Walking into a roller derby match for the first time, you might expect to see a melee of flying elbows, stiff-arm clotheslines, eye gouges and bruising fights breaking out like a scene from the 1972 cult classic Kansas City Bomber. But if you spend a little time watching Asheville’s own Blue Ridge Rollergirls — getting to know the community that surrounds them and the atmosphere — it’ll feel more like a summer music festival.
I happened to catch the last battle of the season, a bout the BRRG French Broads hosted against the Appalachian Boone Shiners, the roller derby team out of Boone.
For the newly initiated, the cluster of bodies bottlenecked at any given moment of play, along every contour of the oval track, is reminiscent of every traffic jam you never wanted to be stuck in. Witnessing this confusion and commotion, I empathized with the many football-illiterate, unable to make sense of the brawling masses on the playing field.
However, after doing a bit of on-the-fly field research (I asked the guy beside me what was going on), I discovered the basic tenet of the sport: prevent the quick and determined jammer (sporting a starred helmet) for the opposing team from lapping one’s own team, while at the same time attempting to part the waters of the other team’s defenses to allow your own jammer to break through the blockade and score points. Blockers on defense lock arms to fortify their positions and prevent passage, while blockers on the offensive create a wedge in front of their jammer and function like a cowcatcher on the front of a locomotive, dashing the other team’s defenders to the wayside.
At halftime — while the Beastie Boys’ “Girls” blasted from the U.S. Cellular Center’s massive speaker system, kids on the sidelines launched rubber ducks toward center court in an effort to win a prize — I took the opportunity to speak with some of the players and fans. I learned that Blue Ridge Roller Girls is actually a 501(c)3 from Hope Occhipinti, aka Hopi-Wan, who’s been involved with roller derby for several years and a player for BRRG since 2013. She told me that she and her teammates — nurses, paralegals, web developers, vet techs and interior designers by day — basically run BRRG like a business. Team policies, she added, require each member to perform a service like marketing, fundraising or public relations to support the team and the league. Occhipinti also told me that the team donates a portion of its profits to various charities including Brother Wolf (www.bwar.org) and Girls Rock (www.girlsrockasheville.org). Saturday night’s featured charity was the Western North Carolina Aids Project (www.wncap.org). Players pay monthly dues, and the team is always looking for support, especially suitable space to practice.
While the second half of play commenced, I struck up a conversation with Chad Boyd, a former roller derby coach who came to Asheville for the weekend to catch some action. What attracted him to roller derby was the fast pace and the excitement the sport generates. He loved coaching, an experience that gave him a lot of leadership experience and helped him “grow as a person tremendously.”
The sport experienced a revival in the early 2000s, and by the middle of that decade, leagues began forming all over the country, Boyd said. The United Leagues Coalition brought the various groups together, soon morphing into the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (www.wftda.com). Today there are hundreds of teams all over the world.
The night’s main event ended with the French Broads on top 211-180, and the Boone Shiners headed home, but not before both teams skated a lap around the rink to high-five the spectators circled up around its perimeter. The players were all smiles and sportsmanship as Digital Underground implored all in attendance to do “The Humpty Dance.” I opted instead to line up for a $2 pint of Dale’s Pale Ale. You read that right. That’s no typo. In honor of the fans and to celebrate the BRRG’s last home game, several local craft beers on tap were being sold for less than you are likely to see again, a fact that was not lost on some guys in a bachelor party standing in the crowd. The French Broads rolled back to their bench in anticipation of the second half of the doubleheader.
The second event was a match between rival teams within the BRRG, a throwback to the team’s origins, when skaters gathered at Carrier Park and scrimmaged among themselves. The Wham Bam Thank You Ma’ams took on the Candy Apple Razorblades, and the atmosphere inside the arena grew even more playful than it had been earlier in the night. Some players donned tutus and other funny accoutrements, while one, known only as “Dawn of the Dead” was made up to embody her name, a bloody, bug-eyed zombie with bad teeth and a slack jaw hanging from her creepy face. The two teams battled it out, and the crowd cheered them on. One team would score and then the other. By the end of the first half, the score was nearly tied.
At halftime, the lights were dimmed to nearly full dark, and the performance troupe Unifire Theater took center stage. Performers brandishing sticks, hula hoops, ropes, torches and batons — all in flames — danced, juggled and spun about center stage as fire whorled around them, tracing their movements, illuminating the darkness, and trailing the performers around the rink. The crowd was transfixed, and I must admit, I was too. The group held the stage for nearly 15 minutes, though it felt like five.
When the second half was over, the Candy Apple Razorblades just barely squeaked past the Wham Bam Thank You Ma’ams. Immediately afterward, the players gathered for a group photo, then dispersed to rendezvous with friends and family who had come to see them play.
It was here that I met Nicole Orlovitz, aka “Buttercup,” a six-year veteran of the Rollergirls. She was smiling and crying and a little overwhelmed by all the excitement. Mascara was smeared in the corners of her eyes, and I asked her what the tears were about. She told me that this was her final home game with the team, that her husband works for the Department of Defense and had accepted a job overseas. What was she going to miss the most, I asked, about her time with the Blue Ridge Rollergirls? Through more tears, she told me she would miss her friends, her teammates the most, because this community had become an extension of her family. But then she added that the season was not over, that she would see them in a few weeks in Wichita, Kan., for the Division 2 playoffs. After all, the Blue Ridge Rollergirls are ranked No. 55 internationally by the WFTDA, an amazing accomplishment for a band of women from a small town like Asheville.
For more information on the history of roller derby, follow this link to download a copy of the critically acclaimed documentary “Hell on Wheels.”