Meet the nationally ranked Panhandle United Roller Derby league based in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and find out how it empowers these Northwest Florida women to channel their inner athlete.
FORT WALTON BEACH — Aubree Davis ventured to the place everyone knows they need to go but no one ever actually wants to: outside her comfort zone.
Her first roller derby scrimmage ripped her out of that zone. It threw her on the ground, too.
“I was blocking, and I got laid out by a veteran,” Davis said. “I deserved to be laid out. She got me two or three times. I got super worked up. I started jamming — which means I went from defense to offense — and I was doing really well.
“All that adrenaline poured through me and I stopped. I just started bawling … it was such a rush of every emotion, all that hard work and surviving that first experience and knowing I was unscathed and I was frustrated. I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’
“I didn’t go home angry. I went home like, ‘OK, so I’m a crier.’”
The former Army soldier recently graduated from the Panhandle United Roller Derby league’s 12-week boot camp and is preparing for her first bout with the home team, the Beach Brawl Sk8r Dolls.
They call her Killamity Jane.
Roller derby has revealed the inner athlete in Davis and many other women across the region. And they don’t intend to let the sport go unnoticed.
It’s a Thursday night practice for the Panhandle United Roller Derby at Fort Sk8 Family Fun Center in Fort Walton Beach.
The league has two teams: the home team, the Beach Brawl Sk8r Dolls, and the all-star team, Panhandle United All-Star Unicorns. It ranks 169th out of 349 leagues worldwide through the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association — though no one would be expected to know that.
All eyes darted when a referee fell and his helmet bounced — as one skater put it – like a basketball on the concrete floor.
No irony was lost. A sport was being played without a ball in sight.
Veteran player Monica Heimes explained.
“Roller derby is kind of like football on skates — without the ball,” Heimes said. “Well, we have a ball. That is called our jammer. Our jammer will wear a star on her helmet.”
It takes a second to register that, yes, the ball is a person.
Each team fields four blockers and a jammer. The blockers’ job is to stop the jammer from getting through, Heimes said. The jammer battles through the blockers to complete an opening lap and then scores points by passing rival blockers.
And that’s roller derby, summed up.
But it’s not even close to all there is to the sport or their league.
In the Panhandle United Roller Derby league, there are real estate agents, doctors, dental hygienists and other professionals ages 18 to late 40s. Heimes teaches a Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program.
“There you’re telling kids, ‘Don’t hit each other. Keep your hands to yourself.’ Here you’re laying big hits, taking out women, feeling empowering,” Heimes said. “The word empowerment is a big thing for us … it’s being able to do something different than your everyday life.”
When Heimes skates, she isn’t a teacher. She’s Michi-Gangster — her roller derby persona — a combination of her Michigan roots and love for rap music.
“I tell people, ‘If you want a sisterhood of people who are always going to have your back, then derby is the place to be,’” Heimes said. “‘If you’re looking for an outlet because your job sucks or because you love your job and just need to hit somebody, derby is the place to be.’”
Many women who start roller derby have never skated — minus a teenage rollerblading phase inspired by the “X Games.” If the referee at Thursday’s practice is any indication, adding wheels to the equation requires extra athleticism.
“Everybody comes in seemingly nonathletic for some reason,” Heimes said. “All of a sudden, you see the weight drop off and a transformation happens. You turn into this athlete.”
Davis is a textbook example. She talks about her first match with the same brevity as a professional athlete preparing for the playoffs — hungry for success, yet terrified of failure.
“I was over 200 pounds last fall and I had a goal,” Davis said. “I told myself if I lost 40 pounds, I would put skates on and become a derby girl.”
Davis remembers watching an Army buddy play.
“It seemed so surreal like, ‘Wow, look at these girls in their fishnets and the eyeliner. They’re super hardcore and just the endurance,’” Davis said. “At the time, I was in the service, too, and it was a different level of strength. It’s funny, because six or seven years later, here I am in my mid-30s becoming an athlete.”
She instantly detected a passion.
The sport is challenging, but it’s worth it. Davis is in it for the knuckle pounding, the pats, the reassurance — everything that comes with being on a team.
“Everyone is working through whatever kind of day they had,” Davis said. “You put it in your skating. It’s better than sitting in a bar. It’s better than being obnoxiously rude to the people who love you. This is a place to work through whatever you got inside of you or get a killer workout.”
Jen Gallaher, a longtime home team player, answers to Skelita — a nickname her daughter chose from the movie “Monster High.” She loves the newbies’ enthusiasm.
“It gives you all the feels,” Gallaher said. “You start to remember what that was like.”
The military presence deepens their connection. It shows when they forecast a deployment.
“If there’s another player whose husband is gone, it’s like, ‘Hey, bring your kids to practice. We’ll double down,’” Davis said. “That’s one more support network where you’re not alone and you don’t feel like you have to go through something that can be devastating to a family.”
The league has been around since 2008 — a feat considering a chunk of the players and their spouses are in the military and subject to sporadic relocation. Plus, it’s nonprofit.
The sport has amateur all-women teams, male teams, co-ed teams and junior teams. Northwest Florida has a roller derby presence, with teams in Panama City, Pensacola and Mobile, Alabama. The Panhandle United All-Star Unicorns opens up tryouts to women from unranked neighboring roller derby teams who want to play for a WFTDA ranked team.
Team members practice biweekly — more if they’re selected for the all-star team — pay for their equipment, travel and get banged up in the process. Yes, they pay to get hit.
No throwing punches, no elbows — roller derby is civilized with rules — but it isn’t for the faint of heart either.
“We use thighs and our hips and shoulders to hit people — full contact,” Gallaher said.
The game brings out the same hate-love nature many athletes feel toward their craft.
“It’s what happens during this practice time that keeps people sticking to it — the whole, you’re hitting, pushing, getting thrown around,” Heimes said. “You’re hurt by the end of the day and you want more.”
‘Train, eat, sleep'
Roller derby is trapped by its own duality.
It has the same ingredients as other sports — an offense and a defense, rules and referees to uphold them, coaches, players and a scoring system. But it, too, comes with kitschy nicknames, sparkly helmets and flashy tights. Although few would question the authenticity of football as a sport because of neon-colored receiver gloves, soccer because of a victory dance after a sweet goal or a boxing match because of a fighter’s swagger entering the ring.
For some, the name conjures up images of women in fishnets hashing out aggression in cinematic girl fights.
“We run into people all the time, ‘You play roller derby? You throw people over the ledge? What do you do? Do you pull hair and fight?’” Heimes said. “We’re like, ‘No, we don’t do any of that. Geez. Come on.’
When Heimes started, she fit the stereotype.
“It was, ‘You have tattoos. You have piercings. You should join roller derby,’” Heimes said. “That was the sport back then. Now it’s not like that. You have to train, eat, sleep roller derby to be effective.”
Many treat it like a professional sport, but unlike professional sports — or entertainment, for that matter — it doesn’t reel in dollar signs or swarms of fans.
The players would like to see that change.
“It is sad not a lot of people know about it,” Gallaher said. “It’s a secret hidden sport. Even people I work with, they’re like, ‘You play roller derby?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it still exists apparently.’”
It used to be about big hits and throwing people at each other.
“Now it’s so much more athletic, strategic,” Heimes said. “I think it maybe will make the Olympics one year.”
The next generation
Panhandle United Roller Derby players see the sport’s placement in the cultural landscape.
They’re here to rectify it.
They want to eliminate stigmas from the ghosts of roller derby decades’ past. WFTDA gravitates toward an athletic image — especially in regard to apparel.
“It’s not rugged and riddled with chaos; we’re athletes,” Davis said. “We have boundaries. No midriffs. No booty shorts. We’re trying to imitate our values as a family-focused organization. So keep it classy, but keep it tough.”
The women are still allowed to express themselves, but in a respectful way, Davis said. In between watching her two children and binging on roller derby videos, she developed her own signature makeup look for her first bout.
“True story, I spent today’s nap time trying different looks, different colored (eye) shadows to see, because this is my debut game as a new skater,” Davis said. “I want to look the part. I think that would help bolster my confidence.”
Coach Nicole Lee (aka Nicc Vicious) said there is a time to play and a time to be serious.
“I think your home team is the time to play,” Lee said. “It is serious game play, it is, but that’s time to dress up and do those things. The sanctioned bouts, the ones we play for rankings, are the times to be serious in the sport.”
Roller derby’s entry into the professional sports arena is stifled by an antiquated reputation. Heimes doesn’t believe it will turn professional in her time, but maybe in her kid’s time.
Lee agrees the sport’s trajectory lies in the junior league.
“If you look at high school basketball and high school football, it’s nothing compared to junior roller derby when you get up into the ranking teams,” Lee said. “A lot of their games and the champs, we look up to them like, ‘Wow, one day I wanna do that.’ The juniors are really taking it to that level.”