You’re at a coffee shop.
Two young women — pretty, with the wisdom of seasoned adulthood setting in, approach your table. They don’t look like the kind of women, who could take hard spills on a wooden floor. Body-jarring impacts you haven’t experienced since high school. But when they speak, you start to think maybe they can.
The tall raven-haired woman has a smoky voice exuding a confidence that comes as no surprise. The one with brown hair “looks mean,” according to one of her co-workers, and though feminine, sends off the impression that it’s going to take a lot more than what you’ve got to knock her to the ground.
They invite you to a skating rink to watch them do what they do. Not when they are Ryanne Harper, office manager at Clayton’s Consulting and Welding, or Bobbi Willis, production manager at Creative Whit Sports Graphics. No, they want you to come out and see them as Janie Jawbreaker, hard-charging jammer for the River Valley Rollergirls, and Bobbi Sox ’Em, a tough-as-nails blocker, who won’t think twice about throwing an elbow in your face if you’re unlucky enough to skate for the other team.
If you received that invitation prior to Oct. 13, 2012, then it’s likely you’d find them at the Crystal Palace Skate Center on Bout Night, competing against teams from Memphis, Tenn., or Columbia, Mo.
But starting next month, the five-year veteran Harper and the two-year member Willis will join 12 of their fellow teammates to take on the Mountain Gateway Sisterhood of Steel from Poteau, Okla., at the Fort Smith Convention Center.
Not only will the contest mark the first appearance of the Rollergirls inside the Convention Center, but also it will double as the team’s annual “Paint the Rink Pink” fundraiser for the Susan G. Komen Foundation (SGK).
NOT AN EXHIBITION
Last year, the Rollergirls raised more than $1,100 for SGK, and are betting on the Convention Center move (and the choice of a regional opponent as opposed to last year’s Memphis bout) to beat the record. The trade-off is they will face a fairly unfamiliar adversary.
“We’ve done some scrimmages with them in the past, but never full-on,” Harper said. “But most of the teams we get along with really well. The team in Columbia, Missouri — I love all those girls. We line up and hug. Then the whistle blows, and we get after it. During the bout, it’s totally different. It seems like we hate each other.”
Harper admits that, to her, “it’s real.”
“During the bout, I don’t like them. I get mad at myself, the refs, and occasionally my own teammates.”
“It’s not an exhibition, where you pretend to fall. It’s serious. There are bumps and bruises,” Willis adds, the visible portion of both arms pelted with purple marks that are noticeable enough for doctors and acquaintances, who don’t know about her second job, to interrogate her about how things are at home. “I tell them, ‘No. Nothing like that. It’s just derby.’” She laughs.
Harper considers herself one of the lucky ones.
“One of the worst bruises I’ve ever had covered my entire thigh. I’ve had broken toes, and I might have a broken pinky right now. I also had to get my shoulder X-rayed, but it was just bruised. I’ve had a mild concussion, nothing major. That’s considered lucky in roller derby.”
One girl, who was not so lucky, is Jaims Cole, or “Jaims Maims,” as known in bouts. Her very first outing as a Rollergirl ended when she “fell weird” and her ankle “just snapped,” Harper said. “Had it happened to me, with minimum skills — you have to have a minimum set of skills before we’ll allow you to skate — I would have been done. But she came back, and now she’s awesome, and just keeps getting better.”
Willis also had a bad experience in her first bout. “They announced on the P.A. that it was my first, and that’s just a terrible idea. Those girls came at me. One girl came up to me and said, ‘So you’re Bobbi Sox ‘Em? So this is your first bout, huh?’ After halftime, she hit me, and fractured one of my ribs.”
That didn’t deter Willis, though. She simply “took a break,” wrapping herself up and giving the injury time to heal before coming back a few weeks later. “It’s tough, but you get tougher, and grow with it.”
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Something else growing is the Rollergirls team itself. Harper said she and her teammates are in the process of completing a one-year apprenticeship program to join the Women’s Flat-Track Derby Association (WFTDA). They expect to enter the national rankings in January 2013.
That, and the 23 skaters on the roster, are far-removed from where the organization was when Harper first joined five years ago at the prodding of her then-roommate Heather Brandenburger, who is now a one-time Clover Cup Winner for the No. 15 Victory Dolls out of Oklahoma City.
“I remember going to bouts with seven skaters, and we actually had to pick up two girls from another team on the way. We were having to borrow. Now we’re having to cut.”
Harper, the acting team captain and a member of the athletic committee, often has to make those cuts, and admits that it’s hard. And with new girls graduating the “newbie program” every year, those decisions are likely to get harder, at least until there are enough skaters for two roller derby teams in the Fort Smith region.
“Our goal every year is to make enough money to play the next season,” Willis said.
So far, the Rollergirls haven’t missed a beat, and if you look at the factors behind their success, two become obvious: business acumen and a love for the game.
LOVE FOR THE GAME
Forget everything you thought you knew about “what roller derby girls are like.” Willis has been married for 16 years to the same man. She and Harper are college graduates from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS). Many of the others on the squad are wives, women with steady jobs, mothers with children they bring to Wheels in Motion in Van Buren to watch their weekly practices.
The team became a non-profit organization in 2012, and it is not abnormal for committee members like Harper and Willis to spend between 30 and 40 hours per week on this second job from which they earn no salary.
But it’s not the willingness to play for free that makes their love of the sport apparent. It’s what “derby,” as they refer to it, has done for them.
Harper said she had a “five-year plan” for derby: that after she reached her five years, it would be time to quit.
“Now it’s here, and I’m like, ‘No, not yet.’”
Part of what keeps the 30-year old in skates is the confidence that the sport has given her. That almost intimidating timbre to her voice wasn’t always there. At one time, she was “very, very shy.”
“I would not speak up about anything. Now I assert my opinion when maybe I shouldn’t. I don’t know how it happened, but it (derby) completely changed me,” Harper said.
“A lot of girls are that way,” the 36-year old Willis agreed. “It makes you braver. It gives you this confidence that you didn’t have before. A lot of the girls were loners, or maybe not loners, but didn’t necessarily have a big group of female friends. I moved here (to Fort Smith) 17 years ago (from California), and only had maybe one or two female friends. Now I feel I have this whole group I can call and say, ‘Hey, let’s go get something to drink or grab something to eat.’ I think that helps out with your independence.”