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.
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.

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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."

Veteran Connie Pinko, a frequent jammer herself, said the position is best for a woman who can dive into a pack, get knocked down, immediately get up and spring back in to the pack, get knocked down again — and still get up to plunge back in. 

Another wrinkle: Once a jammer gets through the opposing blockers, she has to sprint around the track, while her foes get a few seconds to catch their breath and regroup.

Frequent Fianna jammer Penny Tration studies the pack of blockers as she approaches it. "I look for the weakest one," Penny said. One sign of weakness: The blocker is standing straight up instead of crouching down. A thigh-straining crouch provides a stronger, more stable stance and a smaller area of legal targets on a body for a jammer to smack into. Also, standing straight up is a sign of a lapse in attention, possibly a clue to weariness.

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Penny Tration, left, and Loopty Lulu try to knock each other aside during practice.

"You have to come into a pack with control. ... It's the Zen of being a jammer. You have to be patient. You can't be overly eager to get through," said Connie.

Connie actually likes blocking better than jamming because of the high-speed mental chess games involved. "I like trying to outsmart the other team," she said.

MyK'll said, "If you stall (a jammer) for 10 to 20 seconds, she's not able to score in those 10 to 20 seconds. It adds up (in a two-minute jam)."

As blockers play defense, they simultaneously play offense to help their own jammers . A basic offensive blocking formation is to gather behind the opponents' "wall" — silently deciding whether to be "aggressive" or "passive." That decision is silently communicated by hand signals so the "wall" won't know what to expect.

"Aggressive" means the blockers will blast forward to open a hole in the opposing wall. "Passive" means the blockers stay behind their opponents, keeping the center of the "pack" with them. Then their jammer tackles the wall solo, pushing and pushing while trying to stay on her feet while being hit. But 10 feet ahead of the jammer's passive blockers, an opponent has to drop off to form a "bridge" between the two groups of blockers.Ten more feet, another foe must drop off to continue the "bridge." It's a battle of attrition between jammer and opposing blockers.


Some skaters and coaches encourage a bit of supposedly hidden illegal pushing and hitting within a clumped pack, sort of like a football offensive lineman knowing how much holding he can get away with before the referees throw a flag. Fianna coach Barry Maneltoe — real name: Michael Swihart — is dead set against sneaking in illegal hits and pushes in the chaos of a pack. Barry's pet peeve is his skaters sitting in the penalty box. Barry studied the statistics from the Fiannas' last season, calculating that for every minute that a jammer spends in the penalty box costs the team five points, while every minute a blocker is in the box costs the squad three points.

Still, there is room for trickery by the jammer. Barry taught one jammer trick to the Fiannas and Trampires at their joint practice four days before his team's match with the Hellbound Homewreckers. 

A jammer approaches a blocker from behind with the blocker looking over one shoulder. The jammer wiggles her hips slightly, intentionally telling the blocker that a juking move could be coming. Then a jammer pulls up a couple inches behind the blocker, who is still looking over her shoulder, twisting her neck big time to try to keep the jammer in sight. Then the jammer ducks her head out of theblocker's sight. "If you get out of their line of vision, they panic," Barry told the Fianna and Trampires.  The jammer then loudly scrapes or stomps her skate on the blocker's  blind side. The blocker instinctively snaps her head to the noise on her blind side. Meanwhile, the jammer pushes off her stomping foot and passes the blocker on the side from which her head is turning away. "Once you get a blocker to say, 'Oh shit,' they start to fall apart," Barry said.

As the skaters practiced the move, rookie MyK'll struggled with the timing, doing the head drop and foot stomp too soon and too far behind her foe, enabling the blocker to watch the whole move and recover.  Barry shouted: "Come on, jammers! You gotta sell it!"

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MyKel Jess takes a tumble during practice.


Coach Barry was pissed at a November Fianna-Trampire practice.

Lollygagging had run amok. "Pack awareness" had all but disappeared from the track exercises. Skaters would nonchalantly take minutes to drift back to the training after water breaks.

Barry ordered the skaters to do 50 squats. Then he gave them an ass-chewing. Softly. Tersely. Laced with F-bombs.

He made two points. First, they would never beat the Marauding Mollies until they got their acts together. Second, if they were happy with becoming "a beer league," he might as well go elsewhere.

The women listened silently, intently.


The second half began against the Homewreckers. Her team was far behind, but the Fiannas' Lieutenant StrykHer became a woman possessed.

When her teammates seethed about falling behind, she simultaneously cranked up her energy and became more coldly focused. As a jammer, she consistently power-pushed her way through opposing blockers, shrugging off hits.

"LT - she stayed in the moment. She was a brick wall. No one could knock her down," Barry said. She had two jams in which she picked up almost 50 points. She rarely went to the box. Barry put her in the revolving lineups more and more, especially as jammer.

Slowly, the Femme Fianna began to chip away at the Homewreckers' lead.


Chemistry. This season, the Femme Fianna believe they have it, enough to break the team's two-year losing streak.

"It's actually like alchemy. ... You want to make that element into final gold," said skater Dauntless, Erin McGlothin, who with MyK'll is the other rookie on the team.

In previous seasons, the Fiannas' team chemistry had been a somewhat disjointed. It was a team of individuals and small groups going their separate ways. "There were too many chiefs and not enough Indians," said Emerald Cutt. This season, team members said the Fiannas are clicking as a 10-member family — just the kind of experience MyKel hoped to find.

Practices have become more focused and intense. "You have the freedom to experiment," said Kori NailHer, a transfer from a military-related team in Germany. Factions have disappeared. Many Fiannas consistently show up at Sunday sessions for the Dockyard Derby Dames trainees in order to get extra practice. Team members do more stuff together when they are off the track. "They care about each other. That's a good thing," said Coach Barry.


In a scrimmage in mid-November, the Femme Fianna got a glimpse of their own improvements and MyK'll's potential as a jammer. Less than than 24 hours before the Nov. 13 scrimmage against the league-leading Marauding Mollies, Barry had given them the chewing out for excessive lollygagging.

This evening, though, the Fiannas swarmed as a group onto the rink's floor first for warm-ups, usurping the Mollies' usual spot of pre-scrimmage psychological dominance — the track itself. The Mollies looked surprised, off-balance at someone taking over their traditional warm-up spot. The Fiannas executed crisply and hard. The flustered Mollies piled up numerous penalties, frequently leaving them shorthanded on thet rack. On paper, the Mollies should have slaughtered the Fiannas. Instead, the Mollies eeked out a 124-122 win.

MyK'll got to be jammer a few times. Her last round as a jammer was the highlight of her fledgling derby career.

The Mollies were down a couple blockers, and had lost a jammer to the penalty box for a minute. The Fianna blockers held back the pack to stop in the Mollies from going too far in front of them, letting My'Kll tackle the opponents solo. She eventually scored 15 points during that jam.

Once, a Mollie blocker turned around to face MyK'll. It was a move in which a blocker improves her reaction time, applied strength and smacking ability in exchange for less maneuverability. MyK'll rammed into the Mollie, knocking her down — and sped on. On MyK'll's next swing through the depleted Mollies line, that same blocker turned to face the rookie Fianna — and then turned to face front again to lessen the impact of the next collision.

"It's the first time someone reacted to me hitting them," MyK'll said proudly.


Too many mental lapses. Too many penalties. Overwhelming Hellbound Homewrecker blockers. The bout slipped beyond the Fiannas' reach a few minutes into the second half.

Sometimes, MyK'll looked lost. Sometimes, she seemed on top of what was going on around her. She made some good hits and blocks.

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Rookies Erin McGlothin (center left) and MyKel Jess (center right) learn about the importance of clogging the center of the track to force a jammer toward the inside and outside edges, where she can be knocked out of play.

"We kept trying to bash with their blockers," Barry said. The smaller Fianna blockers did not match well with the bigger Homewreckers when they tried to clear paths for their jammers. With one approach not working, the Fiannas should have tried another tactic like going "passive" behind the HoHo line and let their own jammer push the blockers forward to force them to bridge, Barry said.

For weeks, the Fiannas worked on a specific tactical weakness — a tendency to attack a jammer too far ahead of the pack without building a bridge back to the pack. In the match with the Homewreckers, the Fiannas conscientiously built bridges back to the pack, but occasionally forgot to have one of them actually blocking the jammer. "We were so focused on doing it the right way," MyK'll said. "We concentrated on it so much. It brought us to the other side of the spectrum." 

Frustration and anger seethed within many Fiannas, putting them off their game. The final score: 304-189.

Minutes afterward, Emerald Cutt stormed into the Fianna locker room. snarling: "They tore off my fucking eyelash!"

In the locker room, the team members analyzed the bout — crankily at first. They griped about the Homewreckers and the refs. Then, more calmly, they concentrated on what they did wrong — the penalties, the tactical lapses, some more on the penalties.

Connie Pinko told the group that every single Fianna did something right that evening. Everyone showed flashes of great play. A great block. Or a great juking move by a jammer. "One time, we held (ace HoHo jammer Chocolate Coma) back for 45 seconds. That's almost half a jam," MyK'll said. Everyone played hard.

Problems have been identified to fix before the Fiannas' next bout on Jan.18. "We're going to get better," Connie said. 

Meanwhile, a woman brought Emerald's missing eyelash into the locker room.

Barry told the team: "You're a thousand times better than you were last year."

A couple days later, MyKel Jess, who's also eagerly awaiting her first classes at Pacific Lutheran University in February, said: "I can't wait until the next match."

The Dockyard Derby Dames hold matches at the Pierce College gym in Lakewood on Jan. 18, Feb. 22, March 29 and May 10. The league's Web site is The first part of the two-part series is here


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8