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Roller derby a fun, tough sport

February 20, 2014 - 12:05am

It’s a Thursday night — the sun set more than an hour ago. A group of nearly two dozen women, outfitted in fishnet tights, helmets and quad skates, sits in the darkness, wrapping up another day of intense practice at the Old Kona Airport Park hockey rink.

The group is the Echo City Knockouts, one of several teams on the rapidly expanding Big Island roller derby scene.

“I’ve always been interested in roller derby, but it had not been a possibility here until about three years ago,” said Kanani Ballesteros, also known by her derby nickname, Stunning Brutality. “I started not knowing much about the sport or skating, but have stuck with it and now it’s my passion. I think it ends up being that way for a lot of the girls. Once they try it, they stick around.”

Team members come from all walks of life, but they share one common bond — roller derby.

“It has been crazy to see how different the girls are in their daily life and then they come here and work together like a family,” coach Matt Panzarino said. “Age, occupation and backgrounds don’t matter out on the rink. The girls come here and put in the work every practice. It’s been a cool thing to see.”

Blast from the past

Roller derby began as an endurance sport, but evolved to incorporate contact in the 1930s. The sport thrived for decades, but as attendance to events waned, roller derby fell into obscurity.

The new millennium brought a worldwide revival to roller derby. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the sport’s international governing body, claims more than 234 member leagues and 110 more in its apprentice program.

With its increasing popularity, roller derby was even proposed for consideration for the 2020 Olympic games. However, in May it was announced that only squash, wrestling, baseball and softball were in contention for the Tokyo games.

The derby addiction

Addiction is the word most commonly used when the women describe why they stuck with derby.

“I always tell girls who are interested to watch a bout,” said Teresa Puhalski, a veteran member of the club, known as Taze Her. “If it’s for you, I think you will know immediately. The first time I watched I had butterflies.”

The women put aside three days per week — more when it’s the week of a bout — and every one of those outings tests physical and mental limits.

“At first, it was tough to find girls who would commit, take the beating and keep coming back day after day,” Ballesteros said. “Now, we found the people who will stay and it has been amazing.”

The thick rule book may be intimidating, but in essence the game is simple. There are five players for each team on the track at once — four blockers and one jammer. Scoring occurs when a jammer passes opposing team members.

“As a casual observer, you don’t have to know everything that is going on out there,” said Elizabeth Elkjer-Maman, or Lizzy Bad Wrass. “You can sit back and enjoy it for everything it is.”

The sport’s physical aspect is what attracts many participants and it serves as a healthy outlet of energy and aggression.

“I’m a much happier person when I bout. My husband knows that,” Puhalski joked. “Derby can be such a positive outlet and we want to continue providing that.”

While it may look like chaos on the surface, there is a surprising amount of strategy going on behind the scenes.

“Besides the physical side of it, you also have to prepare yourself mentally,” Puhalski said. “There are plays and things we have to execute on the rink. It is like a moving puzzle out there. I love it for that aspect. “

Unlike many mainland venues, which use a plastic court, the Old Kona Airport Park hockey rink is concrete. Panzarino — known by his pupils as Grand Master Smash — has a deep respect for the effort, and sometimes skin, the girls leave on the track.

“It is a contact sport, and these girls are prepared for that,” Panzarino said. “They go out there and hit each other. It may not be the roller derby of old, where girls were drop kicking each other WWE-style, but they are athletes. It’s a fast-paced game and is organized as well. It is not chaos and everyone on the rink has a purpose.”

Newcomers welcome

Roller derby is a tough sport. But the community embraces newcomers of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds.

“The team is very accepting to new people showing up,” Panzarino said. “There is no weird tension. If someone is interested and wants to play, there is always a place for them. More often than not, they end up sticking around.”

Hannah Rose, aka Luna Chick, is one of the more recent skaters to catch the derby bug, strapping on her skates for the first time about a year ago.

“I wanted to challenge myself to do something new, so I got a cheap pair of skates and came down,” Rose said. “This is not an easy sport. It’s an everyday thing. The way you eat, your sleeping pattern. You think about it all day long. It’s the challenge that ropes you in.”

Culture shock

The culture surrounding roller derby is one of the most unique in all of sports.

Birth names don’t matter on the track. Derby names help immerse participants and give them an alternate persona.

The origin stories for the names are all across the board. Elkjer-Maman is a marine biologist in the world away from derby. Her Lizzy Bad Wrass nickname, is a play on her favorite fish, the psychedelic wrasse. Others range from Mean Bean and Kootie Pie, and more explicit monikers.

The names are just one factor in building bonds in a sport that is the epitome of teamwork.

“The girls come to it at such different spots in their lives,” Panzarino said. “Basketball, baseball and football you usually start to play when you are young. Many of these girls have never played a team sport or experienced that camaraderie before.”

Puhalski and Ballesteros echoed their coach’s take.

“In derby you really have to rely on your teammates to have your back,” Puhalski said. “I think that sisterhood is not easily broken.”

“It is a bond you can’t even imagine,” Ballesteros added. “Most of these people I would have never met if it was not for derby. Now they are like family”

Over the weekend, the Knockouts kicked off the 2014 season against the Waimea Wranglers. The Wranglers escaped with a 161-104 victory.

The Knockouts’ next bout will be held April 5 against Oahu’s Rainbow Revolution Roller Girls at Kekuaokalani Gymnasium.

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