her commitment to get everyone off the bench and into the game.
“It was so physical that I was afraid we’d see massive injuries, like broken necks, if we put people out there who weren’t used to being hit that hard,” Atherley says. “There was a lot of fear out there. I was also yelling. So from a coaching perspective, I didn’t really meet the standard I set for myself.”
The standards Atherley sets for team play are high. When she joined the Outlaws, the team was led by a few superstars who got all the track time while many players never left the bench. Atherley helped change that by making room for everyone and by working hard in service of both the team and the league.
“Her leadership is very apparent,” Makris says. “She doesn’t hit you over the head with it. I wasn’t surprised when I found out she was an office manager, because I consistently saw her just taking care of business with things that needed to happen in the league or motivating people to go out and do this flyering event or organize that fundraiser.”
The Bay Area Derby Girls (B.A.D) is an all-volunteer league that consists of the Outlaws, the Belles, the San Francisco ShEvil Dead and the B.A.D. All-stars–a nationally competitive team made up of the top players from each of the locals. The teams do everything themselves, from gathering the sponsors to promoting the bouts to spending all day taping out the tracks and setting up the bleachers.
“Whatever money comes from the bout and from the beer sales goes back to paying our rent and being able to rent out the pavilion,” says Makris. “The idea that the league consists of 80 women coming together to basically run an organization is just as key as how athletic the sport actually is. We’re running this organization by ourselves because we want to skate.”
Although she works full time as an office manager, now at a software company, Atherley still devotes a good deal of time to the team and to the league. The night before the championship bout, she flyered at two events, including a roller disco, and then spent most of game day gathering donated kegs, bleachers and scoreboards scattered throughout the city.
She does it, she says, because roller derby is more than a sport. It is the place outside ordinary day-to-day life where she is consistently tested and bumps up against her strength and limitations.
“Even the position I play is a metaphor for my life,” she says. “I’m the jammer, the one burling down through the pack trying to make it happen. Everyone wants to kick my butt, so I need to find what it takes to barrel through.”
In the afternoons before each game, Atherley lies on her bed, turns off the lights, closes her eyes and carefully envisions how the bout will go.
“I just replay, replay, replay everything in my head,” she says. “When I picture the perfect jam, I line up at the starting line and I get my breathing going. I look ahead at my pack and they’re all looking at each other. Then, at exactly the same time, they turn around and look at me. There’s a swagger they have, a don’t-even-mess-with-me kind of a look. Then the whistle blows and, as I burl forward, I can see every single hole because my blockers are pushing everyone aside at the perfect moments. Its like swiss cheese out there and I skate through each hole. Then, the pivot tries to get me and I completely lay her out.”
And, of course, the announcers yell “Jane Hammer!!” through the loudspeaker, as she whizzes round the track.
Atherley’s derby name keeps close at hand the original Jane Hammer who hit it big at The Horseshoe a couple decades ago.
“It’s tremendous when you take on someone else’s name,” Atherley says. “It’s a tremendous responsibility. My grandma was such an awesome lady. This name was a part of her and she worked so hard and did such a great job. It inspires me to try to be the same.”
Her grandmother, Atherley says, stood apart from other bill collectors because she got to know debtors and was nice to them instead of simply using threats. She got the job done, but did it in a more genteel way.
Decades later, Atherley made it onto a regional Bay Area Derby Girls All-star team that competed well nationally, but the team was often booed for unsportsmanlike conduct . Along with a several other skaters, Atherley helped turn that culture around. The skaters even went so far as to launch what Atherley laughingly calls a “We’re Nice” campaign: transforming the internal dynamic of the team. So, everyone got off the bench, developed a more sportsmanlike approach to other teams, and, importantly, wore headbands at competitions that said “We’re nice”. It was all part of following in her grandmother’s footsteps.
“I went to my mom first,” Atherley says of her decision to take on her grandmother’s name. “I said ‘Do you think it would be OK if I took grandma’s name as my skate name?’ and she said, ‘Absolutely. I think she’d be so proud to know that was your choice.’ I think she’s right because now I feel safe when I go out skating. Like she’s up there and I have a guardian angel.”
There’s a catch in her voice that she swallows before continuing.
“You know, it gives me pride when I meet someone and they ask me, ‘Who are you?’” Atherley says. “And I say: ‘I’m Jane Hammer.’”
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