Roller Derby coming to the suburbs

Updated 2/3/2011 7:01 AM
  • The DuPage Derby Dames, shown practicing in Aurora, are bringing roller derby to the suburbs.

      The DuPage Derby Dames, shown practicing in Aurora, are bringing roller derby to the suburbs. PHotos by Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Mike Burke of Batavia, who skates as Iron Mike, leads the pack around the track during practice.

      Mike Burke of Batavia, who skates as Iron Mike, leads the pack around the track during practice. PHoto by Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Michelle Phelps, known as Serious Danger on the rink, cheers on her teammates.

      Michelle Phelps, known as Serious Danger on the rink, cheers on her teammates. PHoto by Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

Stephanie Wysocki, known strictly to teammates as Iona Gunn, lets the question sink in as her comrades glide by.

The 37-year-old Westmont woman, wearing black, bejweled glasses, pushes aside the mouth guard that dangles from a cord around her neck. As she replies, she superstitiously raps her fist on a wooden bench.

"We've had some good falls, but we haven't had anyone seriously hurt, and I know that's a possibility," Wysocki said.

That's no joke as she talks about roller derby, the rough-and-tumble sport where today's skaters go by cheeky names, take hard hits and play to win. It's not the 1970s, "Kansas City Bomber" version of the sport which was made of Raquel Welch-style glamour and questionable authenticity.

Today, it's rolling into your backyard.

Wysocki and her teammates sporting such monikers as Millie Brawl, VooDoo Rhythm and Holly Handgrenade are forming the new DuPage Derby Dames league in Aurora -- thought to be the first of its kind in the suburbs. They have two fully stocked teams and are holding tryouts this afternoon in search of another 30 skaters to create two more teams and legitimize the league. A few more coaches and referees are also in order. Plus some hard-core fans.

The Dames know they've signed up for spills, bruises, crushing losses and soaring victories.

And yet, they say, derby is really about so much more.

"I want to say the draw is the relationships I've formed with the other women," said Kerry Greminger, 32, the league coach known on the rink as Devi Metal.

The Braidwood woman said she felt like an outsider until she discovered derby.

"I never had a ton of friends growing up, and now it's just amazing," she said. "I don't want to say we're weird, but all the girls are pretty much just like me. We're all really unique people."

The Dames hope this pull of fierce friendship, plus a competitive drive, will draw new blood to join their open skate and tryouts from 5 to 10 tonight at the Aurora Skate Center.

They want skaters with heart, not necessarily experience. Skills can be learned, they say.

"When we started this last May," Wysocki said, "we had some girls who were literally holding onto the railings."

But perfecting their skating skills is just the first task on the Dames' ambitious to-do list.

'True Athletes'

Nearly everything about the Aurora Skate Center, on Montgomery Road near Route 30, screams retro. Globed overhead lights flash orange, green, then yellow. A throwback organ perches above the rink, flanked by a multicolored tinsel curtain that was glamorous decades ago.

Yet the rink has gained one brand-new addition: painted lines delineating the roller derby track -- created just for the DuPage Derby Dames.

"The owner did that, and we are lucky, since most leagues have to tape down makeshift lines for their bouts," Wysocki said. "We've had amazing support from (the rink). They're really rooting for us."

The Dames are hoping for even more -- certification by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, the governing body for dozens of leagues across the nation.

They include The Chicago Outfit, whose teams play near Midway Airport, and The Windy City Rollers, who skated this season at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago.

They are the Dames' role models: tough, skilled and a staple in their communities.

"They are true athletes; of course we'd like to get to that level," Wysocki said.

Leagues like the Dames couldn't gain a following if the Chicago teams didn't set the precedent, Greminger added. The Dames are growing quickly, she said, because there's nothing quite like them nearby. The closest similar leagues outside Chicago are in Rockford and Peoria.

So twice a week the Dames lace up their skates, then strap on elbow pads, knee pads and helmets. They mix in punk fashion, most donning striped knee-high socks, others wearing glittery helmets or showing off tattoos, and, of course, those fierce nicknames.

That's just derby tradition, at least since the sport saw a renaissance in the past decade. (Even the Dames' bake sale scheduled for tonight stays with the riot girl theme, with punk pastries such as Brass Knuckle Bon Bons and Bake and Destroy.)

Once suited up, it's time to roll.

Don't be afraid

It takes a few practice scrimmages under the guidance of Devi Metal, the veteran who formerly skated with the Windy City Rollers, before the Dames find their groove.

But soon the action starts, the speed comes, and so do the crashes.

It's not just a bunch of girls skating in a circle, say Wysocki and Greminger. Strategy, agility and speed are all key.

Greminger said it will take time for the new girls to learn the finer points of derby.

"As much as they are good on their skates, they are learning what to look for and who to listen for," she said. "You don't just go out there and knock people down."

Lydia Puddicombe, 28, a petite blonde, weaves through a pack of skaters trying to block her during practice. The back of her black T-shirt lets the world know that, when on skates, she's Lucy Landshark.

Puddicombe's position is "jammer" -- the skater who must break past the blockers, lap them, then pass them again to score points -- and already her speed stands out.

Is it because she was a competitive figure skater for a decade? Actually, no.

"I came into this skating like a figure skater and Devi had to teach me to improve my form," she said. "I didn't join because I was a skater. I wanted to get out of the house and meet strong women."

That's the story from most of the Dames, who range in age from 18 to 47 and spend their days working as lawyers and teachers. Puddicombe directs a garden center; Greminger works for an interior design company.

Their physiques run the gamut, too, and Wysocki says that's OK because each body type brings a different advantage to the team -- like speed or strength.

Dame members agree the key to succeeding on skates is just having the drive to get in where you fit in. The group also values charity, and plans to participate in fundraisers for rotating pet causes, starting appropriately with the Fox Valley Walk and Roll in May to benefit the American Cancer Society.

This sweet-and-sour mix of altruism and hard-core derby are all part the culture's allure, the Dames say.

"People think we're going to be intimidating, but it's really a close group of amazing girls," Puddicombe said. "Don't be afraid to show up."