In the six years the Steel City Roller Derby has been in existence it has created a thriving subcutlure of fanatics in Western Pennsylvania.
Although the weekly bouts provide loads of entertainment for the hundreds of fans that show up, for many of the women on the teams the competitions have provided much more.
“When we step on the track and we’re doing our warm-up, that’s when the adrenaline starts pumping,” said Canonsburg resident Heather “Hurricane Heather” Groll. “Then when they do the announcements and they introduce every single derby girl on your team that steps on the track, you hear that crowd not only cheering whenever they hear your name, but cheering for the girls you hang out with several times a week – then your heart really gets pumping and it fills your heart with so much adrenaline,” Groll said.
Groll is one of a number of Washington County residents skating with the Steel City Roller Derby, a Pittsburgh organization that competes in the national Women’s Flat Track Derby Association and also has several in-house teams that play on a less-competitive level.
During a recent event in June, a crowd gathered in the stands at the Romp n’ Roll roller rink in Glenshaw to watch the Pittsburgh Steel Hurtin’ face off against the Chicago Syndicate – and they were treated to a couple hours’ worth of feminine fury.
Heather Groll’s sister, Leanne “Leannibal Lecter” Groll, is also a member of the organization. A fellow Canonsburg native, she drives from her home in Youngstown, Ohio, where she’s a student, to Pittsburgh so that she can compete with her older sibling.
“My sister was doing it and I thought it was something that was really awesome and saw how she transformed as a person,” Leanne Groll said. “It was a great thing and I wanted in on the action.”
Roller derby is a sport that has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years. Bentleyville native Jen “Bonecrusher” Berardinelli said she got into the sport after seeing the 2006 movie “Rollergirls,” a true story based on a derby team in Texas.
“When I was much younger, I was at Donora’s skating rink constantly,” Berardinelli said. “It’s huge and it’s nice and it’s something to do. I grew up in Washington County and there isn’t always much going on.”
The Pittsburgh club grew out of the popularity generated by the feature film. Berardinelli became one of the team’s original skaters when she found the group online.
“I saw the ad on Craigslist,” Berardinelli said. “I thought, ‘Either this will be something really cool, or something creepy. I don’t know, but either way …”
Roller derby is a physical, full-contact sport. Each team of five designates a “jammer” that scores points by lapping players in the opposing team’s “pack.” The tightly bunched pack uses an aresenal that includes hip and shoulder checks to jostle for position and allow their jammer to pass while obstructing the opposing jammer.
The women who play roller derby said in addition to providing them with great cardiovascular workouts, the sport has done unspeakable good for their lives off the track.
“Before I started, and my sister can attest to this, I was very introverted,” Leanne Groll said.
“I liked music but I didn’t go out and do a whole lot. But ever since doing roller derby I’ve built confidence. Without getting emotional, I am am able to stand up for myself better, stand up for what I believe in,” Groll said as her voice cracked with feeling.
Roller derby can be a rough-and-tumble sport with injuries fairly prevalent. But despite the intense competition inside the ring, the women said they leave it all behind once the match ends.
“I hit people really hard and hurt people,” Berardinelli said. “It’s a part of the game. But in real life when I’m not on skates, I’m actually kind of awkward and dorky and really nice. People don’t expect that.”
Berardinelli has taken her share of bruising hits as well. She is not shy about pointing out the teeth that were missing, lost on the track over the past six seasons.
“Derby is kind of unique,” Berardinelli said. “We will go out and beat the crap out of the team we’re playing today and then we will go out drinking a beer and talking derby. I don’t know many other groups that are like that.”
The combination of bone-jarring action and off-track bonding makes for a unique breed of athlete.
“Derby girls are crazy,” Berardinelli said, “but it’s the good kind of crazy.”