‘Not Your Momma’s Roller Derby’

Revived this century as a violent, circus-like spectacle, modern roller derby is an inclusive, empowering and family friendly — but still full contact — sport that’s celebrating 10 seasons in the Flathead Valley

By Andy Viano
Big Mountain Misfits of the Flathead Valley break their huddle during a match against Hel’z Belles of Helena in a roller derby bout at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Feb. 29, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Jeanne Langan picked up from the other side of the country and moved west without any family, friends or firm long-term plans.

Kari Hammer left a decade in corporate information technology to find her inner (and outer) farmer.

Mara Hanks came to the Flathead Valley for a restart.

And Siina Swanson-MacLeay, well, she doesn’t even live here, technically, and if we’re being honest, moving to Polson to be closer to her ranch, her horses and her day job isn’t the journey of self-discovery that fits here.

Although, in another way, it kind of fits perfectly.

The four (OK, officially three of them) are Big Mountain Misfits, a collection of collision-happy women from throughout Northwest Montana who come together to play a misunderstood sport with a bunch of teammates who at one time or another have felt at least as misunderstood. They play roller derby, the game that conjures up visions of clotheslines, sucker punches, tattoos and bloodlust, and they do it with a group of people that welcomed them completely from the first day they strapped on skates.

“It’s one of the most important things in my life,” Hammer said. “It’s the thing that keeps me wanting to keep finding those people and bring them into the fold because I’ve seen the difference it can make for people to have a place that they feel comfortable.”

Venjennce of Big Mountain Misfits of the Flathead Valley intently watches the match unfold against Hel’z Belles of Helena in a roller derby bout at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Feb. 29, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Feeling comfortable is not, for many people, the sensation they would expect when introduced to women named Venjennce, Honey Suck It and Ruh-Roh, some with varying amounts of horror-show makeup on their face, but that is precisely what everyone gets wrong with roller derby.

The history of women — and to a lesser degree men — cruising around on four wheels has gone through fits and starts over the last 100-ish years since roller derby began. The early days were straightforward races, but before long those races, often around banked oval tracks, became team-based bouts. And when those bouts made it to television, in the 1970s, the competitions began to bear an unflattering resemblance to professional wrestling.

No one thought much of roller derby again for decades, when a new community adopted what was then a relic of a bygone era in America. In the early 2000s, a group of disaffected Texans started holding rowdy derby bouts on flat tracks and borrowed heavily from the punk aesthetic, introducing tattoos, fishnets and intentional sexuality to the sport, but that too would fade as the sport spread across the country and decidedly un-punk things like governing bodies writing down rules started to happen.

Those two eras of the sport gave birth to the roller derby of today, the kind played by groups like Flathead Valley Roller Derby, the organization based out of Kalispell that sponsors the Misfits and is currently celebrating its 10th season. There are still elements of earlier eras, like the nicknames and face paint, but the bouts like the one held at Flathead County Fairgrounds on Feb. 29 are family friendly and not what newcomers often expect.

“There’s a saying, ‘Not your momma’s roller derby,’” Swanson-MacLeay said. “And that’s what it is. It’s not the same as what it was.”

Hammer, whose derby nickname is, conveniently, Hammer, came to the sport of derby without much of an athletic background. She focused her attention on debate and theater growing up and first came to the sport as a spectator in Minneapolis, one of roller derby’s current hotbeds. Hammer tried but failed to make a team in Minnesota, but when she and her husband moved to Montana five years ago, she found the Flathead Valley Roller Derby almost immediately and has been part of the organization ever since, serving virtually that entire time as the head of training. She is one of two co-captains (Swanson MacLeay is the other), and while both captains moonlight for Team Montana, an all-star team, Hammer has made it her mission to keep the FVRD accessible to anyone, regardless of age, build, financial means or skill level.

Langan, who moved to Whitefish as a pottery apprentice six years ago, heard a radio ad for the derby and thought, “That would be up around my alley.”

“My first time out I literally could not stand up,” Langan said. “My now-teammate was holding my wheels to the floor so I could learn the derby standing position.”

Langan, who goes by Veruca Slaughter, spent 10 months toiling away as a practice player before getting onto the Misfits competitive roster. Derby might not be as physical as the version in the 70s, but contact is both encouraged and celebrated, so players are not allowed into a bout until they can hit, and fall, safely.

The physicality of derby is what brought Swanson-MacLeay, aka IllumiNAUGHTY, into the fold. She played every sport imaginable growing up, including football, wrestling and basketball, but she excelled most in track and field, eventually competing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Colorado State University. After college, she moved to the Cody, Wyoming area and tried to use beer-league softball to quench her thirst for competition. It didn’t work, so she started a derby team, Heart Mountain Wreck on Wheels, “because softball’s not contact enough.”

Swanson-MacLeay isn’t the only one who came to derby looking to hit someone, either. It’s a huge part of the draw, the competitors say, a chance to do something that’s normally frowned upon, particularly for women and girls.

“There is something to be said about being able to really get out there and give it everything and fight hard, and to be celebrated for it and not judged for it,” Hammer said. “The vast majority of the team is like, ‘When are we going to hit?’”

Big Mountain Misfits of the Flathead Valley face Hel’z Belles of Helena in a roller derby bout at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Feb. 29, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Mara Hanks played basketball and volleyball growing up in Thompson Falls and was living in Missoula when she decided she needed a change. So she moved north.

“I just couldn’t break out of the box of what was expected of me,” she said. “I came here to get away and start anew and it was super nice being somewhere where no one expected you to do or be a certain way.”

About a year after she moved to town, in the spring or early summer of 2017, Hanks and a friend went to a FVRD bout after-party at the Kalispell VFW and met Hammer, who talked her into giving roller derby a shot before the end of the night.

“There’s a base level of complete acceptance (on the team),” Hanks said. “You show up and everyone’s just so happy you’re there. I would fall — I fell a bunch — and everyone would say, ‘Oh, that’s an amazing fall!’”

So Hanks kept coming back and, despite an injury that’s prevented her from playing for the Misfits so far, she is now the group’s head non-skating official. Hanks, who said she experiences social anxiety, said that after an initial period of uncertainty she quickly felt at home in roller derby.

“It’s really empowering to be a part of it and feel like you fit in somewhere,” Hanks said.

The derby truly is inclusive in almost every way (the lone exception might be men, who are permitted and encouraged to officiate and coach), and that is by design. No matter the body shape, the sexual orientation, the politics, wealth or age of any interested participant, roller derby starts in the same place, at boot camp, and it ends with a celebration, regardless of the result of any bout.

“Derby to me is about accepting that it’s OK to be a strong, powerful woman,” Swanson-MacLeay said. “It’s OK for you to lay the beatdown on someone, and it’s not like that’s un-ladylike. It’s expected. This is what we do. It’s a safe sport for all of that and it’s awesome.”

“(Derby) will commonly attract folks that don’t feel comfortable in some of those other spaces, and has been inclusive and supportive and building of people who are different, and we embrace that,” Hammer said. “And it’s not just punk. It’s whatever it is that makes you feel like you couldn’t play hockey or you couldn’t go into this other group, there’s a home for you in roller derby.”

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

Learn more about Flathead Valley Roller Derby and check out their upcoming bout schedule at www.fvrollerderby.com.

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