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Air Raid takes on Storm City

Hillsboro's Air Raid Roller Girls close out their first roller derby season at home against Storm City


By day they are teachers, therapists, veterinarians and home health workers. But twice a week starting at 7 p.m., 35 women from Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Portland and Vancouver pull on their roller skates and gather on the pale-blue rink of Hillsboro Skate World to race, hit each other, get knocked down and have fun while playing one of the country’s fastest-growing sports — women’s roller derby. by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - The Hillsboro-based Air Raid Roller Girls battle for track position against the Sick Town Disorderlies during a roller derby match at Hillsboro Skate World earlier this season.

“Some of us get angry inside,” said Mae Gower, whose derby nickname is M.C. Beg. “Sometimes you just gotta hit a bitch, but then we’ll get together for a beer afterwards.”

Gower, a vegan home health worker, first started playing derby in Arizona. “I was a lot fatter and a lot angrier back then,” she recalled. “I was at a bar and some girl said, ‘You’d make a great blocker! At first I was like, ‘What?’ But then I started playing and I loved it.”

Gower’s story is a familiar one in a world where women have few full-contact sports to choose from — and even fewer that were started by women, like modern derby was in the early 2000s. While many women like Gower are drawn to derby as an outlet, others play for the camaraderie.

“I started playing derby when I was really stressed,” said therapist and mother of two Amanda “Fernie” Fernie. “Everyone’s so supportive, which is important when the rest of your life is falling apart.”by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - The Hillsboro-based Air Raid Roller Girls take on Storm City Saturday in their final game of the season.

And still others play derby for the excitement. “For me it’s a full-contact transcendental meditation,” said Sara “Masscara” Fleissner, a vegetarian who works at an animal hospital. “You have to be in the moment or else someone is going to knock you down.”

All three of these women are part of the Air Raid Roller Girls, a league formed in July 2013 by six friends who wanted to start a team in Hillsboro that could be recognized as a legitimate derby league by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFDTA).

“It started as a joke in a bar, ‘Let’s form a roller derby league!’” said co-founder Jennifer “Pebbles” Keene. “We wrote down ideas on napkins. But then we went to RollerCon, a worldwide roller convention in Las Vegas, and we got lots of support and advice from other leagues. We started renting from Skate World on Thursday nights and now here we are.”

As more women joined Air Raid, the league built up a strong tradition of community.

“It’s more like a family than a team,” said co-head coach Michele “Supah Six Pack” Spady, who is a server at Golden Valley Brewery and also plays for the Break Neck Betties in Portland. “I ruptured my ACL and very few people from outside the team even contacted me. But inside the team I had meals, funds, visitors, driving help for me and my six kids [her nickname inspiration] for over two weeks.”

“They are a wonderful group of women,” said co-head coach Lorenzo “Enzo” Chatman, who played for a men’s roller derby team in Portland. “My mom passed away, and everybody came together, helped me fly to the funeral. The game is one thing but they [Air Raid girls] care for each other on an even deeper level.”

Enzo chuckled, “And we still win.”

It’s true; Air Raid has won all but two bouts since its debut against Skagit Valley in February. “That first bout was incredible,” Keene recalled. “We came back from a 40-point deficit and won in the last sixty seconds. It went from six of us in a bar to, ‘We just won our first bout!’”

Stories similar to Air Raid’s are playing out all across the country and around the world. According to the WFTDA website, more than 1,100 derby leagues have been formed in neighborhoods as close as Portland and in countries as far away as Egypt and Australia.

But what exactly is roller derby and how is it played?

Imagine a track race with two teams of five players. One player from each team, the jammer, scores a point for passing a member of the opposing team. The other team members, the blockers, must stay in a pack and prevent the opposing team’s jammer from scoring points while at the same time clearing a space for their own jammer to score.

It’s offense and defense at the same time, and the players are cleared to use as many body slams, sternum blocks, and hip checks as necessary to win, within the permission of the referees, of course. Picture that whole thing in roller skates, helmets and kneepads, on a track no wider than 15 feet and barely longer than 113 feet, and you’ve got yourself a derby bout.

A bout is split up into two thirty-minute periods, which in turn is split into ‘jams’ or rounds that can last as long as two minutes.

Sounds like fun? Ask the derby ladies, it also sounds like pain.

“A lotta people have pins and rods in them,” Gower said. “I’ve broken my tailbone, fractured my knee and dislocated both my shoulders.”

“Apart from my ACL rupture, I’ve cracked two ribs, I’ve broken my thumb, broken my foot three times and gouged my eyeball,” Spady said. “Yeah, that one still hurts after three years, but I think tib-fib [tibia-fibula] breaks and concussions are the most common.”by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro Skate World, the Air Raid Roller Girls' home rink, prepares to close after 33 years of business.

One may wonder why anyone would play such a rough sport. Again, ask the players.

“Roller derby is a full-contact sport on eight wheels,” Keene said. “Injuries play the same part as they do in other sports like football.”

“It’s an addiction, and an outlet,” Fleissner said. “A lot of people, including me, say ‘I don’t need therapy, I have derby.”

Last Saturday, on a beautiful first day of summer, the parking lot of Skate World was filled to capacity as kids, husbands and derby fans gathered to watch Air Raid’s last game of the season against the Vancouver-based Storm City Roller Girls. Air Raid had beaten Storm City earlier this year, and the black-clad AR ladies were confident after a successful first season that they could go out with one last victory.

The scene inside Skate World would never indicated that the place was about to close. A dozen people lined up at the concession stand. Little kids ran around playing tag, middle schoolers listened to music and tried to look cool, high schoolers flirted and adults passed in and out of the bouncer-guarded over-21 section. Music blasted from the speakers. It could have been a rave on skates except for the Katy Perry, Lorde and Macklemore songs that kept the atmosphere light.

While Skate World has closed, Air Raid will continue to pay rent and practice there for the summer until the rink can find new ownership.

“A lot of people had first dates or first skates here so we’d hate to see it close forever,” Keene said.

For the first fifteen minutes of the bout, the teams exchanged handfuls of points with each passing jam. But soon the white-clad Storm City team started pulling away. The Vancouver team had an ace up their multi-colored leggings, a jammer nicknamed “Chicken Time-Bomb” who had considerable experience playing for Wheels of Justice, Portland’s elite travelling team. Chicken quickly upset the field and Storm City raced to a 74-47 halftime lead.

The second half mirrored the first, as Chicken scored 25 points in one jam and Storm City grew an insurmountable lead over Air Raid, whose best players were either injured from practice or in the penalty box from too many wayward elbows.

The final score was 193-79, and as the players left the rink one couldn’t help but sense the disappointment hovering over Air Raid.

“I’m not used to not winning,” Gower said. “Everyone else is really surprised to lose, too.”

“That was a tough one,” Keene added. “We need to not have so many penalties.”

However, pride quickly overpowered the sense of loss.

“I think our girls did well trying to play our game,” Fleissner said. “The score wasn’t what we wanted but every bout is fun.”

“It was a great learning experience,” added coach Kati “River Tantrum” Marshall. “We had a different team due to injuries and now our girls will know how to adapt on the rink.”

Perhaps Keene, who helped make Air Raid a reality in Hillsboro, should have the last word after its last bout of the season.

“I’m so proud of our girls and what they’ve done this season,” she said “They’ve played hard and picked themselves up and now we built a roller derby team together, so now we’ll go and celebrate that.”



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  • 19 Sep 2014

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