When Sandi "Murd R." Johnson first signed on with the Hard Knox Roller Girls in 2006, she figured it would be a matter of months before the newbie league was accepted into the national Women's Flat Track Derby Association, she says.
"But it took almost three years. It turns out it's a really big deal."
In March, the league got the nod, joining 78 other leagues in four divisions. It's now eligible for ranking each quarter by a jury of peers, playoffs involving the top 10 teams in each region playing for three berths at the national championships, and maybe, one day, to be the undisputed national champs.
Not bad for a league whose members pay about $35 dues each month to play, and who all have day jobs, ranging from engineer to detective to nurse to chef. And that has just 25 members on average to handle the rigors of a contact sport, two-hour twice-a-week practices, and once-a-month away bouts from February to mid-November—not to mention mandatory public interface and community service.
The Windy City Rollers in Chicago, by contrast, consistently have 80-100 women registered to participate. And the region Hard Knox draws from isn't exactly a hotbed of roller derby. The nearest teams are in Atlanta, Nashville, and Memphis, but none of them are ranked in the top three in a division, and Hard Knox is just as likely to travel to, say, Indiana or even Texas for bouts, alternating home and away every two weeks.
The inclusion in the national organization is even more notable in the current climate: Roller derby is becoming so popular in certain areas that the WFTDA had to temporarily suspend new memberships in February, resuming in May.
"It's gotten so strict, they really want to know all about you," says Johnson, who lives in Oak Ridge and just this year retired from the track to become Hard Knox's first coach at age 40. "You have to be recommended from three leagues, and one has to be close to you. Unlike the old days, now they want to play you, and see you, before they'll decide to recommend you. We had to fill out lots and lots of papers. And it takes lots of networking—we never would have been considered if we hadn't gotten a lot of compliments from other leagues that we played."
Part of the rep Hard Knox has established is their ability to be aggressive and entertaining without crossing the line. "Unlike the '70s, we're a sport now," says Donna "Ruby Vicious" Dearmon, who takes on public relations duties for the team. "We have rules against any type of fighting and unfair play. Like any sport, a fight may break out, but it's not an integral part of the game."
Johnson, a personal trainer by day who says she took the coaching job because she's always been a leader and "I have a loud mouth," watches her skaters for signs of "overheating."
"They know if they can't hold their temper, they'll be benched," she says. "And I'm extremely strict about playing someone with an injury. I look out for the player's safety, keep morale up, and maybe argue with the referee. Even there, I use more sugar than vinegar. This is a fast-paced game, and there's no instant replay."
The membership in WFTDA, or "woofed-da" as the skaters like to call it, further expands on Hard Knox's policies. The association's rulebook covers everything from the baseball slide (a player must be able to "perform this fall with both legs on or near the ground") to insurance requirements (skaters must purchase a special "roller derby" type policy) to player persona names.
"The WFTDA doesn't allow names that are offensive or seriously sexual," says Johnson. "Ours pass, even though some of them are suggestive, like Dirty Girl. And Rockalottapus. That always gets a lot of votes in the fan contests, because the kids like it, thinking it's a dinosaur name. The double entendre is definitely PG-13."
Now that they're in, next on the Hard Knox agenda is moving up in the rankings. "We'll be at the top soon," says Dearmon without hesitation.
"I love to hear my players talk that way, but it may take us a little while," Johnson says. "It makes a difference who you play—if you play a higher-ranked team and beat them, you're going to move up in the rankings faster."
And when you don't win? "This sport takes a lot of bravery," she says. "We might take some hard ass-kickings. We got beaten very badly by Cincinnati, for example. But we definitely walked away with more knowledge than we went in with."
Johnson would like more area women to join the league. "We really need someone with heart, who's going to stick with it—that's more important than great skating skills," she says. "Sometimes we're blessed and we get both."