Roller derby rookie: Fighting for health, sport, friends

Making it in school and learning a new sport. But nothing is easy, including winning.

The first of two parts.

The thrill hit her a few minutes into her first match when a woman's voice shrieked out of the white noise of the crowd: "MyK'll!!"

It was the hair-and-makeup woman who helped with Tacoma's Dockyard Derby Dames photo shoots. This was Myk'lls first fan shout-out. It felt cool. Tingly.

MyK'll debuted as a roller derby skater Saturday evening, Dec. 7, at the Pierce College gym against the Hellbound Homewreckers. Her team, Femme Fianna, has had two straight winless seasons, and thought it could break that streak in its first bout of this season.

MyKel Jess -- left, called "MyK'll" in roller derby -- tries to block an opponent, Mistress Von Trample, off the track during a practice. (Photos by John Stang.)

Her first few times on the track are a blur in the mind of MyKel Jess, college student, Navy vet and, now, an athlete in a demanding sport. Loud noise. Banging bodies. Trying to keep track of the two teams' "jammers," the skaters doing the scoring. Not much in specific details stuck in her head -- just a narrower and narrower focus on the other skaters.

"After a while, you kinda forget you're in front of an audience," she said.


MyK'll's derby mantra is written in magic marker on her forearm: "2 mins max!"

A round — a "jam" — lasts two minutes, unless the "lead jammer" calls off the bout earlier. When MyK'll gets slammed, banged up, knocked down, that's the battle cry going through her head — " Two minutes." Two minutes of going full throttle. Two minutes of ignoring pain and exhaustion. Two minutes to leave it all on the track until her next jam a few minutes later.

MyKel (pronounced: Michael) Jess' derby name is "U R My K'll" as in "You Are My Kill": She's out to leave her opponents behind or maybe sprawling on the roller derby track, a kind of road kill. The Maple Valley woman goes by "MyK'll" on the track.

Scrawled in magic marker on her right arm for referees to call her out is MyK'll's number "406" — the area code for all of Montana, where she grew up in the mountain town of Anaconda. A tattoo of a Popeye-sized anchor mostly hides beneath MyK'll's shorts on her upper right thigh. A "CVN-72" is tattooed on the anchor — the designation for the USS Abraham Lincoln, the aircraft carrier on which Petty Officer Second Class Jess served as an information technician.

Twenty-six years old; 5 feet, 6 inches; 160 pounds. Another number is MyKel's final 3.65 GPA from Tacoma Community College that got the quiet bookworm a bunch of scholarship money to go along with GI Bill benefits to enable her to begin going to Pacific Lutheran University this spring. She will major in biology and business.       

MyKel and her mom, Lynn, both dabbled a bit in sports in high school; MyKel played a little softball. Neither stuck with organized sports after high school although MyKel took up snowboarding. MyKel's brothers  — Andy, 31, and Dylan, 21 — also did high school sports.

Lynn, a Boeing mechanic who shares a place with MyKel, has been a longtime, casual derby fan. MyKel watched a few derby bouts as a kid, plus a Seattle-based Rat City Roller Girls match with a bunch of her fellow sailors in 2009. The Rat City collisions, including one where a skater got a bloody nose, stuck in MyKel's head — sort of cool and terrifying.

This video by Robert Mak takes a look at MyKel Jess and her new sport.  

In late 2012, MyKel was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, an on-and-off inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract that can be somewhat controlled, but not cured. The ailment sapped her energy. Then in April 2013, Lynn and MyKel went to a Saturday night Dockyard Derby Dames bout. Lynn struck up a conversation with a skater, who invited MyKel to a tryout the next day. It was a type of peer pressure. A nervous MyKel agreed. Despite her mom's interest in the sport, MyKel had never roller-skated before.

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Posted Mon, Dec 30, 7:39 a.m. Inappropriate

More power to ladies like MyKel for finding something like this, but I just can't get into the modern version of roller derby. I'm old enough to have watched Joanie Weston, Charlie O'Connell and the Bay Bombers (and even the LA T-Birds) as a kid, and there was much more speed involved. I understand that the modern derby is more of a social event than an athletic one and would advise anyone thinking of buying a ticket to view it within that context.

Posted Mon, Dec 30, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

I was also a watcher of 1960's and 70's Roller Derby. I grew up in the Bay Area and lived 3 blocks from the Bay Bombers practice facility in Alameda. I am friends in the online community for retired skaters from that era.
I became involved with "modern" roller derby 4 years ago when my daughter began skating in a local junior league. Since then I have become an NSO ( non-skating official),bout coordinator for a junior team, NSO for 9 separate locals teams.
I am not sure if you have very little knowledge of current roller derby, how you can characterize it as more social than physical. I attend practices for 4 local teams and see how much the skaters train.
Some of these skaters attend either practice or scrimmage (or both) up to 4 times a week 2 or more hours at a time. Physical preparedness is the key to be a good,fast,safe skater.
If you are viewing flat track roller derby as opposed to bank tracked roller derby and are thus missing some of the action of bank track , there are leagues in the Puget Sound area that do banked track.
It is true that Derby can be very social, with great team dynamic and a family type feeling of camaraderie.These skaters find a common love of the sport and it brings them closely together for the betterment of self, team and community.
But Derby Love in no way detracts from the athleticism of the skaters of the sport.


Posted Mon, Dec 30, 5:03 p.m. Inappropriate

For all of those who believe what we do is not an athletic sport I challenge you to come participate in one of our bootcamps or tryout for one of Washington's local men's leagues. Unlike other sports we have full time jobs and lives outside of training and running all aspects of our league (including organizing our bouts, raising funds, and even community service). We would love to get paid and focus solely on practice and training but that does not make it any less of an athletic sport.
If you're interested in a generally quicker pace bout you may want to check out a USARS bout. But, I'm sure that you'll still feel it is lacking the "old school" feel because they, too, are not getting paid to throw illegal punches and elbows.


Posted Tue, Dec 31, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

First of all, my above comments were more appropriate for the roller derby history piece John Stang wrote in addition to this one. I want to make sure it's understood that I admire MyKel's fight for her health and that I'm glad she found this outlet.

Now, as to the replies: I'm well aware that the derbyites (does that work as a word?) are working hard on the track...never said they don't nor that they weren't "athletes." This ain't darts or pool. I'm also aware that a flat track is generally going to lead to a slower pace than a banked one. I've been on a bike at the Marymoor Velodrome and can guarantee those banked corners are a whole lot easier to negotiate than any on a flat surface. And where did I say anything about illegal punches and elbows?

Nonetheless, I stand by my original comment that the modern version of roller derby just doesn't "grab" me because, well, that's how I feel. It IS slower. I also prefer full-check hockey to the no-check version you see at the Highland Ice Arena. The Rat City Rollergirls do well enough to book bouts at Key Arena and we've even got the Rainy City Roller Dolls where I live, so it's done just fine without me. Again, more power to all of you because this belongs to you.

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