Spectators were still making their way in as the Gainesville Roller Rebels (GRR) and the Sugar Sands finished their warm-ups and demonstrated a jam for newcomers at a recent matchup. Although they had arrived almost four hours early to build a floor to skate on, the roller derby players were energized, wearing flashy, customized outfits built around team jerseys and bright makeup.
Though GRR only has 15 players and lays its own floor before every practice and game, the league is 16 years old and pushing for growth. Members are eager to welcome new skaters into the community of their offbeat sport.
A roller derby bout is split into 30-minute halves with a 15-minute break in the middle. Over and over, four blockers from both teams form a barrier and jammers from each team try to break through before their opponent. These “jams” have a two-minute time limit.
The jammer wears a star on her helmet for easy identification. If she manages to pass the pack and complete a lap around the track in the lead, she can either end the jam or try to break through again to score more points.
India Sander-Nazaria plays as a jammer often. She has been playing roller derby for over a year, joining the GRR last July after graduating from UF. She named herself “Rat King” as a dual reference to the rat tail braids in her hair and to the rat king formation she learned about as a wildlife major, where rats weave their tails together to form an unbreakable cluster. She says it’s teamwork similar to roller derby blockers.
Though she is new to playing roller derby, Sander-Nazaria said she grew up around the sport because her mom played.
“I’ve literally only been here for so little [time], and I feel like I fit into the team so well,” Sander-Nazaria said. “I consider these good friends.”
Roller derby is a full-contact sport, notorious for violence and intensity because the nature of the sport guarantees skaters will fall or be pushed. There are rules to restrict illegal conduct, which can either be interruptions of the game flow, or contact on illegal zones like the head, back and lower legs. Violators end up in the penalty box.
At the July 8 bout, Sander-Nazaria had drawn black X’s over her eyes as her chosen makeup for the day. She said she loves choosing a different makeup look for every bout. Like many others in the sport, Sander-Nazaria likes to display her personality through her appearance. She said GRR makes it easy for members to be themselves, and the skaters take full advantage, accessorizing their uniforms with fishnet tights, patterned shorts, shiny helmets and bright, bold makeup.
Some players whiz around the track in unique jerseys, but those are not a display of personality. The roller derby community connects individual teams under a larger umbrella of camaraderie, to the point where skaters will come as substitutes from other teams.
Several Sugar Sands skaters were not actually part of the Sugar Sands team, but GRR league president Ashley Flattery, “Clea DuBrawl,” said substitutions happen somewhat often, as the skaters enjoy playing and want to make sure everyone’s games can happen.
“It feels like we're just these cool little groups where we get to see long lost friends every now and then and come and play in each other's towns,” Flattery said. “It's really cute.”
GRR only has bouts about once a month during a season that runs from April to October, so every matchup is precious. Though there are about 40 members, only about 15 of them actually play, according to Flattery. This means every player is key to keeping the game on, with about five skaters on the track at a time for two intense minutes.
In an attempt to make roller derby accessible, GRR has a library of equipment for members to use. Many skaters cannot afford to fully outfit themselves when they first join, so they use borrowed equipment and replace it with their own piece by piece.
Starting in September, GRR will also have a weekly class for beginners on Wednesdays from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. With $40 and proof of vaccination, anyone over the age of 18 can learn the basics of skating and roller derby, with no skating experience or equipment required.
The team currently practices and plays in the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center, where administration has asked them not to skate on the bare flooring of the basketball court.
A roller derby bout that starts at 6:30 p.m. is usually over by about 8 p.m., but GRR players arrive at 2:45 to lay the floor. They repeat this task at every practice and game, putting down enough panels of Masonite flooring to cover almost the entire court, held together by layers of tape.
When they play, skaters circle a track outlined in yellow tape. Throughout the game, tape comes loose and has to be ripped up or replaced to protect the players, an issue that only exists because GRR does not have a permanent track.
Representatives from the league attended the Eighth and Waldo Sports Complex Community Workshop in early July to request a change. The workshop directors asked citizens to share their dreams for what the community could use. Brittany Evans and Elizabeth Fernandez, AKA “Gnarly Rae Jepsen” and “Lyka Fox,” said they want a permanent place to skate.
“I feel like we're overlooked often, to be honest,” Fernandez said at the workshop. “We’ve had a lot of promises from the city and the county that kind of have fallen through... We would really love to see somewhere that we could skate permanently.”
Roller derby skaters thrive on the energy and culture of their sport, and their league. By the end of a bout, the players’ makeup is smeared and their hair mussed, but they stayed and blasted music to tear down the Masonite floor with the help of family and friends who came to watch the bout.