by Jessie Veeder
A one-dimensional woman has never existed.
That was the thought running through my head as I sat before two women, a Spanish teacher and an office manager, sipping an after-work coffee in a small shop in Dickinson, talking work and children, Saturday night plans, higher education, fitness programs and their new-found passion for the sport of Roller Derby.
Yes, Roller Derby. It’s likely you’ve heard of the sport, as I have. Maybe you have a cousin who’s into it, seen a poster on the wall of a bar, or, if you’re in Dickinson, painting faces for the kids at a street fair.
Or maybe you skate yourself. After work, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, maybe you toss your briefcase in the entryway, leave the kids with your husband, trade the heels for wheels and transform into your alter-ego for a few hours a week, surrounded by a diversity of women you’ve come to know and respect in the name of competition, camaraderie and flat track roller skate racing.
That’s the story for Leslie Olheiser, Paula Williams and the 12 other members of the newly established Dickinson Roller Derby Team anyway, a proud and fierce group of women who prove my one-dimensional theory…
Indeed, she doesn’t exist.
But what it means to be a Derby Girl is alluring. What do these women look like? What drives them to compete in a rough, female-dominated sport that encourages alter-egos, the object being to knock the woman next to you off track in order for your teammate to lap as many opposing teammates as she can, all while maneuvering on roller skates?
“There are women from all walks of life,” explains Paula before looking over at Leslie for help in listing the occupations that form the group: “A couple stay at home moms, one T-ball coach, a teacher, a dog watcher, a human resources representative, a hairstylist, a back room banker, bartender, and a few women who work in the oil industry…”
The roster is diverse indeed, but Paula adds, there is definitely a specific personality type that plays. A strong willed woman, she says.
“None of us are more muted than the other with our opinion,” said Paula. “We say what we need to say.”
And the results have seen the Dickinson Roller Derby Team grow from an idea brought in from Washington transplant, Whitney Johnson, to a sporting event that sends the team traveling to bouts and drawing crowds of over 500 in just over a year.
“When Whitney first came to Dickinson she was disappointed that there wasn’t a team,” said Leslie. “She didn’t want to live in a town without Roller Derby.”
So she called her team back home seeking information on logistics, her boss gave her some money for start up and Whitney made contacts, sent emails and went on a search for female competitors.
“That, to me is inspiring,” added Leslie, the soft-spoken office manager and self-described reserved woman who heard about roller derby from her hairstylist and friend and decided to give it a try. “I got in on the first practice and didn’t have a clue; all I knew is that you skate.”
But Leslie’s competitive spirit and love for sports kept her coming back and soon she found herself immersed in friendships with her teammates, women she may have likely never met otherwise.
Paula, a Spanish teacher and single mom of an eight-year-old daughter, is one of those friendships. After being introduced to the sport through a friend who competed on a team in Bismarck, Paula became a dedicated team member who values the close-knit relationships and empowerment the sport provides.
“We’re a business,” says Paula, the team’s Vice-President, who adds the team members also pay dues to help pay for rent on their practice space.
As part of the logistics of the business, the team is required to have medical insurance and WFDTA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) insurance for themselves, the venues and practice locations, a perk that Paula herself recently took advantage of.
“I just came from the chiropractor,” she admitted. “I could barely walk for three days.”
Injury is an inevitable part of a game that knocks players out of bounds using hips, shoulders and butts, sending skaters sliding across concrete and hard wood floors.
The players don wrist guards, mouth guards, elbow and knee pads, ankle braces and helmets for protection, but a bruise obtained by a good Roller Derby bout is something the women flaunt.
“I dislocated my finger once,” Leslie said with a smile while digging in her purse for her phone to show me a photo of a giant, deep purple bruise she obtained during a bout this year.
“Oh, I remember that,” laughs Paula.
And just as the team functions as a family, the sport itself is supportive of one another. The Dickinson Roller Team competes with teams within the region, traveling to, or hosting bouts in Williston, Bismarck, Grand Forks, Minot and Fargo and outside the state in Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana. They also look to those teams for referees, fill-in players and advice.
What about their boyfriends and husbands?
“There are different husbands with different opinions. Some don’t want us to hurt ourselves, most are really supportive,” said Paula. “Some are looking at starting a men’s league.”
I can understand why these women might inspire others with their passion for the game. Because, yes, it’s a fun way to compete and belong to something, but the more we talk, the more I understand that to these women Roller Derby is much more than a sport.
“It stretches you, it pushes women to take a risk,” said Paula when asked why opportunities like Roller Derby are important for women living and working in western North Dakota. “It’s just empowering to be out there and to feel like a strong person.”
“It’s definitely made me more outgoing,” Leslie added.
And that energy seems to be seeping into the community of Dickinson, who have met the women of their Roller Derby team at parades and community events as the group works to spread the word about their growing sport and raises money for area charities.
“During every bout we put on a fundraiser,” said Leslie who explains that the sales from 50/50 tickets at their events have raised money for organizations such asDickinson Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Center, OREO Animal Rescue and Boy Scouts.
In the next five years the women hope to get sanctioned as an official member of the WFTDA and travel and compete in bigger venues.
“We’ve improved tremendously in such a short time and the community here has been more supportive than anything,” said Paula who adds that there are definitely stereotypical viewpoints the team has to deal with.
“But we’re just like other women,” said Paula. “Derby has given us the opportunity to learn what it’s like to be part of a team, to work united and be considerate.”
The Dickinson Roller Derby Team will have their last in Bismarck, October 18th, then they break until January to find new skaters and make plans for the next season. But tonight is practice night, and for two hours this teacher and mother and the soft-spoken office manager sipping coffee before me will strip off expectations, set aside work and worry and just be the part of herself who’s fierce, outspoken and strong.
Jessie Veeder is a singer, writer, and photographer who lives and works on her family’s cattle ranch in Western ND with her husband, Chad.