April 24 , 2006
On the right track
BY ROBYN MOHR
Christi Gray was all revved up for the game. She screamed and cheered as the announcer called out the team lineups. The place was packed, the crowd going wild. She slapped all the players’ hands as their names thundered over the loudspeaker. Then, the crowd quieted down and stood in unison for the national anthem.
What were all these fans waiting to see? A baseball
or basketball game? Nope.
A hockey game? Close.
They were there to see a roller derby.
Roller derby? Until a few years ago, even Gray had trouble explaining it.
“Most people don’t get it,” said the associate editor/designer of Emory Report. “It’s something they have to see for themselves. It’s a women’s contact sport, kind of like hockey but on a track with roller skates—not rollerblades—and with no pucks or sticks.”
At first, Gray wasn’t sure roller derby was for her. “The leagues looked pretty rough. I didn’t know if I was tough enough,” she said. “I just went to a practice last July, thinking it would be fun to skate and get some exercise. I was hooked after the first practice.”
Gray played sports throughout her childhood but said she was never thrilled with the idea of practicing.
Growing up in Hampton, Va., she said she was “fairly athletic,” playing on little league softball and soccer teams and swimming on a team for her local pool. Before coming to Emory in early 2005, she worked for Atlanta’s High Museum of Art as publications coordinator and played on the museum’s coed softball team, the High Flyers.
“I’ve played sports, but I never really fully dedicated myself,” Gray said. “Derby is the first sport that I have truly put my heart into.”
And that she does. In between designing ER’s pages and managing its website, building one home and renovating another, and serving on the steering committee of the Reynoldstown Community Garden, Gray manages to dedicate almost 20 hours a week to her roller derby league. Her team, the Toxic Shocks, competes in “bouts,” as they’re called, as part of the four-team Atlanta Rollergirl League.
“I practice at least eight hours a week and do a lot of administrative work for the league,” she said. “I attend events and fundraisers, and I’m head of the business committee. Hence, I do all the accounting and many other administrative tasks like insurance, taxes, etc.”
Gray’s husband, Andy Bennett, an Emory doctoral candidate in human genetics, is happy Gray decided to try roller derby. Somehow he didn’t find the occasional extra-inning softball game as invigorating as a derby bout.
“I’d take derby over softball anytime—it’s got a much faster pace,” Bennett said. “In the three bouts I’ve been to, I’ve seen fingers and ribs broken. Which, of course, is not a great thing to see, especially when your wife or girlfriend is out there, but the specter of real injury does affect your adrenaline levels. It doesn’t feel right sitting at home.”
Gray and Bennett met while both attending Georgia State University. She graduated in 1999 with an art degree in photography and a minor in art history, while Bennett earned his degree in German and biology. The two married in 2001 and live in a house in Reynoldstown, near Little Five Points.
And, although her husband is Gray’s first love, derby comes in a close second. “We actually have T-shirts for the players that say ‘Married to Derby,’” she said. “The players’ partners have shirts that say ‘Derby Widower.’”
For the 2006 season, which stretches from March to September, the Toxic Shocks first took to the rink on Sunday, April 9. After nine months of practice together, joining Gray on the floor were teammates and fellow Emory staff, Cindy “InSinerator” Fontana (assistant swimming and diving coach) and Jill “Wheelin’ Jennings” Myers
(University media relations coordinator).
Roller derby, which last enjoyed a heyday in the late 1970s and early ’80s, is undergoing a “revival and revolution,” Gray said. As part of the new tradition, players make up names for themselves. Most are plays on words, and they are designed to intimidate. Gray goes by “Amelia Scareheart,” inspired by one of her favorite derby names: “Susan B. Agony.” One night, while still at a loss for a moniker, Gray started thumbing through famous women in history.
“Amelia Earhart came up—Amelia Scareheart!—I immediately knew it was the one,” she said. “I love the aesthetic that’s associated with her, the ’20s and ’30s pilot gear.”
Gray expanded her character to include famous bomber and pilot references—the number on the back of her jersey is B-52—and during bouts she channels her inner Amelia (when she’s not on the floor and wearing the required helmet) by tying a scarf around her neck and a pilot’s cap and goggles on her head. In addition to the helmet, Gray must wear a mouth guard, wrist guards, and elbow and knee pads when skating, although skaters are still likely to suffer from a few bumps and bruises. Several skaters have broken bones in bouts or practices.
But, as Gray will say, playing a bout is worth the battle scars.
“When I’m playing, I like to skate as fast as I can and get really low as I move through the pack,” she said.
“Then, as I quickly sneak up on the last opposing player, I skim by her as she tries to block me.
“It’s only about two
seconds of glory, but it’s so worth it.”
Roller Derby 101
Roller derby competitions, known as bouts, consist of three 20-minute periods. In each bout, two teams compete for points. At any given time, each team has five skaters on the rink playing one of three main positions: jammer, blocker or pivot (one jammer, three blockers and one pivot).
During a “jam,” the pivot sets the pace for the “pack” as she skates no further than 20 feet ahead of the blockers. The pivot and the blockers help their jammer cut through the crowd by blocking the opposing team.
A jam can be no longer than two minutes and begins with two short whistles from a referee. The two jammers skate through the pack trying to pass all opposing players. Once the jammer passes through the pack, she gains one point for each opposing player passed. All members are allowed to block with their upper arms and hips. Falls are frequent, and penalties are given by referees for illegal blocking, including shoving, pushing, tripping and chasing a jammer further than 20 feet ahead of the pack.
Roller derby was first conceived some 60 years ago by Chicago sports promoter Leo Seltzer. Initially, the sport was more of a marathon, between multiple (as many as 25) teams of both males and females who skated as far as 3,000 miles around the Chicago Coliseum.
Today, the Atlanta Rollergirls (ARG) is just one of many roller derby leagues that have formed in the past four years. ARG was formed in October 2004 by Angela Ward, an Atlanta resident, who first saw derby in Texas. Currently Atlanta’s league boasts more than 60 members (there are no open roster slots) on four teams: the Toxic Shocks, the Apocalypstix, the Denim Demons and the Sake Tuyas.