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DeLand roller derby team finds fun, family in fast-paced skating sport

The Daytona Beach News-Journal logo The Daytona Beach News-Journal 6/13/2019 By Katie Kustura, The Daytona Beach News-Journal
a group of people sitting in chairs in front of a crowd: The Thunder City Derby Sirens of DeLand take on the Gold Coast Derby Grrls at The Rink in DeLand. [News-Journal / Lola Gomez] © News-Journal / Lola Gomez/The Daytona Beach News-Journal/TNS The Thunder City Derby Sirens of DeLand take on the Gold Coast Derby Grrls at The Rink in DeLand. [News-Journal / Lola Gomez]

DELAND -- When a woman walked into a bar wearing yellow shorts and purple tights, Crystal Snyder couldn't help but ask the woman where she'd come from dressed like that.

The answer was life changing.

"She told me she came from roller derby practice," said Snyder, a 37-year-old environmental scientist who lives in Sanford.

That was several years ago, and Snyder -- whose derby name is "Artillery" and who's currently a co-captain of DeLand's Thunder City Derby Sirens -- has been skating ever since.

a group of people in uniform holding a baseball bat: Members of DeLand's roller derby team, the Thunder City Derby Sirens, fight to keep a jammer with the Gold Coast Derby Grrls from getting through on May 18 during the Sirens' first home bout of the season. [News-Journal / Lola Gomez] © News-Journal / Lola Gomez/The Daytona Beach News-Journal/TNS Members of DeLand's roller derby team, the Thunder City Derby Sirens, fight to keep a jammer with the Gold Coast Derby Grrls from getting through on May 18 during the Sirens' first home bout of the season. [News-Journal / Lola Gomez]

The Sirens played their season's first home match, known as a "bout," last month at The Rink, 1779 N. Spring Garden Ave., in front of several dozen fans. While the home team lost to the Gold Coast Derby Grrls of Fort Lauderdale 174-137, you'd never know it looking at their post-game faces.

"Oh my God, the first game was so much fun," said Sullivan Hessler of DeLand, team captain. "It was a really hard game, but I think we did so much better than we thought we were going to do."

The kind of roller derby played today looks a lot different than what was played nearly 100 years ago. The term "roller derby" was seen in the press in the early 1920s in reference to roller-skating races. The popularity of roller-skating competitions would ebb and flow over the following decades due in part to wars and the state of the economy.

In the late 1930s, it was clear that spectators found the crashes and collisions, inadvertent or not, exciting to watch. The legitimacy and physicality of the competitions developed over time, and with the advent of TV, players often exaggerated certain elements for dramatic effect. The popularity of the sport had waned by the late 1970s, and efforts to revive it over the next 20 years were short-lived.

Grassroots leagues for women began forming in the early 2000s and they haven't slowed down. The Women's Flat Track Derby Association, which formed in 2004 under the name United Leagues Coalition, currently has 465 leagues across six continents.

a dog wearing a hat: Army veteran April Grossman gets some love from Waldo, her 3-year-old service dog, during a break from roller derby practice. [NEWS-JOURNAL/KATIE KUSTURA] © NEWS-JOURNAL/KATIE KUSTURA/The Daytona Beach News-Journal/TNS Army veteran April Grossman gets some love from Waldo, her 3-year-old service dog, during a break from roller derby practice. [NEWS-JOURNAL/KATIE KUSTURA]

The kind of roller derby played by the Sirens can get rough, and it's not unusual for the women to leave the rink with large bruises, also known as derby tattoos, but the Sirens work to make their bouts the kind of entertainment that families can enjoy.

Hessler, known as "Bash-full Warrior," was named the fan favorite of the first home bout by spectators.

"She has thousands of these (awards) at home," DeLand resident Lauren Fackler, 41, also known as "Ginger Dread," said with a laugh.

"I know how to work a crowd," Hessler, 20, said. "What can I say?"

SKILLS AND STYLE

The Sirens are a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 and follows the guidelines created by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association. Players must be at least 18 years old to join. The Sirens range in age from 20 to about 50 years old.

The team attracts women from all walks of life with different athletic abilities and body types. Some have skated for years and followed in a family member's tracks while some are just learning to skate for the first time.

To be part of the roster and participate in bouts, team members must pass a skills test that largely follows the flat track association's requirements. Basic skills include correct posture, stride, crossovers and stops. Would-be derby players also must be able to skate at least 27 laps within five minutes around a regulation track and complete one lap within 13 seconds after accelerating from a standstill.

a woman posing for a picture: Sullivan Hessler, also known as "Bash-full Warrior," left, and Crystal Snyder, who goes by "Artillery," talk about their love of roller derby during a team practice. Hessler, of DeLand, is captain of DeLand's Thunder City Derby Sirens. Snyder, of Sanford, is a co-captain. [NEWS-JOURNAL/KATIE KUSTURA] © NEWS-JOURNAL/KATIE KUSTURA/The Daytona Beach News-Journal/TNS Sullivan Hessler, also known as "Bash-full Warrior," left, and Crystal Snyder, who goes by "Artillery," talk about their love of roller derby during a team practice. Hessler, of DeLand, is captain of DeLand's Thunder City Derby Sirens. Snyder, of Sanford, is a co-captain. [NEWS-JOURNAL/KATIE KUSTURA]

Bouts are played with teams of five that consist of one "jammer" and four "blockers." To score points, a jammer must break through the opposing team's blockers.

Game-time gear is each players' uniform, but only to a point. Every member of the Sirens wears a top with the team logo on it, black athletic bottoms, a helmet and other kinds of protective gear and skates.

The Thunder City Derby Sirens prepare to block a member of the Gold Coast Derby Grrls during a May bout in DeLand. [News-Journal / Lola Gomez] © News-Journal / Lola Gomez/The Daytona Beach News-Journal/TNS The Thunder City Derby Sirens prepare to block a member of the Gold Coast Derby Grrls during a May bout in DeLand. [News-Journal / Lola Gomez]

But personality is shown in a number of ways including face paint, tights, shiny helmets and skates with funky prints.

Meg Walker, known on the rink as both "Green Megs" and "Slam," said helmets and skates used to be pretty plain, but styles are changing.

"Now they've got skates with leopard print on them," Walker, 31, a Daytona Beach resident, said.

Hessler always paints her face.

"I think it's part of roller derby, for me personally, to paint up my face and intimidate people with my glitter," Hessler said.

Derby names are another area where the women convey something about themselves.

"A long time ago, somebody asked me if I could be a superhero what my abilities would be and what my name would be," Snyder, a member of the Army, said.

Her abilities would allow her to turn any part of her body into a weapon or a shield, and her name would be Artillery.

"I can't think of any other time in my life where I'm remotely close to being a superhero other than roller derby," Snyder said.

SUPPORT ON SKATES

Since last season, the Sirens have been able to donate a portion of the proceeds from bouts to other nonprofits.

During the recent home game, the team's donation went to the Blue Spring Alliance, an organization of citizens and elected officials working to protect the spring.

The team volunteers with local organizations that focus on helping women, children, animals and the environment.

The women also make it a point to empower each other.

"Roller derby has been phenomenal for a lot of women who deal with depression or social anxieties," Snyder said. "We are just a nice place for people to escape and go somewhere where you feel like you belong and people support you."

That's why Shayna Solomon, 22, who just started skating a few weeks ago, keeps coming back.

"I've always considered myself an athletic person, but this is very humbling," Solomon, a Daytona Beach resident, said. "Even though it feels like my progress is so small every practice, they've never made me feel bad about the things I can't do."

Army veteran April Grossman, 31, also is new to the game. Her service dog, a 3-year-old black Lab named Waldo -- who she got via Puppies Behind Bars to help with her PTSD -- faithfully and patiently watched from the sidelines during a recent practice. Puppies Behind Bars is a New York-based nonprofit that teaches prison inmates to train service dogs.

"When I first came home, I was very isolated," the Sanford resident, who'd been deployed to Afghanistan, said. "So for me to have the courage to actually come out to recruit night was really huge and Waldo helped me do that, but now I have a whole new network with this team."

Check out a Thunder City Derby Sirens home bout

All home bouts are held in DeLand at The Rink, 1779 N. Spring Garden Ave. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. and the bout starts at 5 p.m. Spectators are encouraged to bring their own chair for track-side seating.

June 15July 20Aug. 17Sept. 21For more information or to purchase tickets, visit derbysirens.com/tickets.

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(c)2019 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

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