Roller derby may be coming to a Northwoods rink near you, thanks to the work and dedication of two Rhinelander women.
Derby is a sport that’s gaining popularity fast, with more than 200 leagues nationwide. Two women, Jessica Thunder and Eileen Swierczynski, are hoping to roll the concept out in the Northwoods.
The sport isn’t like the game people remember in the 70s. Members of the newly-formed league, the Northwoods Derby Knockouts, instead say now it’s for everyone. It’s more than a sport. It’s a chance to let your individuality shine.
“Skaters have derby names. They sort of have derby personas. Alter egos they like to call it a lot of times,” said Jessica “Rolling” Thunder, one of the few Northwoods women with derby experience. Thunder was a member of a club Derby team in Madison until moving to Rhinelander a little over a year ago, and she soon found that she missed the competition. This spring Thunder posted flyers around town looking for women interested in forming a Roller Derby league in Rhinelander.
At about that same time, Swierczynski said she was driving by the now closed Crystal Rock Roller Rink on Hwy. 8 when the thought hit her. “I’ve seen some roller derby bouts on TV, and thought it would be a cool thing to have up here,” she said. “So I started putting some feelers out.”
Swierczynski started a “Rhinelander Roller Derby” Facebook page, and almost immediately got interest from about 15 people in the area intrigued with the idea. A few days later, one of the group’s members asked if she was the one posting flyers around town looking for Derby interest. Swiercznyski found one of the flyers and called the number-Thunder’s. An idea was born.
“It was so great to have someone else who was so enthusiastic about the idea,” said Thunder. “It’s just grown since then.”
That’s an understatement. Now just less than two months in, the Roller Derby page, which has since been renamed “Northwoods Derby Knockouts” page has more than 100 interested individuals following it, and Thunder and Swierczynski are getting calls almost every day from people interested in learning more about the sport.
“I’m just looking for some new friends, something new to do, and I thought, you know, ‘there’s a team in Wausau.’ I think it’s time for Rhinelander to get a team also,” Thunder said.
Thunder met Swierczynski, who has chosen to go by the derby name “Dread Velvet” (a homage to her job as a cake decorator). They formed a bond over roller derby, and hope others do the same.
“We hope to have a group of girls that end up being good friends because of working together on this team,” Thunder said.
Roller Derby may be fast-paced and hard-hitting, but it’s an easy game to learn, and open to everyone. No experience required.
“All shapes, all sizes, all ages of women can be part of a roller derby team. You don’t have to have any skating experience. We will train. It’s become very organized. It’s regulated,” Thunder said.
“I was very skeptical at first, but I actually attended a bout a few weeks ago, and it was very family friendly,” said Moria King, a home-schooling mother of three.
They also hope to show potential derby girls that anyone can be an athlete.
“It’s really an opportunity, even if you’ve never played any organized sport before, to come out and really challenge yourself,” Swiercznyski said.
The two helped organize a practice last Tuesday at the Rhinelander Ice Arena that seven total skaters attended. They hope to eventually schedule an exhibition match featuring derby girls from around the state to show people in the Northwoods what the sport is all about. They hope to show the public how much fun derby can be.
“It’s one of those things that’s kind of gotten a bad reputation over the years, but it’s undeserved,” said Swiercznyski. “Yes, it is an aggressive contact sport, but it’s a team focus and the teams I’ve seen around the state have a lot of fun with it.”
Team organizers aim to recruit about 15 girls to form a team. The ultimate goal would be to have several teams based in the Northwoods, but what they would really like would be enough numbers to have two teams to scrimmage each other.
“We aren’t asking for any kind of commitment,” said Thunder. “Come and give it a try. If it isn’t for you, it isn’t for you.”
Thunder said a pair of derby skates will cost about $100, and the padding needed to compete is an additional $100. Skaters must be 21 years old to compete.
Editor’s note: A meeting and practice is scheduled Tuesday, June 5, at 7 p.m. at the Rhinelander Ice Arena. The team is also in search of practice space. Requirements are a flat indoor surface at least 100×60 feet. For more information, call Swiercznyski at (715) 369-2004, email Thunder at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Northwoods Derby Knockouts Facebook page.