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.
The next day's tryout essentially tested whether MyKel had enough ability and toughness to learn roller derby. She spent the next five months in "Bruiser" classes, in which veteran skaters teach rookies the basics. Such as the correct skating position — a continuous squat, which is hell on the thighs, but increases a skater's speed, mobility and ability to shrug off a hit.
Roller derby requires a lot. Endless squatting exercises for those thighs. Speed and endurance with a goal of doing 27 laps in five minutes. Learning how to turn and stop on skates. How to hit legally and hard with hips and shoulders. She had joined a team in a highly competitive league with expectations of hard work, discipline and dedication.
The new, demanding routine focused MyKel on dealing with her Crohn's, motivating her to get out to the house when the ailment normally would drain any desire to get active. Derby also got MyKel to keep close tabs on her diet, a major way to fend off Crohn's attacks. Meanwhile, intangibles turned MyKel gung-ho on derby. She had been hunting for that oft-cited, but frequently elusive feeling sought by many — a sense of having "friends-just-like-family," something she found with the league and her new team.
Another intangible for MyKel: Knowing she competes in a sport that most people don't have the chops for. Other Fiannas talked about this intangible as well, although only one used the term "empowering." They talked about pushing themselves. About women being in a contact sport for women. About being in a complex, tough team sport after high school. And the hitting is fun.
"I have never gone home from a practice or a game without being super happy," MyKel said.
In September, the Femme Fianna team drafted MyKel and 34-year-old hospital administrator Erin McGlothlin, whose derby name is "Dauntless," taken from a societal group in a dystopian science-fiction novel called "Divergent." Like MyKel, the outdoorsy and athletic Erin wanted to belong to a close-knit group, and derby appealed more than a book club.
Now, MyK'll and Dauntless work on team drills and tactics at shared practices by the Femme Fianna and another team, the Trampires, on Tuesdays in Tacoma, and at scrimmages of all four Dockyard Derby Dames' teams on Wednesdays in Auburn.
Despite living in Nevada, her closest confidant and brother Andy is with her in spirit. During scrimmages, MyK'll sometimes imagines Andy being on the sidelines. "I play like my brother is watching me, so I won't do anything girly, because he'll call me out on it."
MyK'll's skills have developed under the coaching of Michael Swihart, 26, who — completely unlike her — has skated since he was in the womb. His mom was a speed skater who kept practicing until the day before Michael was born. He became a speed skater as a kid. Eight years ago, the data analyst for Sound Physicians stumbled across a handful of the first Dockyard Derby Dames at a rink as they tried to figure out moves and strategies. He became coach of the Hellbound Homewreckers, taking the name "Barry Maneltoe." Everyone calls him "Barry." In the derby world, everyone knows everyone else by their derby names, and people are sometimes shaky on others' real names. Five years ago, Barry switched to coaching the Femme Fianna, taking over as head coach in 2011.
Rookie skater MyKel Jess (left center in black) gets advice from a teammate whose derby name is Connie Pinko. In the background is Jess' coach, Barry Maneltoe.
Femme Fianna has been a work in progress. Sometimes a team. Sometimes five individuals. Sometimes, a team of two or three working together with the rest floundering individually.
The "fianna" were warrior bands in ancient Irish mythology. MyK'll dyed some strands of her long brown hair an Irish green when she joined the team.
The Femme Fianna won the league championship in 2009 before heavy turnover in skaters dropped the team to the bottom of the Dockyard Derby Dames. Today, its 10 skaters are a rough-edged mix of longtime veterans, journeymen and the two rookies — all whom are trying to learn to work as a single unit.
Whatever the colorful image of roller derby, off the track the members of Fianna have professions and jobs that cut across the spectrum: a corrections officer, a nursing assistant, a hospital administrator, a hotel kitchen worker, a U.S. Army lieutenant, an x-ray technician, an attorney for the state Legislature, a couple of students and a truck dispatching center employee. Their ages range from 26 to 51.
The Dockyard Derby Dames is part of the cultural phenomenon of the nation's roughy 300 women's flat track derby leagues, with roughly a dozen of the amateur leagues in Washington. No one gets paid. The skaters do all the behind-the-scenes work. The Dockyard Dames are a dime-a-dozen league, with about 300 spectators showing up Dec. 7. A definite step higher in popularity are Seattle's Rat City Roller Girls, who draw 3,000 to 5,000 people per bout and compete nationally and even internationally.
A few Fianna members naturally give off a badass vibe on the track. "I go out on the floor like I own it. ... You have to have that mindset. If not, you get taken," said veteran Penny Tration.
The problem in recent years is that Femme Fianna has not intimidated anyone as a unit — and that has gotten it frequently knocked about as a team. The coach means to change that.
"We need to be more aggressive," Barry said in October. "We need to project more. We need to make them scared of us."
The rule of thumb is that it takes one to two years for a derby skater to be able to keep track of what's happening in a jam. Right now, MyK'll is lucky whenever she can keep tabs on what happened just to her on the track. "Everybody told me, for my first year, I'll be confused all the time," she said.
MyKel Jess writes her motto on her forearm.
"It gets really difficult to keep track of everything out there," said teammate Loopty Lulu.
Lieutenant StrykHer -- who usually goes by "LT" -- routinely tells rookies that they are like a 16-year-old learning how to drive with all the frightening distractions of the road. "You freak out. You see cars coming at you from everywhere," she said.
A derby skater has to see and react to four teammates and five opponents — ahead of her, behind her, coming at her from angles and blind spots. Plus those nine players shift speeds and positions each second. "You find a hole. ... By the time you see it, it's gone," LT said.
When MyK'll is on the track, adrenaline is pumping. The crowd is screaming. Teammates yell warnings and instructions. Sometimes, teammates use subtle hand signals. The coach yells directions from the sideline. Sometimes, an opponent will yell a false cue to a skater to confuse her. A skater has to be able to recognize her teammates' voices within all that noise. Also, a skater keeps getting hit, sometimes falling down — but she must stay in the game by springing back to her feet. A veteran often cues on an opponent's body language, learning to anticipate a foe's next move by analyzing her tendencies in scrimmages.
A rookie's skating skills are not automatic yet; she's still thinking about basics such as the correct strides and crouching, which can crowd out thoughts about tactics. There is also the struggle with "pack awareness." The "pack" is essentially the center of mass of the 10 players on the track — or the biggest clump of skaters. A team's blockers try to line up in a "wall" of two, three or four skaters. Blockers are constantly yelling "in, in, in," or "out, out, out," to shift the wall in front of the opposing jammer and prevent her from scoring by passing them. Keeping aware of the rest of the pack is a struggle not just for a rookie like MyK'll but for veterans as well.
The Marauding Mollies usually dominate the other three Dockyard Derby Dames' teams. The pirate-themed Mollies have won the past two league championships and are the favorites to win a third this season. Five Mollies on the track usually move as a single organism. They know how each other moves. They can instinctively anticipate how their team flows on the floor.
The Mollies react as a unit. They have "pack awareness." They give off a stronger vibe than the other teams. More confidence. More aggressiveness. As a group, they always take the rink's floor first for the warm-up skating prior to the weekly scrimmages in Auburn, capturing use of the track to get ready. The other teams usually drift onto the rink's floor a few minutes later, skating around outside of the track, an unsaid but visible sign of the league's pecking order.
"The Mollies are not necessarily better skaters. But they've been together for three or four years. That's a huge part of derby. ... You have to have to have that bond, that cohesiveness," said veteran Connie Pinko of Femme Fianna.
Erin McGlothin (left) is known as Dauntless on the track. She's the other rookie on the Femme Fianna, with MyKel Jess (center).
Sometimes, the Femme Fianna acted like a team in the Wednesday scrimmages, but some skaters would be too slow. Those skaters would see a situation develop, take a couple seconds to process in their heads what to do, and then react too late, smacking thin air instead of an opponent. The time to see, to process the bigger picture and to react as a group has to be in a split second.
Connie said: "We have to move more as a machine, as a unit."
At the Dec. 7 match, Femme Fianna's game plan clicked at the beginning.
Avoid penalties. Try to keep the Homewreckers' ace jammer Chocolate Coma from doing to much damage, knowing she has a couple weaknesses. Believe they can matchup well against the Homewreckers' other main jammers.
The Fianna cued on the Homewreckers' big blockers, telling the rookies MyK'll and Dauntless about their tendencies. Streeperella was the Homewreckes' chief blocking threat, being both big and much more mobile than the others. The smaller Fianna had played the physically bigger Homewreckers in scrimmages during the past couple months, enabling them to map out individualized plans on how to deal with the difference in sizes. MyK'll said: "When you learn how to counter what they do, it's not as intimidating."
The adrenaline-pumped, crisply-performing Fianna were up by 40 points, a big gap this early in the game. The Homewreckers appeared flustered. The Homewreckers, including their jammers, kept filing into the penalty box — frequently having only two or three skaters on the track during the first 10 minutes of the 60-minute bout.
"I was like: Sweet," Barry said. Then fortunes changed.
Part 2 tomorrow.