Where some see pushing, shoving and a little hair-pulling, Jessica Thunder of the Northwoods Derby Knockouts sees camaraderie and healthy competition.
“We’ve all become pretty close in the last few months,” said Thunder, president and captain of start-up women’s roller derby team based in Rhinelander. She said her favorite part of the high-energy contact sport-which pits teams against each other in a race around a roller rink-is the people.
And the people go by memorable monikers once they’ve strapped on their kneepads and helmets. For example, Thunder’s derby moniker is “Rolling Thunder”.
Thunder founded the team in May with a friend and fellow skater, Eileen “Dread Velvet” Beagen-Swierczynski. While Thunder had some derby experience with a team from the Madison area, Beagen-Swierczynski and most of the rest of the team are complete newcomers to the sport. Thanks to the power of the Internet, and some timely media coverage in June, they quickly found like-minded people ready to storm the rink.
“It’s amazing to see how far they’ve all come,” said Thunder, noting that it had been years since several of the women on the team had even worn a pair of roller skates. “Most everyone only needs to become a little more proficient in a few skills before we’ll be ready to start scheduling bouts.”
Thunder said she also enjoys being a part of a group that hopes “to provide entertainment to the community.”
The ranks were small at first, but the team gained several new interested players after the media coverage in June, with more than 20 skaters attending some summer practices. While a dedicated group of 12-13 skaters have attended nearly every weekly practice, growth continues, as Thunder estimated that she is contacted “at least once a week” by someone looking to learn more about the sport.
“The reaction in the community has actually been very positive,” she said. “People have been really excited to hear that we want to bring derby to the Northwoods. It’s just something completely different.”
Thunder was quick to point out that today’s derby is much different than the over-the-top contests during the sport’s popularity heyday in the 1970s. Gone are the days of staged theatrics, exaggerated hits and falls in the sport that inspired “Kansas City Bomber,” a 1972 Raquel Welch film. Today the sport is played with strategy by athletes who possess guts and skill, according to Thunder. The bouts are also family-friendly.
“Vulgarity or inappropriate behavior isn’t tolerated at all,” said Thunder. “A lot of the ladies on the team have families and small children, and they wouldn’t be a part of something that condoned that.”
In the bouts, the teams travel in the same direction around a track, each one designating a jammer (also known as a scorer) who earns a point each time she laps an opposing skater. The object is for the jammer to pass as many opponents as possible. The other team members assist the jammer by blocking other opponents along the way. The bouts can get aggressive, but rules for the most part keep the players in check. That means hair-pulling and other forms of dirty play are out of the question.
Thunder, as the team’s president and captain, is “the face of the Knockouts,” a non-profit organization that has already taken strides to work with other organizations and local businesses to strengthen community ties. Many of the team’s skaters volunteered at the Hodag Block Party in June, and also participated in the Rhinelander Fourth of July Parade and have collected donations for the Rhinelander and Vilas County food pantries. Thunder said the hope is to get positive vibes out into the community that show the derby team is all about having fun and putting on a good show. She said while many community members have been supportive of the venture, potential team sponsors have been slow to follow suit.
“We haven’t had real good response from businesses,” she said. “I think a lot of them don’t really know what derby is all about, and others have been skeptical because the team is so new. We have a lot of energy, though, and we’re here to stay.”
The Northwoods Derby Knockouts continue to recruit skaters and referees of all skill levels, and are currently in search of a practice facility for the fall and winter season. More information is available by calling Thunder at (608) 335-1807, emailing GRRRROWW@gmail.com or visiting the team’s Facebook page at facebook.com/pages/Northwoods-Derby-Knockouts/144926038919794.
Editor’s note: The Northwoods Derby Knockouts are hosting a roller derby mixer and exhibition bout to showcase the modern revival of roller derby and give our community a taste of what they can expect from the team in the future. Come on out to see some fast paced, hard hitting action and support and meet your Northwoods Derby Knockouts. The mixer will take place on Saturday, Sept. 29, at 5 p.m., at the Eagle River Recreation Association facility, 4149 Hwy. 70 East in Eagle River. Cost is $10 at the door, or $8 in advance, and tickets are available at Trig’s of Rhinelander and Eagle River; RIPCO Credit Union in Rhinelander and Eagle River; The Penalty Box in Eagle River; Jake’s Tattooing in Rhinelander; Rhinelander Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram; and Bugsy’s in Rhinelander. Bring in a donation of a non-perishable food item for $1 off tickets at the door the day of the event. Donations collected will benefit the food pantries of Oneida and Vilas Counties. An after-bout party will be held at The Penalty Box in Eagle River.