Staffer, Graduate Student Clobber, Connect in Rockville League
C. Leisure, who goes by the derby name AnnaHell Lee (center, green helmet), watches from the sidelines of a scrimmage last month. Below, Rainbow Contusion (second from left), sidelined with an injury, takes in the practice.
It’s a little before 8 p.m. on Friday when the athletes start gathering on metal benches. They drop their huge gym bags and pull out elbow and knee pads, wrist guards and mouth guards, sticker-adorned helmets and four-wheeled skates.
The Free State Roller Derby is about to start a two-hour, full-contact practice, and two Terps are at the rink: Sandy Everett, technical coordinator at The Clarice, and C. Leisure, a graduate student in the College of Education.
Teachers, artists and researchers in their 9–5 lives, they’ve come for the workout as much as the camaraderie, which may not be evident as the players take to the rink to race, shove and hip-check each other.
“I like to tell people that it refills my soul,” Leisure says. “I could be having the worst day ever and get on the track and totally forget everything. At the end of the two hours, I feel restored. It’s something that I always knew I was missing but I didn’t know what it was.”
The Free State Roller Derby, based in Rockville, is a league made up of two teams—the Black-Eyed Suzies and the Rock Villains—and part of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which consists of 460 teams across six continents.
In the season stretching from March to October, the Free State Roller Derby competes in roughly 10 bouts. A bout is made up of two 30-minute periods, and each period is broken down into several “jams.”
During gameplay, each team has one jammer and four blockers. The whistle signals for the blockers to take off on the track and form the pack, and then the jammers start skating. The objective is for the jammers to get through the pack of blockers, earning points for each pack member they clear.
In one drill, the goal is simply to get in front of the other person. Players form two single-file lines, even as they dance to the pop music blasting through the speakers, and square off with the person next to them when they reach the front of the line. One player, her helmet decorated with sparkles, is a few inches taller than her partner and easily knocks the skates out from under her.
“Oh, my God, are you okay?” the taller skater asks, catching her partner before she fully crashed to the floor. They hug and skate off to the next drill.
The 2009 movie “Whip It” gave a different impression of the sport—one of violence and bent rules—but did play a role in the modern resurgence of roller derby. In addition to the growing teams, the sport increasingly features in pop culture. In Hannah B.’s season of “The Bachelorette” earlier this year, one of the group dates was participating in a roller derby.
While getting her graduate degree at Indiana University, Everett often heard about roller derby but never had a chance to see it for herself.
In Erie, Pennsylvania, Everett was part of the Eerie Roller Girls for one season. She attended the Pride Festival and saw the Roller Girls’ table. Then, in anticipation of her move to this area last year, she researched local teams and landed on Free State because of its “welcoming, relaxed attitude.”
Everett sticks with the sport because it’s very physical and a good release of energy, and she admits/declares she hates the gym. While the ability to keep balance on roller skates may not come in handy off the track, Everett can carry over some of her derby skill into The Clarice.
“Every once in a while, I’ll be doing something and need to move a cart out of the way, so you just drop a shoulder and shove,” Everett says. “My students are like, ‘Who are you? Why are you like this?’”
Leisure traces their interest back to their eighth birthday, when they turned on the TV to find an old-school roller derby tournament was on. “I knew it looked really wicked. It was very intense. I remember being glued to the screen.”
Growing up, despite being interested in contact sports like rugby, Leisure was only allowed to play lower-impact sports such as basketball and volleyball. Free State is their first derby team, after finding its table at the Capital Pride Festival in 2016.
“The community was definitely very welcoming, very encouraging, very body-positive,” they say. “To play this sport, you need every single body type, and there’s no shaming on any level for anything. We have different careers, different backgrounds, different styles, and we just appreciate that we’re all different, and we love it.”
Leisure and Everett didn’t know they shared an employer in UMD, or even know each other’s real names until joining the team’s Facebook group; roller derby players, like pro wrestlers, take on punny identities.
For Everett, coming up with a nickname wasn’t easy. She landed on Rainbow Contusion, a play off the “Muppet Movie” song “Rainbow Connection.” Leisure goes by AnnaHell Lee, derived from her favorite Edgar Allan Poe poem, “Annabel Lee.”
“At the time that I chose it, I was also an English teacher in Baltimore, so the whole Poe history in Baltimore is amazing,” Leisure says.
When game day rolls around, the energy is electric. People of all ages fill the stands, and a few children are playing in the unofficial kids’ corner. Music blares through the speakers, prompting impromptu dance parties on the track during timeouts. Some of the players who aren’t on the roster serve as cheerleaders and answer fans’ questions: “How do you score?” “Where’s the ball?” “What just happened?”
“We try to make it fun for everybody,” Everett says. “It’s more fun for us the more people we have cheering.”
At the end of Friday night practice, the group reconvenes in the parking lot to wind down. Conversation topics range from practice, families and weekend plans.
“It’s a nice not-work activity to know that twice a week, I’ve got some place to be,” Everett says. “People are looking forward to me being there.”
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