When you think of roller derby, you’re probably going to picture two teams of women dressed up in crazy outfits, wild hair flowing out of the bottom of a helmet and a lot of hitting.
But the players who are part of Centralia’s Rainy City Roller Dolls see the sport a little differently. It’s become an outlet for a group of misfits to cobble together their own family.
The team practices three times a week in the Centralia Rollerdrome, which has everything you’d hope it would have, including green and pink neon light tubes and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the rink.
It’s also a very quiet place on a Sunday morning where the team is goes through its usual exercises and drills. Only about half the members showed up for a recent practice one, but that isn’t stopping them.
Connie Gardner, who is better known in the derby world as "Con-Tagious," is one of the leaders of the group. She’s been in four different derby leagues and came to the game from a slightly different path than maybe a typical “sporty” type would. She just wanted to make friends.
“I’ve never played a sport. I’ve never been physical. I’ve never felt the urge to work out. I’ve never done any of that," Gardner said. "I was bored, I was like, ‘Hey, I should check out this roller derby thing.’”
Going from non-athlete to, as she calls herself “an okay skater,” hasn’t necessarily been an easy transition, but it’s been worth it. Gardner says the Rainy City Roller Dolls give her a “familial feel” and out of all the groups she’s played with, she’s been the most comfortable with this team of skaters.
“We want to help each other and build each other up and work with each other, and just enjoy each other and their company," Gardner said. "So, it doesn’t matter whether this is your first season or your 10th season, right? We’re all in it together and we’re only as good as each other.”
Supporting your fellow teammate is a big part of derby, especially when you see they’re struggling with learning rules of the game or even how to skate.
A lot of roller derby players, just like Gardner, come to the game without much experience of actually being on a team.
And that could be for a few reasons: concern about not being athletic enough or maybe about the cost to play.
For others, as Gardner explains, players might not have felt comfortable with other teams.
“We are, I think, the only sport that is so gender inclusive, which is incredible and something I truly love," she said. "We have folks that are non-binary. We have folks identify as queer. We have folks that identify as straight. We have folks that don’t identify, ya know?”
Two of the seven players at practice on a recent Sunday identify with he/him, they/them pronouns. Tei Hopkins, or "Enbydemic," says, for him, playing with the team means more than just getting a little exercise.
“I obviously need, like, a place that’s safe for me and no one’s going to give me a hard time in regards to gender stuff. Because it’s just, like, at the end of the day I just wanna play a sport and not have to deal with, like, any kind of issues or anything like that,” he said.
In fact, derby is Hopkins’ first ever team sports thanks, in large part, to the rules around who gets to play. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which governs teams like Rainy City, adopted a gender policy seven years ago focused on making the sport more inclusive.
Now, even the team has talked about revising its own name to replace or completely drop the “Dolls” from the title. Hopkins says he isn’t surprised to see these changes happen.
“Because originally with, like, roller derby it’s kind of, like, tied into the punk rock, feminist sort of movement. So I feel like roller derby kind of caters to a marginalized group of people,” he said.
It also caters to people looking for an outlet. In Hopkins' case, he wanted to get out of the house more and find ways to cope with his mental health.
For "Ivana Pop-A-Tart," aka Beki Parvin, it was a way to spend her time after her kids left the house.
She says each of the players is searching for something, whether it’s getting out your aggression, staying active, or finding new friends. Parvin has dedicated herself to the sport after trying it on a whim a few years ago in Tacoma.
And roller derby has made her feel empowered, even on her worst days.
“Over the years, you know, there’s always the self-doubt that comes in. ‘Oh, I didn’t have a good practice. I didn’t do that well.’ But I am strong," Parvin said. "And the most important thing is, I’m not sitting on my couch. I’m out. I’m enjoying myself. I mean, no matter where my story ends, you know, years from now or next year because the team changes so much because life happens and people go, but these people here will always be a part of me. Always.”
Parvin explains that the camaraderie in the game is what sets roller derby apart. Part of that, she says, may have something to do with it being such a high-contact sport.
“In other sports I feel like you still have your personal bubble. I mean, in other sports, you still have a tiny bit of a contact. But when you start contacting each other, like, literally your shoulders are making contact, your hips are making contact, you don’t have a bubble. In society, those bubbles are what protect you," Parvin said. "And so, when you start tearing down those bubbles, it just kind of automatically, I think, lets people in.”
The act of letting people in isn’t an easy thing for anybody. But players on this team have found that taking a risk, both physical and mental, can pay off. And that’s made it possible to create a community for themselves where one didn’t exist before.