They roll out as a pack, hunkered down and ready to battle. The bright green and black jerseys are almost the last thing you notice. Instead, the eye is immediately drawn to the colorful socks, sparkly makeup, and extensive tattoos sported by the members of the Alamo City Roller Girls.
Then the warmup is over, and the skaters position themselves on the track. The referee’s whistle blows and not even a minute later a skater has already been pushed to the floor. One way to tell the newcomers from the regulars in the audience is by the degree of excitement or shock on their faces.
Roller derby elicits the same sort of thrill as professional wrestling. There is a similar level of showmanship and the same zany alter-egos involved; the skaters use humorous or tough-sounding “derby names.”
San Antonio’s own roller derby team competes in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association with teams all over Texas. The six-bout season kicked off in late March and continues with a bout May 4 at the Mission Concepción Sports Park against the Hurricane Alley Roller Derby from Corpus Christi.
Looking around the track during the season-opening bout, the team is colorful, and not just when it comes to socks.
“Derby is all ages, all sizes, all races, everything,” said 39-year-old Amber Safarti, or “Crypta Night” when she’s in skates. “We’ve got as young as 18, as old as 46 or 48.”
While roller derby may look
like chaos to the unfamiliar onlooker, the goal of the game is simple. Each lineup typically consists of a pack of four blockers and a jammer. Skating around the track, both jammers will try to break through the pack of the opposing team. Meanwhile, the packs have to try and keep the opposing jammer from breaking through while also helping their jammer to pass.
And the action is physical.
In order to block the opposing team, skaters will use their entire body as a defense – or as a weapon. The pushing, pulling, and hitting appears to be the one thing most people know about roller derby.
On this night, Alamo City is pounding the B team of Round Rock’s Rockin’ City Rollergirls. Jammer after jammer breaks through the opposing defense and brings home more points. The season opener is a resounding win for Alamo City, with a final score of 283 to 60.
Diana Schmelzer, better known on the track as “Skullyvera,” can’t help but grin when she describes her sport.
“Honestly the best way I can describe it, it’s like you’re floating on clouds hitting people – without going to jail, of course,” she said. “[We’re] doing it legally, not illegally.”
Spectators can’t miss Schmelzer when she’s on the track, sporting sparkly golden lipstick and a matching helmet that barely contains the strands of her bright red hair. When she’s a member of the pack, there’s almost no chance for the Rockin’ City jammer to break through.
Schmelzer, now 43 years old, has been with the Alamo City Roller Girls almost since the very beginning. The league was founded in 2005, with Schmelzer joining less than a year later, making her the longest-standing member.
Like Schmelzer, many others who have gotten a taste of roller derby keep at it. Debi Arney, also known as “Trouble Clef,” recounted how she found the sport.
“I wasn’t a part of it yet, but my best friend was, so I went to watch,” she said. “They had me be a non-skating official, and I just fell in love with it. Ever since then … it’s been kinda like a drug.“
In 2016, Arney was involved in a car accident that resulted in her undergoing spinal surgery. Since then, she’s had to take it easy on the skates. But that hasn’t diminished her involvement in roller derby. Instead, the 33-year-old is now head of the non-skating officials, who make sure that points and penalties are counted.
“You don’t have to be on eight wheels to be a part of roller derby,” she said.
In fact, many involved in the Alamo City Roller Girls have nothing to do with skating in competitions. They help set up the bout and sell tickets and merchandise. All are volunteers who want to be involved in roller derby without getting knocked off their skates on the track.
Lancia Stewart, or “Chop Stewie,” 49, has been a referee with the Alamo City Roller Girls for nine years. Each bout has at least three referees who circle the
skaters and make sure that the action on the track doesn’t get out of hand. Stewart was a skater for years while serving in the military.
When she retired and moved back to San Antonio, she wanted to compete again, but her body had other ideas.
“I was in the middle of my skating assessment for Alamo City … and my body went, ‘Oh, you’re not in the military anymore? Hahaha!’ So it just wasn’t responding the way I’d need it to continue being a skater, but since I had come that far, I went ahead and changed out a skater jersey for a ref jersey.”
With team practices set two to three times a week, the hours the women spend in and around roller derby forges a sense of community that binds them together.
“Being in a competitive league, you’re more bonded with the other players because it’s one common goal,” says Safarti. “I’ve been in a lot of sports and there’s a lot of egos, but in derby everybody’s trying to build everybody else up.”
Safarti got involved in roller derby five years ago and has been with the league for three seasons. To her, the reason why roller derby is so supportive lies in training: “It’s an attainable goal. If you come in every day and you skate, you’re gonna get [the skills necessary to be on the team]. Anybody can do it. And I think that’s what gets everybody to motivate each other.”
For some associated with the team, part of the lure of the Alamo City Roller Girls is the sense of community among the skaters and the volunteers who help organize the bouts.
“My family is from Pennsylvania and I live here, and I have a family of derby,” Arney sad. “No matter what’s going on, there’s always somebody you can call, or ask for help, or just hang out with.”
Apart from nurturing their own tight-knit group women, the Alamo City Roller Girls regularly raise money for their sponsored charity Girls On The Run, a 5k for young women.
“It’s all about empowering women and building up that confidence and strength in them, and that’s one of the things that we do every year,” said Arney.