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Now a popular international sport, roller derby had humble roots in Portland area



TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Rose City Rollers Founder Kim Stegeman, left, watched as the sport gained traction and appealed to younger athletes like Jacky Smith. On the night when her life changed forever, Kim “Rocket Mean” Stegeman was out with her friends at a punk rock show in Portland.

The year was 2004, and Stegeman did not yet have her roller derby nickname — because roller derby as it’s known today still didn’t exist. Stegeman had always loved roller skating; she practically grew up at a roller rink in the 1970s Bay Area. But until this point, skating was just another hobby, and not the competitive sport that would become a full-time passion and profession for Stegeman.

In the middle of the concert, Stegeman’s friend turned to her with an idea.

“We should start a roller derby team!”

“What?”

“A roller derby team!”

About 24 hours — and many drinks — later, Stegeman had forgotten the brief conversation until one of her friends brought it up again.

“And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do that!’”

From carny to cutthroat

From those humble beginnings, the Portland-based roller derby league — Rose City Rollers (RCR) — has grown in conjunction with the sport as a whole, which has exploded in popularity since the first leagues began popping up in Texas around 2002.

“I founded RCR in June 2004, and it was really interesting because at the same time, Texas had started in 2002,” said Stegeman, who has lived in West Linn since 2009. “But we didn’t start because we heard about them; we started, and then we were like, ‘How do we find stuff out?’ And we found Texas.”

Before moving any further, it’s important to understand the key distinction between the roller derby of yesteryear and the modernized, intensely competitive sport it has become. What Stegeman grew up watching in the 1970s and 80s was more properly labeled as “sports entertainment,” with scripted matches that drew comparisons to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). In the years following the early-2000s reboot, it has evolved from carny to cutthroat — there’s nothing fake about international championships that are broadcast on ESPN.

“It’s opened up sports to a whole generation of non-sporty kids,” Stegeman said. “Yesterday I had a parent tell me they were floored by the fact that their daughter, who was just kind of in the books, quiet, shy, saw a derby and said, ‘I’m going to do this.’”

It takes just one look at the trophy case in The Hangar at Oaks Park — RCR’s home turf — to see how far both the sport and RCR as a team have come. Housed in that case is the Hydra Trophy, awarded annually to the winner of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) Championship tournament. RCR has held the trophy since the fall of 2015, when it dethroned the four-time defending champion Gotham Girls of New York City, and it will defend the title in home territory this November when Portland hosts the 2016 championship.

“Now the sport is feeling really tight,” Stegeman said. “There are people who liked the theatrical era of roller derby better, and we hear from those people occasionally. ... Even old members of Rose City (say), ‘It’s too serious, there’s no more drinking before the game.’

“I’m like, ‘Whatever, you’re just mad because you wouldn’t survive as a derby athlete now.’”

Structure in the chaos

The rise of modern roller derby, as Stegeman recalled, was almost eerily organic. Around the same time Stegeman founded RCR, 27 other leagues sprouted up across the globe.

In forming the rules of the game, RCR and others took cues from that first league in Texas. Soon thereafter, Stegeman helped form the United Leagues Coalition, which would then evolve into the WFTDA in 2005.

TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Posters from Rose City Rollers early years line the walls of its office in The Hangar at Oaks Park. Stegeman said the game has evolved immensely since she founded RCR in 2004.

“We said, ‘Here are a couple versions of the rules,’ and that’s when we really started refining them,” Stegeman said. “A lot of it was talking about, ‘Here are the rules we have. What are the holes? What are the ways it’s done differently in different places?’”

Much like other sports, the rules and style of play continue to evolve every year. Yet even Stegeman chuckles when asked to describe the basic functions of the game.

“You should never read the rules before you watch the game,” she said.

Modern roller derby matches feature two teams, each made up of five skaters. The skaters split between three positions: pivot, blocker and jammer (pivots are identified with a stripe on their helmet, while jammers wear a star on theirs). Each team has one pivot (who also serves as a blocker), three blockers and one jammer.

“So four blockers from each team are up front, and the jammers are on the line behind them,” Stegeman said. “The whistle blows, and everyone takes off. Both jammers are fighting their way through the pack, so the blockers are playing offense and defense simultaneously. They’re trying to help their jammer and stop the other team’s jammer.”

The pivots are at the front of the pack, surveying the chaos behind them and calling out directions to the rest of the team (sometimes while skating backwards).

All of this takes place during a series of “jams” — two-minute playing windows when teams score points based on the success of their jammers. Matches, also referred to as “bouts,” last 60 minutes and are broken up into two 30-minute periods.

In terms of mainstream sports, roller derby compares best to American football — think of the jammers as running backs and the pivots as quarterbacks, while the blockers are akin to linemen.

“It’s more of a team sport now, which is awesome,” Stegeman said. “The sport has evolved many, many times over the course of the years. We’re a decade in, 11 years of modifying the rules, and right now it’s super fun,” Stegeman said.

Passing the torch

Stegeman started as the founder of RCR while also playing for the team herself. Now, with her playing days over, she works full-time as the executive director of RCR, watching with delight as the game is passed on from generation to generation while also serving as a competitive oasis for those who don’t gravitate to the “traditional” sports.

“I have parents coming to me all the time saying how happy they are that they brought their kids to a game, and their kid saw it and said, ‘I can do that because I can roller skate,’” Stegeman said.

LEARN MORE

Interested in finding out more about the Rose City Rollers? The Junior Derby season — for kids between ages 7 and 18 — begins Sept. 10, and intake for new skaters is scheduled for Sept. 25.

Intake for adults is also Sept. 10

RCR has evolved to include two different youth programs: “Rosebuds” for 12-to-18-year olds, and “Rose Petals” for kids between 7 and 12. To a large extent, those youth teams serve as a pipeline to the adult all-star teams.

That was precisely the case for 19-year-old West Linn native Jacky “Kingdoom Hearts” Smith, a member of the RCR adult all-star “B” team, the Axels of Annihilation. Smith first got involved with roller derby when she was 13, and moved up with the Rosebuds before graduating to the adult squad.

“When I first started, I was a meek little thing,” Smith said. “I could not talk to people, I was shy, I didn’t communicate very much.”

She soon met a teammate who would become one of her best friends,, and the experience paid dividends.

“I think derby makes that an opportunity, where you can meet people that you wouldn’t meet on the street or in a classroom,” Smith said. “I think for the younger generation, it helps build character, grow yourself as a person.”

That sense of community is fostered, in part, by the nicknames adopted by each skater. In the early going players picked a name based on their team. Thus, as captain of the Guns & Rollers, Stegeman chose “Rocket Mean” as a nod to the Guns & Roses song “Rocket Queen.”

Now, she said, names are more frequently based either on last names or personalities. Smith, for her part, chose “Kingdoom Hearts” to honor the video game “Kingdom Hearts.”

As RCR prepares for the International Championship in November, Stegeman said she is thrilled with how the sport has evolved since its humble beginnings. “It’s awesome,” she said. “It’s definitely different from when I started it with my ramshackle friends.”

Patrick Malee can be reached at 503-636-1281 Ext. 106 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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