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The Rollers have paused practices again due to an increase in COVID-19 numbers in the area, but the team is confident it'll return to Funkys Skate Center soon.

In roller derby, practically anything goes: shoulder checks, hip checks, even full body checks. However, what may look tough at first glance is actually an inclusive community that lifts up its own — and others.

Rocktown Rollers, a nonprofit organization and an official league in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), is part of this community. Team coach Bobbi Gentry — aka “Executie” — said the Rollers’ purpose is to promote roller derby and empower people.

“It’s such a body-positive organization where we can appreciate people of all shapes and sizes and athletic abilities because that’s who we are, right?” Gentry said. “That’s who your body is — you can use that to your advantage on the track. So, it’s really a fantastic way to empower women through body positivity and loving and appreciating your body.”

Roller derby features two opposing teams on the track with five players on each team. One player, the jammer, tries to score points by breaking through the opposing team’s blockers and completing a full lap around the track to earn a maximum of four points.

President of Rocktown Rollers Hilary Moore — or “Buzzkill,” her derby name — has been an athlete all of her life, participating in track and basketball since she was a child. After playing club soccer at Auburn University and running in half marathons, she was searching for something else.

“I was just looking for some other sport that was physical … and use my body in a different way,” Moore said. “It wasn’t just, you know, the love of athletics. [Derby] brings together a really eclectic variety of ages and variety of personalities, and it’s just fun. It still has some of the fun innocence of roller skating when you were a kid, plus you get to hit people.”

Outside of their games — “bouts,” as the team calls them — Gentry said the Rollers participate in road cleanups twice a year, support causes like suicide prevention, volunteer with Mercy House and Cat’s Cradle, a local animal shelter, and donate 10% of proceeds from their bouts to charities the members select. Through these efforts, the Rollers also invite all women in the area to join Rocktown Rollers and be embraced by the team and larger derby community. Gentry said everyone tends to find roller derby in their own time, “where you need it most.”

“Roller derby saved my soul,” Gentry said. “It really helps with my mental health, it helps me connect with other people in the community and build friendships … I was in a new job and living in a brand new state and so that’s what was helpful for me.”

This sentiment also applies to JMU alumna Lindy Suster (’15), who moved to Harrisonburg after her best friend, a Rocktown team member, died from a car accident. Suster, also known by her derby name “Sadie Masochist,” later joined the team and continued playing while attending JMU as a biotechnology major. She also competed with the Charlottesville Derby Dames and played for the U.S. team at the 2019 World Roller Games, where she won a gold medal. Above all, she said she loves skating with the Rocktown Rollers and growing the team.

“It’s very close-knit, as any team [sport] is ... especially being all women,” Suster said. “It was such a wonderful experience, and I’ve had that with other teams as well, but Rocktown has always been my home.”

Rocktown Rollers treasurer Beth Van Pelt — aka “Basset Case” — echoed Suster, calling the team “a big family” she hopes will grow. She said she misses spending time with her fellow players and travelling with the team to bouts around Virginia, North Carolina and even New York.

“Some of my favorite memories are from those trips, just going out and having a good time,” Van Pelt said. “[I’m] looking forward to spending time with all those girls and all those women who are so close.”

Like it did to many others around the world, the pandemic created difficulties for the Rollers. Under ordinary circumstances, the team practices year-round in addition to the members’ acts of service and semiannual “Derby 101” courses — clinics led by the Rollers’ training staff to teach skating followed by a bout of sock derby to demonstrate how the sport works. 

The last 18 months have been a challenge for the team, which has endured an extended practice hiatus due to COVID-19 and its home rink, Funkys Skate Center, temporarily shutting down after an explosion in October 2020. Nevertheless, the Rocktown Rollers’ mission and spirit continues as the team anticipates a return to skating and Funkys soon. Gentry explained that WFTDA guidelines require less than 5% COVID-19 positivity rates in localities for baseline practices to begin.

“I’m just very excited to get back to skating and playing,” Suster said. “We’re a big involvement with the town, and I think everyone’s ready for us to come back.”  

Joanne Wills, owner and operator of Funkys, said supply shortages have caused delays in the center’s reconstruction but asserted the rink will be reopening in the near future, thanks to the Rollers’ encouragement. She also shared some insight on the team’s service and the energy the players bring to Funkys.

“[They’re] independent women and strong … and they help me out with the rink,” Wills said. “Many hands make light work … I did practice with them a couple of times, and it was hard, but I loved it. I love watching the derby bouts. Everybody wants to work when [there’s] a derby bout, they’re good fun.”

The Rocktown Rollers were able to hold a few practices in Purcell Park back in July, but COVID-19 case numbers increased, so the team paused sessions again. As of Sept. 8, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 Data Tracker reported an average 14.4% 7-day positivity rate in Rockingham County. Gentry and Suster said they hope it’ll decrease so the Rollers can start the process of safely returning to normal operations. This means practicing at Funkys and showing others the magic of roller derby.

“I would love to get the word out and bring other people in,” Moore said. “A lot of us haven’t been on skates very much, so we’re going to kind of start from scratch and rebuild. If people don’t know anything about the sport, it would be a great time to jump in and build up your skills with us.”

With that optimistic mindset, Gentry, Moore, Suster, Van Pelt and the rest of the Rocktown Rollers are ready to pick themselves up and get back to doing what they love as they skate into the future.

“That’s the other beautiful thing, I think derby really does encourage that, the safe space for people — not just physically but also emotionally and mentally,” Gentry said. “Even if I knock you down and it’s a good hit, it’s about ... taking it and pulling yourself back up and doing it again.”

Contact Michael Russo at russomw@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.