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Roller derby women find sisterhood and encouragement on wheels

Members of the Orange County Roller Derby league practice at The Rinks in Huntington Beach on Monday
Members of the Orange County Roller Derby league practice at The Rinks in Huntington Beach on Sept. 18.
(Photo by Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

When Brenna Vigneau moved from Rhode Island to Aliso Viejo three years ago, she was so homesick she cried every day until the night when she went to Oktoberfest at Old World in Huntington Beach.

A couple of women roller-skated up to her and said something about how she seemed to like the beer she was drinking, so maybe she’d like roller derby.

They gave her a flier.

Vigneau had been a cheerleader in college. She also played rugby.

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“I really liked the idea of being able to throw down,” she says. “And there’s so little opportunity for women to compete after college. I thought ‘I got to do this; this is awesome.’ ”

She showed up at the next Orange County Roller Derby practice. And just like that, Vigneau, social worker by day, became Rhode Rage, skater girl by night. Tears be gone.

“It gave me a community,” she says.

A community of friends with names like Shreddie Crueger, Fierce Brosnan and Panic Attack’er.

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Members of the Orange County Roller Derby league practice at The Rinks in Huntington Beach. Derby is competitive, and a full-contact sport.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer )

The friends were skating up a sweat on a recent Monday night at The Rinks, an indoor practice rink in Huntington Beach.

Wearing kneepads, mouth guards and helmets, they jammed, bumped and blocked each other as they raced around the flat track for points. Referees on skates followed the grappling pack, blowing whistles.

“It gives you a mental toughness that I don’t think a lot of people have in their everyday life,” says Vigneau, 31.

A scrimmage in 2015 ended with her breaking her leg in four places. On the hospital gurney she swore off derby. Six months later she was back on skates. She’s got a tattoo to commemorate the ordeal: A roller skating skeleton with four breaks in its leg.

Vigneau is good enough to be on her league’s traveling A-team: Pulp Friction. Her captain is Canadian Bacon, a.k.a. Natalie Bursztyn.

“I have a similar story as Rhodie, minus the crying,” joked Bursztyn, 37.

She grew up in Canada playing rugby and rowing competitively and is now a geology professor at Cal State Fullerton. Joining derby “filled the team void.”

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For Marnie Wright, derby is a way to unwind after work. Wright, 34, is an embalmer at a Santa Ana mortuary. Her derby name: Rikki Mortis.

“My job can be quite intense,” she says. “The things I’ve seen — when I come to derby practice I don’t have to think about work; it’s my escape. When I leave here, I’m charged up.”

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Mental and physical toughness are on display at a recent Orange County Roller Derby league practice at The Rinks in Huntington Beach.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer )

Pulp Friction practices three nights and one weekend morning a week, year-round. About once a month they have a bout with another team, and that’s when the torn fishnets come out. The bouts can get rowdy, with disco DJs or rock bands and up to a few hundred cheering fans.

Derby is having a moment.

It’s not exactly the glory days of the ’70s when the L.A. Thunderbirds and a handful of other big city teams got paychecks and sponsorships and skated for TV viewers, drawing tens of thousands to arenas like Madison Square Garden.

But derby leagues are seeping into suburbia, popping up at rinks and parking lots across the country. There are a couple dozen flat-track leagues (as opposed to the old-school bank tracks) from Long Beach down to Oceanside and out to Riverside.

Orange County leagues include Badfish (Cypress), High Tide (Garden Grove), South Coast Roller Derby (Laguna Hills) and Outlaw Renegade Rollergirls (Fountain Valley).

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Team rivalry is a thing, “but it’s no Tanya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan,” Wright says, laughing. “For most of us, our biggest competitor is ourself. We’re striving for self-improvement.”

Nevertheless, “fresh meat” should know it is competitive, and it is a full-contact sport.

On Monday, Shreddie Crueger (human name Diana Hill) watched the practice from a wheelchair. She broke her tibia and fibula a month ago during a blocking drill.

“Friends hit friends hard is one of our things,” says Vigneau.

All in fun, of course.

“I love crushing souls, but I’m a goofball,” explains Bursztyn. “I take great athletic satisfaction in preventing the opposition from doing what they’re trying to do. But not in a serious way.”

That no-hard-feelings attitude is part of the draw.

“It’s nice to see some really tough women be completely themselves and have that being encouraged,” Wright says. “There’s not the social pressure to be what people think of as feminine.”

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Orange County Roller Derby league skaters’ nicknames are proudly displayed on their helmets.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer )

But you don’t have to be ready to rumble to join derby. All women are welcome. Even if you hated gym class.

Caroline Scott never played sports. “Throw me a ball and I would cry,” she says. But then one day some derby girls skated up to her at a chili cook-off in Tustin and handed her a flier.

Scott, who owns a film production company in Irvine, just had a baby, so the answer was no.

But she also is plagued by anxiety, and four years after that encounter, it had only worsened. She’d held onto that flier, and one day took the leap and showed up at a practice.

Today, at age 45, she is one of the oldest members in her league. Her derby name: Panic Attack’er.

“I needed a way to get all that anxiety out,” she says. “I can go in and be shaky and upset and then I start skating and that just starts melting away. There’s a calm that comes with it. It definitely gives me strength in other areas.”

She references a scene in the 2009 roller derby movie “Whip It” where Ellen Page’s character walks up to the cool roller derby chick, played by Kristen Wiig, and tells her she is her hero.

“Put on a pair of skates and be your own hero,” Wiig tells Page.

Scott, and her derby teammates, have done just that.

Lori Basheda is a contributor to Times Community News.


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