Where Bruises Are Badges

by Kim Ranegar
Photography by David Vernon

Peoria’s original roller derby league is empowering women and making a difference.

By day, they are schoolteachers, nurses, servers in restaurants, and even a youth pastor. But when night rolls around, they roll as BoomBoom Pow!, Genghis Mom, Slay D Gaga, and more. They’re the Derby Dames of Peoria Push, but nobody’s pushing them around.

“First of all, let’s get one thing straight,” notes the Peoria Push website. “Roller derby, when played according to the rules of the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association, is a real sport with real rules featuring real athletes.” These dames mean business. Gone is the play-acting of the past. Today’s derby features real hits, real falls and real injuries. And the sport is growing—with more than 160 full and apprentice leagues worldwide. There’s even a movement to make roller derby an Olympic sport.

The Story in Peoria
The Peoria Push Derby Dames just celebrated its one-year anniversary. What began on Facebook is now more than 60 skaters strong—a bawdy league with three teams: the Polka Bots, the Hard Knocks and the Brawlberries. Their members range in age from 19 to 46, and they practice at Peoria Palace in Mossville, committing upwards of eight hours each week to train.

Individually, they sacrifice more than $50 per month in dues, plus four nights a week, not to mention the physical sacrifices. Already, they’ve had broken ankles, stitches, many bruises…even bloodshed. “We wear our injuries proudly,” says Angie Agan, one of the team’s founders. Truly, bruises are badges.

How They Roll
Roller derby is a full-on contact sport for women. Competitions are called “bouts” and begin as two teams face off in two 30-minute halves, divided into two-minute sessions called “jams.”

Each team fields up to five skaters, with one “jammer” (you’ll recognize her by the star on her helmet) who scores a point when she laps someone on the opposing team. The rest of the team function as blockers who play both offensive and defensive roles, protecting their own jammer and taking down opponents—by force. Each team also has a “pivot” (who wears a helmet cover with a stripe on it) who serves as the leader of her teammates in the jam.

What’s in a Name?
“Am I a lesser person—or a lesser mother—because I put considerably more effort and angst into choosing my derby name than my only son’s name?” asks Jennifer Towery, a Peoria skater, in her skating blog, entitled “Training Wheels.” Towery settled on Genghis Mom, a nod to her parenting. Derby names are another of the sport’s appeal. Because when they hit the track, derby dames are more than Mom or a co-worker or the girl next door. “We embrace our names,” says Agan. “They empower us to be bolder.”

The Power Behind the Push
This empowerment of women is a major appeal behind roller derby—that and the opportunity to be a little aggressive. “When you’re with your girls and wearing a funky skirt and knee highs, you feel like you can conquer the world,” says Agan. “There’s no second-guessing. You’re a derby girl and you automatically rock.”

Let’s meet some of the faces behind the dames…

Skye Scraper
Angie Agan is a stay-at-home mother of two little girls during the day, but at night she’s Skye Scraper. Why? “I’m 5’ 11” without skates, and gain three or four inches on wheels,” she explains. Agan has been a part of the Push since its first meeting in February of 2010, inspired by the movie Whip It, about a rebellious Texas teen who trades her beauty pageant crown for the rowdy world of roller derby.

“We were just five women saying, ‘Hey, I want to bring roller derby to Peoria,” says Agan. The league remains self-sufficient. No professional trainers. No marketing team. No travel budget. They’re completely nonprofit and volunteer-run, mostly out of the trunks of cars and minivans. They even set up their own floor for bouts—all in 3’ by 3’ sections—unfolding each spectator seat and selling their own tickets.

Agan’s 32nd birthday coincided with Peoria Push’s first official practice day. “What a gift,” she says. Agan hadn’t been on skates since the age of 10, but caught up quickly. But two months into training, she suffered the first team injury, breaking her left ankle during practice. It was both “an honor and a disappointment,” she says. “I had just made it to the hitting level, where I was giving as well as taking.”

After months in a cast, followed by specialized physical therapy, Agan got back on skates in September. “Honestly, it didn’t scare me. This was my very first broken bone ever and not once did I think of giving it up,” she says. “The girls are amazing. Pretty much everyone in the league helped me while I was broken.

“Roller derby has changed my life,” she continues. “It’s opened doors in getting out in the community, making friends, taking pride in the city I live in. And my little girls think it’s the best thing ever. Her best moment so far was the league’s first bout, which the Push hosted at the Peoria Civic Center. “2,800 people showed up. We were on the megatron! The feeling is indescribable.”

Lightweight Champ
Jade Katinas didn’t really choose her name—her name chose her. “I don’t tolerate alcohol very well,” she confesses. “So I’m Lightweight Champ.” Skaters also choose a number, and she chose .08 for similar reasons. Katinas, 28, has a degree from Rose Hulman and is an engineer for Caterpillar during the day, but pulls her weight on skates in the evenings, despite the name.

She has always been athletic, playing softball and basketball most of her life. Yet she wasn’t very active before roller derby and hadn’t been on quad skates since elementary school. “I wasn’t doing much outside of work,” she confesses. “If you didn’t work at Caterpillar, I probably didn’t know you. Roller derby is a great way to get off the couch, to exercise and to meet people.”

Katinas has had her share of injuries too. “I bruised my tailbone early on. My wheels never hit the floor, but my butt did. I’ve also sprained my ACL. But honestly, some of my scariest moments have been seeing others get hit,” she says. Katinas serves as captain of the Hard Knocks and is typically a blocker or pivot, but could also be a jammer.

“Roller derby has changed me significantly,” she says. “It’s given me a different viewpoint of women in general. That there are women who aren’t catty and backstabbing. And I’m more confident. In derby, everyone stands up straighter and stands up for themselves.”

Roller derby has gotten Katinas rolling in more ways than one. “Usually, you get to a point in the winter where you’ve been stuck inside. But roller derby changed that for me. There’s no time for winter blues,” she says. Though she had been in Peoria for nearly six years, she realized she hadn’t explored much. “But now we’re out in the city. We support teammates who are artists. We go to restaurants. We’re busy.” Her husband volunteers as a referee, and so derby time is also family time. “Plus, giving back to the community has been great.”

Bohemian Blitzkrieg
Trinidy Patterson holds a couple of distinctions for Peoria Push. First, she’s the youngest skater, joining the league last year at age 18. Secondly, she had never been on skates before joining the league. “I was the first person in our league to fall. It took two seconds,” she laughs. Yet today, she’s a blocker and sometime-jammer, and known as a great hitter. “It’s nice when I can hit someone effectively,” she smiles.

In “real life,” Patterson is an art student at Illinois Central College, who enjoys drawing and painting. “Roller derby is an expression, like art,” she says. She selected her derby name to reflect her unconventional and bohemian personality. “I liked Blitzkrieg because I needed something intense and I liked the military idea,” she explains.

So the bohemian persona comes easily to Patterson, who recently rocked a Mohawk hairdo, but the athletic part was more of a challenge. “I was never an athlete. I didn’t even like running in P.E. I avoided anything that involved sweating, and now I sweat more than I knew possible!” she says. “I like the challenge and I like to be the ‘shark,’ trying to knock the jammer down to frazzle her and break her momentum.” Pretty impressive for a woman who’s just 5’ 2”—“and a half!” she adds. “I have a lot of core strength and I’m hard to knock down, partially because I’m short.”

She also feels that her age is an advantage. “There are girls who have been skating since they were much younger than me who obviously made it into hitting and scrimmage group long before I did. But the fact that I’m younger means I can keep playing longer.

“Roller derby has given me a chance to be around so many people I never would have talked to, not because of age. We have a lot of nurses and teachers and we all come from such different backgrounds and interests, but we all come together because we all love to play roller derby. It’s rewarding to know you can do this—to relax and know you have it in you.”

The Softer Side
Derby Dames may look intimidating, but there’s a softer side to the Peoria Push. In January, it sponsored a bout at the Civic Center, attracting more than 2,500 spectators. While the league could have used the money to support their training, they instead donated the proceeds—more than $26,000—to the Illinois CancerCare Foundation. They roll in parades. They jump into frigid waters for Special Olympics. Says Agan, “There’s no better friend than a derby girl.” a&s