FREDERICK, Md. — Screeches of plastic against hardwood fill the room as a sweat-drenched skater flies around the edge of the track. Colorful makeup radiates above and below her eyes.
With her left hand behind her back to preserve momentum, she sweeps through a long section of the track and comes up behind eight skaters. A referee skates beside her with their right arm pointed toward her and left arm raised up in the air.
She skates up to the pack, where four skaters match her in blue and another four look ready for battle in bright orange. She meets the bodies in orange first, pushing through them before rapidly tapping her hands on her hips, signaling that no more points can be won.
The referee raises four fingers, the scorekeeper raises four fingers to confirm the point count, and the skaters leave the track.
The woman with war paint slumps onto the floor, lying on her back in front of a massive fan. She pulls off her helmet, designed to look like a brain with the letters “Zombabe” plastered across it.
The skater, whose name is Sarah Hawks outside of derby, joined the Frederick Roller Derby team in February. She has played since 2014, when she was still in high school.
Frederick Roller Derby is led by Jen Bennetch, aka Killadelphia, and Renee Yockelson, aka Robochop, who met on Hagerstown’s Mason-Dixon Roller Vixens team.
Bennetch joined the Vixens in 2011 and had been on the team for six years before Yockelson joined. During their first practice together, each of them was wearing bottoms with cats on them.
“We didn’t know each other, and we were just doing drills, and she was meowing at me,” Bennetch said.
Just a couple months after that interaction, the two became “inseparable,” Bennetch said — so much so, that Yockelson was the maid of honor at Bennetch’s wedding.
When the Roller Vixens didn’t return to bouts as soon as they’d wanted, Bennetch and Yockelson decided to start their own team, and Frederick Roller Derby was born.
FRD plays “flat-track roller derby,” a style that is played on a level floor with an oval track marked with tape and rope.
Since the game is a contact sport, safety is one of the first things that anyone learns before they start. Players wear thick knee pads, elbow pads, helmets and mouth guards while on the track.
New skaters start out in the “Fresh Meat” program and learn the basics of skating, stopping and falling. FRD currently offers rolling enrollment in their program, where doing everything safely is extremely important, according to Wallis Shamieh, who joined the Frederick Roller Derby in April.
Falling safely is one of the first skills they learn. The instinct is often to fall on your butt. But when playing derby, skaters have to learn to fall forward, onto their knee pads. Fresh meat start at different skills levels and must pass a safety test before they can play against other teams, Shamieh said.
Devon Atkinson, aka Devastation, said she immersed herself into the derby world. The cancer researcher came to volunteer or watch as much as possible but ended up joining in. She finished the “Fresh Meat” program in seven months. She used to skate before joining the team but said she still spent her first practice mostly on the floor. She played in her first bout on May 21.
Hawks said the variety of roles on a team, and the fact that every body type can be useful in the game, is one of the amazing aspects of derby.
FRD’s team members come from many walks of life.
Erica Coronel, aka Kause of Trauma, served in the U.S. Army and now works as a surgical technician. After having her third child, Coronel was suffering from post-partum depression to the point where she almost committed suicide in 2013. She joined the Los Angeles Renegade Rollergirls to get herself out of the state of “shut down” she was in, as she put it. The game is her form of therapy and helps get her aggression out.
Bennetch and Coronel share the same favorite thing about the game: being able to hit other people.
“You just get to hit your friends in a safe way, and that’s really fun,” Bennetch said.
Laurene Carlisle started derby in 2010. Known in the derby world as Hell B. Elby, Carlisle’s day job is in education. She was on the previous Frederick team, Key City Roller Derby, which left the city in 2016. Unlike the current team, Carlisle said, they didn’t have support from the city. Team members were working full-time jobs and had what felt like a second job keeping the team together, she said.
She kept up her skating skills and endurance, so she was ready to join FRD and compete in bouts again. Even though Carlisle was still skating, she missed the team component and the challenge of various drills. “(In practice) there are moments you feel defeated and moments you feel accomplished,” she said.
Carlisle and Yockelson both skated for recreation long before they started derby. Carlisle got on skates as a Girl Scout and never stopped. Yockelson grew up skating.
Childhood is also where Yockelson found her derby name. When she was about 7, she and her brother were allowed to go to their first movie without their parents. There was no one there to stop Yockelson from wreaking havoc at the screening of “Robocop,” and the moment remains a fond memory. When she had to pick a derby name, “mutilating” the movie’s name was the obvious choice, she said.
Hawks’ derby name was also an obvious choice for her. “I love zombies, and I’m a babe,” she said. The NASA optical engineer said there is a lot of significance and history behind the perception of zombies. For her, they represent staying true to oneself and not becoming part of the “hive mind.”
Melissa Windsor, aka Juke of Windsor, started playing derby as a first-time mom in 2012. She needed a hobby and found a local derby team. Playing has given her an outlet and an “army of women” for anything she needs, Windsor said.
The local derby community is a small one with massive diversity in professions, race, size, age and lifestyle.
“(Derby) puts you in these situations, and you realize that underneath, we’re all just people,” Yockelson said.
Some skaters have gained a family in derby. Yockelson and Windsor started at the same time and have known each other for 10 years. Their families go on vacations together. Their kids have grown up together.
Alex Garipay, a recreation supervisor at the City of Frederick Parks & Recreation, was a huge part of providing space and marketing for the team, which practices at the Trinity Recreation Center on New Design Road.
“They just genuinely seem to enjoy hanging out with each other,” Garipay said.
Coronel was on a team in Pennsylvania, but FRD “felt like home” from the moment she joined, she said. Her husband is known as the team’s Derby Dad, and being part of the community has helped his mental health.
Hawks’ husband, who is transgender, wasn’t supported by their family but found acceptance in FRD. The team is helping them find their voice, Hawks said.
The Balancing Act
The team’s vibe and supportive environment is often credited to Bennetch and Yockelson. They lead the team’s coaching committee, which is responsible for working with new and veteran team members. The duo is a well-matched pair, according to Garipay. Yockelson comes up with the big-picture ideas and Bennetch works through the details, making sure that it happens.
Yockelson and Bennetch balance each other as leaders, but they also understand the need for balance in their own lives. Derby can take up a lot of time, but most team members have other commitments.
Lauren Parker, aka Grit N Barite, started playing derby in 2017 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Derby can definitely “consume” someone’s life if they allow it, she said. “You just want to participate in all the things, but at some point, you can’t. You have to reestablish a balance.”
Parker, who works as an environmental consultant, isn’t the best at maintaining a balance. COVID-19 shutdowns caused a “drought,” she said, and now she’s practicing with multiple teams and playing in many games. She knows sooner or later, she’ll have to slow down.
But sometimes life and derby intertwine.
Hawks and her husband have a life that is full of derby. The first time they met in person was at a bout, they got engaged at a bout, and their wedding was attended by many from the derby community, Hawks said. Plus, her husband is a head non-skating official for the team. They participated in some practices, and Hawks is ready to get them more involved in skating.
Hawks is ready for a bigger, badder team of skaters. She is part of the coaching committee, who is looking to provide more skill training. “We’re a rec league, but it’s not always the best for teaching fundamentals if we goof off,” Hawks said.
The team is also working toward gaining 501(c)(3) status, which would allow them to be recognized as a nonprofit charitable organization, according to Hawks.
FRD is also working to build up three teams: a recreational team, an All-Star team, which is more competitive, and a men’s team.
As FRD grows and gains popularity, they are also growing out of their home at the Trinity Recreation Center. During bouts, the seats are jammed together, and seating is extremely limited, in order to fit in the track and referee lane.
The team is actively recruiting through fliers, social media and other avenues. They host scrimmages, one of which will start at 4 p.m. July 9 at Hill Street Park, where anyone who has gear can participate, and anyone is welcome to come and watch.
“Having an outlet of going to a place and being physical and working as a team is a nice counter to normal life,” Parker said.