EVERETT — Ask one of the Jet City Rollergirls and she will tell you the many reasons she loves roller derby.
There is, for example, the friendship of like-minded women. Also the benefits of vigorous, heart-pounding exercise. Likewise the satisfaction of working with teammates for a common goal. And maybe most of all, the joy of playing an exciting game that demands equal parts mental savvy and physical skill.
Oh, and one more. The opportunity to win a trophy at a national tournament, which is the prize the Rollergirls — specifically, the Jet City Bombers, the league’s all-star team — will be seeking this weekend.
The Everett-based Bombers are headed to Milwaukee, where they will face the Boardwalk Bombshells of Santa Cruz, Calif., on Sunday in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association’s Division II national championship match.
“This is a big deal for us,” said 30-year-old Elaine Helm of Edmonds, who skates under the roller derby name of Deadline. “For us, it’s not necessarily about the trophy itself. It’s about going there and executing what we’ve worked on. But if we do that, we will come home with the trophy.”
The Bombers lost a close match to Santa Cruz earlier this season, “and since then we’ve been working (hard),” said 32-year-old Nicole Thornton of Granite Falls, aka Nasty Nikki Nightstick.
After advancing through an August playoff tournament in Des Moines, Iowa — the Bombers beat teams from Washington D.C., Las Vegas and Asheville, N.C., to qualify for Sunday’s championship — the Everett team learned it would have a rematch with Santa Cruz.
“And at that point,” Thornton said, “we all said, ‘We have to do what we can.’ We upped our practices, we’ve been watching videos, and we’re doing everything we can possibly think of to win this. And I think we definitely have a chance of beating them.”
For the first time this season, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association is contesting two national championship tournaments. The top 40 teams, based on rankings, are competing for the Division I title. The remaining teams, including the Bombers, ended up vying for the Division II championship.
“We fought very hard to make it to the top 40, but we didn’t because we played so many hard bouts,” said 30-year-old Amanda Bennett of Marysville, whose derby name is Beelzababe. “We played some top-10 teams because we were trying to make ourselves better this year, and that hurt us a little bit standings-wise. So if we can win Division II, that would prove to me that we didn’t belong there, that we really belonged in Division I.”
This is the seventh season for the Rollergirls, a league comprised of four regular-season teams — Camaro Harem, CarnEvil, Hula Honeys and Pink Pistols. The top skaters from those four teams are chosen for the Bombers, a squad that plays teams from around the Pacific Northwest, elsewhere in the country, and this season even a visiting team from London.
Roller derby can be many things to many people, and even among the Rollergirls themselves. Some skaters see the sport more as recreation and entertainment, while others savor the punishing contact and intense competition of a tightly contested bout.
Bennett counts herself among the latter. A stay-at-home mom of 4-year-old twins, she had been a multi-sport athlete in high school, and as an adult raced cars at Monroe’s Evergreen Speedway.
“But after wrecking two cars in one night,” she said, “my husband told me that if I wasn’t able to fix them, I wouldn’t be able to drive anymore. So I found something where I could use my body instead to take people out. … I do this for the aggression. You can take all your aggression out on the (track), but then you walk away friends. Because it’s nothing personal, it’s just a game.”
Angi Kindred Morse of Snohomish, a 38-year-old mother of daughters 8, 5 and 2, grew up playing several sports, and then was a member of the Seattle University soccer team.
“I like the roughness,” said Kindred Morse, who skates as Whoa Nellie! “But it’s not about the bashing into people for me. The best thing about roller derby for me is getting out and sweating. It’s the intensity and being able to work super hard.”
According to Helm, a former college rugby player who is also president of the league’s board of directors, “what you’re seeing is an evolution of the game. People with an athletic background are coming into the sport and they’re changing it.”
Among the Bombers, she went on, “we said, ‘Is this a sport or is this a hobby?’ And for most of us it’s a sport.”
And it’s a sport where injuries are common and sometimes severe. In recent weeks, one Bomber broke her leg and another broke her collarbone. Thornton and Helm have both torn knee ligaments in recent years, with Thornton’s injury needing surgery. And 36-year-old Tracy Fulton of Marysville, a former high school cheerleader who skates as Morticia Militia, suffered a broken nose.
But for all the Rollergirls, the bruises, sprains and the occasional fracture are a small price to pay for the thrill of roller derby.
Because as Thornton explained, “I love this sport way too much to give it up just because I have a boo-boo.”