By David Pan
Enterprise sports editor
Less than a year ago, Suzy Burress was known as quite the knitter.
The 1996 Shorecrest High School graduate attended three knitting group meetings a week.
Then one day Burress read a message on a crafting forum that would change her life. A particular thread caught her eye. The topic was inappropriate places to take your knitting.
Someone mentioned that she took her knitting to the roller derby.
“I’m like, ‘There’s still roller derby?’” Burress said.
The 28-year-old Everett resident did a quick Internet search, which led her to an informal roller derby group based out of Seattle. Burress went out to a practice and was overwhelmed by what she saw.
“It wasn’t anything that I thought I could really do,” said Burress, who had not skated since middle school.
But Burress’ interest in the sport persisted and eventually led her to join the Jet City Rollergirls, a new roller derby league based out of the Everett Skate Deck.
Like Burress, Kindra Ramos came in with hardly any skating experience. Ramos was getting reacquainted with the Pacific Northwest.
The California native went to graduate school at Western Washington University and was working in Washington D.C. as a lobbyist when she realized she wanted to move back to Washington state.
A job offer as an outreach coordinator with the Washington Trails Association enticed Ramos to return to the Pacific Northwest and she moved to Lynnwood.
“I was wanting a new hobby and a way to meet some people,” said Ramos, whose initial search led her to the Seattle-based Rat City Rollergirls.
A friend of Ramos’ knew one of Jet City’s skaters and encouraged her to check out the new organization.
Ramos, 29, is glad she took her friend’s advice. The moment she set foot in the Everett Skate Deck and met her future teammates Ramos felt right at home.
“As soon as I came in, these were girls who I knew instantly,” said Ramos, whose roller derby name is Retro Bution. “It was one of those places where you really found a connection.”
Kim Magaña, a 1988 graduate of Mountlake Terrace High School, shares Ramos’ sentiments.
Magaña wasn’t looking to get involved in another sport. The 36-year-old nanny/stay-at-home mother grew up playing soccer and was a member of the 1988 Hawks team that won a state championship. Magaña continued playing soccer as an adult in a recreational league.
Then last year the Jet City Rollergirls contacted Magaña’s husband, D.J., to see if his band would play at a fundraiser. Magaña was intrigued when she heard it was for a women’s roller derby league.
“I could do that,” she said.
A week later, Magaña attended a practice. By the end of the night, she had mastered all the basics of skating. Not long after she decided to make some changes in her life.
“I played soccer for basically 30 years,” Magaña said. “I gave up soccer for derby.”
That Magaña, also known as Blondie Bomb-Her, feels so strongly about roller derby isn’t surprising. For the 60 or so members of the Jet City Rollergirls, the sport has developed into a passion.
Conversations among the skaters tend to revolve around one subject.
“We think about derby all the time,” Ramos said.
The Jet City Rollergirls were formed in July 2006 by four friends, who thought it would be a good idea to have a flat track women’s roller derby league based out Snohomish County. The league is comprised of four teams — Camaro Harem, Carnevil, Pink Pistols and Hula Honeys — each of which has a different theme and its own fan following.
Skaters get to make up their own roller derby name but have to check first with a national registry to make sure it is not already taken.
Women’s flat track roller derby consists of two teams, each with five skaters. Each team has four defensive players or blockers and one jammer, the player who scores points by passing the opponent’s defensive players. The pace of the jam/bout is set by the pivots, the players at the front of the pack and the last line of defense. Pivots also are team leaders and call out plays. Jams last two minutes unless called off by the lead jammer.
Stace Olsen, one of Jet City’s founders/owners and a Carnevil team captain, was introduced to roller derby through her husband, John, who was a medic for Rat City. Olsen wanted to join Rat City but wasn’t able to because she had never skated before.
So Olsen joined another league and ended up commuting to Tacoma two or three nights a week. She often did not get home until 2 a.m. The late nights made for some tough days at Boeing, where Olsen, 32, works as a project manager. The long commute made the idea of starting up a new league in Snohomish County even more appealing.
“When we first started we had six girls probably showing up,” said Olsen, a Lynnwood resident. “But we did a lot of promotion … We actually progressed really well compared to a lot of leagues.”
About two-thirds of Jet City’s skaters had little to no prior skating experience. The rest included some speed skaters and others who were artistic skaters.
“In the beginning, we took everybody that came in who just wanted to learn because we were learning too,” said Jet City co-founder Thea Starr, 30, whose derby name is Nova Payne. “But at this point, we’re probably taking people who have a little more skill.”
Jet City paid particular attention to the personalities of their skaters, said Olsen, who also is known as Erin Blockabitch, a takeoff on environmental activist Erin Brockovich.
“The main thing with our league is we went a lot on personality over skill because we didn’t want a bunch of drama, a bunch of girls that were causing a lot of problems,” Olsen said. “Derby tends to be really high in the drama. You’ll get a lot of pretty strong personalities. We were conscious of that when we were interviewing girls.”
Potential skaters were grilled by captains from all four teams before being asked to join the league.
“It felt like a job interview,” Ramos said.
Diverse backgrounds, fans
It would be difficult to describe the background of a typical Jet City skater. Or those who attend roller derby events for that matter.
In their other lives, Jet City Skaters work as baristas, insurance agents, legal assistants, truck drivers, seamstresses, independent business owners, scientists, truck drivers, prison guards and stay-at-home mothers. Their ages range from the early 20s to the mid-40s.
But everyone soon discovers that what on the surface appear to be stark differences quickly dissolve away as soon as the skating starts.
“It’s one of the few places where you can meet women from so many different walks of life who you never thought you’d have anything in common with,” Ramos said. “As soon as you put on skates, you discover so many similarities that transfer out of skating. I think it’s a great way for a new sense of community.”
Roller derby appears to be striking a chord with fans. Flat track roller derby leagues currently are operating in Olympia, Seattle, Tacoma, Bellingham, Tri-Cities and Portland.
“It’s kind of a crazy sport to watch all these chicks hitting each other,” Starr said.
Jet City hosted its second exhibition event on July 21 at the Everett Skate Deck. The event drew a diverse mixture of children, teenagers, adults, grandparents, metal heads, punk rockers, rockabilly and just about everything in between.
“It’s amazing to see these all these different groups of people come together and love one thing commonly,” Olsen said.
Jet City plans to host its inaugural event on Sept. 15 at the Everett Events Center. The regular season is scheduled to start in January. Plans also are underway for a rookie league and an all-star traveling team.
If there are any doubts that Olsen and her teammates take the sport seriously, a quick look at their medical bills would answer the question.
In her roller derby career, Olsen has blown out both of her knees, broken her tailbone a couple of times and sprained her ankles.
She was out for nine months with a knee injury and then subsequently injured her other knee when she returned.
Tryssa Neumann, 33, also underwent knee surgery. Nine weeks later, Neumann was back at the Everett Skate Deck. The Silver Lake resident, also known as Trixxxie’s Trash’n Em, was eager to get back to skating.
“I felt lost without doing this,” said Neumann, who works for a aerospace machine shop. “It’s so nice to come out and be around all these girls that do it too and have the same goals.”
Neumann, the mother of 6-year-old twin girls, used to skate every Saturday at the Everett Skate Deck growing up. When she put on skates for the first time in years, Neumann felt comfortable right away. The biggest challenge for her was conditioning.
Endurance is important but the most important quality skaters need is the ability to take a hit, said Starr, a self-employed seamstress/designer and mother of four.
Skaters have to learn to not take a hit personally and to be able to get back up on their feet, Starr added.
“You’re going to fall down whether of your own accord or someone else’s,” Ramos said. “It happens. You really need that confidence and self-preservation to keep at it when you’re on the ground.”
Even though she’s been skating for only four months, Ramos feels she is making steady progress.
“I think I held my own pretty well,” she said of the July 21 exhibition bout. “I’m definitely in the middle of the pack and I would like to improve. My skating skills are still growing.”
Sports had been always been a major part of Burress’ life. She played soccer for 10 years and also was involved in track and field.
Burress, however, had become less active in recent years. During the first few weeks of practice, Burress could only skate around the rink three times before she had to sit down and take a breather.
Starr remembers Burress as being a “quiet mouse” when she first joined Jet City. Starr wouldn’t use those words to describe Burress today.
Burress, who is 55 pounds less than when she started skating, is known as Suzi 9mm these days. She has advanced to such an extent that she is the “Mother Superior” of the derby sister program, which introduces newcomers to the ins and outs of the sport.
Burress can relate to what beginners are feeling when they come out to practice for the first time. What they need, she said, is encouragement. Burress tells them roller derby isn’t easy to learn and it takes a long time, but that they can do it.
“That’s my favorite part of roller derby — being able to help the new girls and make sure that they feel OK,” Burress said.
For more information on the Jet City Rollergirls, check out their Web site at www.jetcityrollergirls.com.