Roller derby rookie: Surviving and looking ahead

MyKel Jess, 26, fights her way through her first roller derby match and comes out ready for more.

This is the second of two articles on roller derby and the experiences of rookie MyKel Jess, known on the track as U R MyK'll.

Things started to fall apart for Femme Fianna about 10 minutes into the team's 60-minute bout with the Hellbound Homewreckers on Dec. 7, the season opener for the Fianna and the first match for rookie UR Myk'll.

Penalties galore sprung up for the green-clad skaters. Fianna jammers piled up time in the penalty box, as the HoHos — 40 points behind — zoomed to 70 points ahead by halftime.

Fianna skaters returning to their bench would shake their heads as the points mounted up almost relentlessly. They sighed. They cussed. They couldn't get a feel for what the referees were calling. The same frustration gripped a puzzled Fianna coach Barry Maneltoe.

High spirits before the start: Femme Fianna members MADori DeVour and Loopty Lulu mark their fists for the match with the Hellbound Homewreckers. "Noh" is a play on "HoHo," which is a nickname for the Hellbound Homewreckers. Photos by John Stang.

That frustration led to undeniable mistakes, creating obvious penalties: illegal hits and jammers — the key players — not properly returning to the track behind the opponents who had knocked them out of play. Fianna jammer Penny Tration got ejected for tallying seven penalties. "I've never been ejected before. Never," Penny said. 

Some Fianna skaters said the Homewreckers, after falling behind, had become way too nasty in the chaos of the pack. More below-knee hits. More elbows. Fianna rookie blocker U R MyK'll – MyKel Jess, 26 — picked up two blue-and-purple bruises just below her left shoulder — the marks of hitting with bony elbows, which is illegal.

"They got into our heads," MyK'll, a college student and Navy veteran, said later. "We were getting pretty flustered."

The trash talk between skaters on the track was mean, meaner than usual. The HoHos, as the Homewreckers are sometimes called, got sarcastic about the Fianna falling more and more behind. The Fianna got sarcastic about what they thought of the legality of the Homewreckers' play.

This all showed roller derby's split personality. Derby is a sport in which foes hug before jams. Opponents give presents to each other prior to matches. After each bout, the two teams vote for the Most Valuable Player of the other squad. Opponents applaud and high-five slapped each other.

"It's sisterhood," MyK'll said. "But sometimes the sisters are ticked off at each other."

*****

Jammers do all the scoring in derby, and the team sees a MyK'll as someone who can grow into that role.

Each five-woman squad on the track has one jammer, who skates wearing a cloth helmet-cover -- called a "panty" -- with a star on it. The two team's jammers line up behind the two groups of four blockers. The first jammer to pass the four opposing blockers is the "lead jammer" with the power to call off the two-minute "jam" early at any time she wants by touching both hands to her hips — usually when the opposing jammer is about to score. A jammer scores one point for every opponent she passes after fighting her way through the blockers the first time.

Although officially a blocker this year, MyK'll is being groomed as a future jammer, occasionally jamming in practices and scrimmages. Although not super fast, she is strong and can shrug off many hits when she claws her way through a pack.

Rookie jammers frequently get panicky feelings as they get used to burrowing into a pack of blows from hips, elbows and shoulders.

"I think: 'Oh crap! Oh crap! Oh crap!'" MyK'll said about approaching a wall of blockers when she jams in scrimmages. "It's really intimidating. You have four against you, and you know their goal is to knock you down. It's kinda like going into a fistfight outnumbered 4-to-1."


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