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Women on wheels

Peninsula Roller Girls practice the art, sport of roller derby

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An attorney, a seismologist and a lactation consultant, teachers and nurses, life coaches and college counselors, Costco employees and hotel event planners. They may not have a lot in common professionally, but there's one place where they form a tight alliance.

That place is the roller rink.

Tall and short, petite and heavy, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s, the Peninsula Roller Girls may not look at first like the most cohesive team. That is, until they don their skates, knee pads and helmets and get ready to jam.

This Monday, Nov. 2, the Peninsula Roller Girls hold open tryouts at their home rink in Redwood City. They're looking to induct newcomers ("fresh meat" is the insiders' term) to their sport: a discipline that welcomes women from all walks of life, that trains them in strength and agility, strategy and teamwork, that leaves its loyal participants bruised and battered but also elated, empowered, fiercely determined and ready for more.

No longer the staged, theatrical form of entertainment it was when Leo Seltzer first popularized roller derby in the 1930s and '40s , 21st-century roller derby is a legitimate competitive sport, and one with unique roots as an all-female event. At its most elite end are teams like New York's Gotham Girls Roller Derby, Portland's Rose City Rollers and the U.K.'s London Rollergirls who duke it out at annual championship bouts (for the first time this year, ESPN3 will broadcast the final day of the International WFTDA Championships, to be held in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on Sunday, Nov. 8). At the same time as the sport has shifted the emphasis to serious athleticism, most modern teams retain some aspect of roller derby's spectator-oriented roots, whether by applying makeup before a big bout or going by special derby names.

Founded in 2011, the Peninsula Roller Girls became members of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, or WFTDA, in 2015. The league is one of a handful of Bay Area groups -- among the others are the Oakland-based B.ay A.rea D.erby Girls and San Jose's Silicon Valley Roller Girls -- and it's one of the only leagues in the region that holds its practices at an official indoor roller rink; the charmingly dated Redwood Roller Rink dates back to the 1950s. It's also the closest league to Palo Alto; a number of PRG skaters and officials live or work in the city. Other participants commute from as far away as Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose just to be part of the league.

Board president Megan Stanton, whose derby name is Sinnabar or Sinna ("for my red hair and also a nod to my work as a seismologist"), has been with the Peninsula Roller Girls since its early days. Like many of her teammates, she's a working mother who still finds time to train three times a week, travel for out-of-town bouts and serve on committees for the league: a nonprofit corporation run entirely by volunteers. Like most of the women in the league, she had no background in either skating or contact sports when she got started.

"We moved to the Bay Area and I didn't know anybody; I needed to meet people," she recalled, remembering that she found the newly formed league through an alternative mothers group online. Now a member of the league's travel team which is made up of the most experienced players, Sinna said, "I probably looked terrible my first few years. I was a little overweight at the time. I was Bambi on skates. But I really liked it."

PRG is comprised of two home teams -- Damas de Los Muertos and the Psychopathogens -- who play each other at home games. The travel team is comprised of the top players from both teams. More recently, PRG has also launched a junior league and is actively recruiting younger players, particularly teenage girls.

The basic structure of a roller derby bout consists of two teams of 14 women each. The teams engage in one hour of competition divided into two 30-minute halves, each of which is further divided into 2-minute jams in which five women from each team compete. The goal is to get one women from each team -- the designated "jammer" -- to break through the opposing team's line of "blockers" and skate ahead. For each member of the opposing team she passes, the jammer earns one point. Because the game consists of blocking jammers as they push against opponents in an effort to break through the wall, roller derby is a full contact sport, and injuries are common. All leagues are required to have emergency medical technicians on hand at public bouts, and even practices must be attended by those with up-to-date certification in CPR and first aid. Though it can be a fairly brutal game, roller derby bouts are also kid-friendly; supportive partners often bring their children to watch mom duke it out on the track.

The basic play of roller derby doesn't sound too complicated, but in practice (and for spectators new to the sport), it's far from simple. Sinna said it takes months for the rules and strategies of the game to make sense. That's why PRG offers a boot camp for new players. Inductees can zoom through the course and earn their certification, or repeat it for many months, as some do, until they feel ready to move ahead.

One of the things PRG members pride themselves on is the league's inclusivity and welcoming nature no matter a new player's skill level.

Jennifer Emmaneel, aka Claw Breakher, is an attorney who joined the league three years ago and spent the entire first year learning the basics before she began competing.

"I had zero experience in any sport," the 40-year-old announced. "I grew up chunky and pretty much accepted that I would never be an athlete."

Yet when a friend convinced her to check out the league, she found herself excited about playing a sport for the first time. She attributes that change to the attitude of the women she met.

"Nobody excluded me," she remembered. "Even though I was self-conscious, nobody ever discouraged me. "Whenever I felt I couldn't do it, somebody grabbed me and yanked me back onto the track."

Claw Breakher's friend Sheridan Ross, derby name Sheracuda, is a 43-year-old lactation consultant. Though she has been skating since she was 6 years old, she knew next to nothing about roller derby two years ago when she came to her niece's birthday party at the rink, saw a flier for the league, and signed up on the spot.

"When I first joined, I thought, 'I'm not going to tell anyone here what I do for work; they're probably all thugs," she remembered. Now the coach of the junior derby team and a member of the training committee, Sheracuda has little patience for the lingering reputation of roller derby as a scripted entertainment, a la World Wrestling Federation.

"Some people still think we're pulling hair and knocking out teeth, but it's like, 'No, you get a penalty for fighting,'" she said. "These bruises are real. This sprained ankle is real. We work really hard and we don't screw around."

Referring to her husband as a "derby widow," Sheracuda said they recently went on vacation to Victoria, Canada, where the first thing she did on arrival was look up the local roller derby team and go meet the players, much to her husband's chagrin.

"The international derby community is amazing," she noted.

Out on the track, Sheracuda coaches a small group of women on blocking technique. Kitted out in a mouth guard, elbow and knee pads, a helmet and skates, she looks like she means business. Other players sport biceps and shoulders covered in tattoos; a few wear short shorts over tights, but most sport athletic leggings. Three and four at a time, they skate forward to practice a new blocking technique, pushing their torsos tightly against each other, their skates dancing beneath them as they attempt to keep the pressure of the wall steady. Eventually, the pressure breaks them apart and they scatter, laughing, then regroup to try again.

Against a landscape where most sports begin as male pursuits with female participation as an afterthought -- baseball and softball, soccer and women's soccer, football and powderpuff football -- roller derby remains decisively a women's sport first, with "men's roller derby" only recently gaining traction. It's clear the women of Peninsula Roller Girls find it empowering to be part of a sport that celebrates their particular gifts and strengths as women, a sport that pushes them to develop their innate power, their competitive and playful spirit, their technical ability and their strategic skill. For Sheracuda, roller derby has been even more: It's the first place she has ever felt proud of her body.

"For the first time in 43 years, I love that I am so f---ing strong," she said. "I'm never going to be a size 6. I'm a strong size 16, and I'm OK with that."

What: Peninsula Roller Girls tryouts

Where: Redwood Roller Rink, 1303 Main St., Redwood City

When: Monday, Nov. 2, 8:30-10:15 p.m. (arrive by 8 p.m.)

Cost: Free

Info: Go to peninsularollergirls.org or goo.gl/pCvaSR, or email info@peninsularollergirls.org.

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The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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