Members of the Green Mountain Roller Derby sat in a loose circle gearing up for practice at the Champlain Valley Expo one night last month. Like modern gladiators prepping for the colosseum, they tightened skates, snapped helmets, velcroed – then re-velcroed – protective pads.
The seemingly ritualistic silence was interrupted only when the door swung open. “Kablam!” yelled a few skaters.
The greeting was meant for Cryptic Kablam, a five-year veteran of the roller derby squad who, sidelined with an injury, would serve as the team’s de-facto media relations contact on this day.
Kablam, known to others as Michelle Creutzberger, patiently explained the ins and outs of roller derby while fielding all the other typical questions – (“How do you come up with the nicknames?” Answer: Skaters usually choose their own) – requisite of a media visit.
But like several others interviewed on this day, Creutzberger had a clear answer when asked what she would like readers to know about roller derby: “Anyone can do it.”
Indeed, finding themselves in rebuilding mode after the retirement of some longtime skaters, GMRD’s members wasted no time pitching derby, which they described as a unique and empowering sport unlike any other out there.
For Creutzberger, the sport offers women a chance to push themselves, learn new skills and surprise themselves along the way.
“I do stuff now that I never would have thought I could,” she said. “When there’s a skill that you’re really trying to work on, it’s so rewarding when it clicks and you get it and it just becomes second nature.”
For the uninitiated, GMRD is Vermont’s first and only member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, among nearly 400 other leagues worldwide. The locally-based team has been around since 2007, joining the association three years later, and is entirely skater owned and operated.
It hosts its home games at the expo while also making trips to play teams from all over the country; a tournament two years ago in Maine found Vermonters brushing shoulders with a team from Sweden.
The rules are simple: Two teams race counterclockwise around a large oval course for two-minute sprints. Each team has four blockers and a “jammer,” whose goal is to get past the opposing team and earn points for each player they pass.
Sounds easy, until you remember it’s also on skates – and full-contact. But that’s exactly why it’s so fun, said Difonzo, also known as Trasher, who described herself as a mom and childcare provider in her “real life.”
In roller derby, she finds an outlet “knock some [people]” around and “get some aggression out,” while also trick herself into getting some exercise.
A similar motivation inspires Lara Ivins, who saw roller derby as a way to stay involved in team sports into her early 30s.
“Yoga ain’t doing it for me,” Ivins said.
It’s also a way to challenge herself. While she typically picks up sports quickly, the same wasn’t true when starting roller derby a decade ago: Asked if she knew how to skate beforehand, she replied, “Oh my god, no. Nooooope. Nope. Nope. Nope. No. It was a very hard learning curve. It took me about two years to get decent, probably three years before I knew what I was doing.”
She’s still learning, too, explaining she’s not so good at one-footed transitions, which she then demonstrated. Luckily, the skaters said, with roller derby comes a supportive community, so newcomers need not fear judgment regardless of their skill level.
“It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but we’re always looking to improve,” Ivins said. “It’s a good balance.”
The community is what first attracted Trish Difonzo to the sport. Four years later, she’s now the league’s vice president and a member of the training committee, a role she adopts both on and off the track; some nights, she’ll take the rookies out for wings and a beer so they have a chance to ask questions outside of the practice setting.
“Our league, we’re more like a family than we are a group of friends,” Difonzo said. “We’ve lived together sometimes when one of us in the middle of a process of moving. We’re just like a family, and that’s what drew me in.”
“We try to get them a part of our pack as soon as we can so they don’t go anywhere,” she added.
GMRD is currently running a six-week boot camp for new skaters and plans to run another during yet-to-be-determined-dates this fall.
The team also recently kicked off its youth summer camp for girls entering second- to 12th-grade, which helps encourage girls to join its juniors roller derby team, the Minor Catastrophes, run in collaboration with the Essex Jct. Recreation and Parks.
Difonzo’s 11-year-old daughter skates in the youth league. They can often be found skating along the bike path, outings that double as both quality family time and a way to stay in shape for the league, Difonzo said, noting GMRD used to have two teams, which led to competition for spots on the A squad.
“You never know when we gain too many people and you’ve got to fight for your spot on the team [again],” she said. Despite that prospect – or maybe because of it – she ended with her interview with own pitch to those considering if roller derby is right for them.
“Get over it and just get out here,” she said. “You won’t regret it.”