Pictured Blade girls. #3 Crimson CrusHER. Photos by Ross Forman
Julie Adams was walking in Roscoe Village one day during the summer of 2004 when Elizabeth Gomez approached. She handed Adams a flyer about an upcoming roller derby league that was forming, and Gomez said Adams would be perfect for the sport, even though the two had never met or even talked.
Adams went to the first roller derby meeting, which Gomez had been hyping on the flyer, 'and was impressed.' She was one of about 100 curious about derby.
Adams, after all, was a high school basketball player who also has experience playing lacrosse and field hockey. Plus, she loves the outdoors and is an avid bicycle rider.
'After a couple of practices, I immediately fell in love with derby,' said Adams, 31, of Wicker Park, a freelance graphic designer.
Flash forward to the fall of 2005. Adams is now Crimson CrusHER, captain of The Fury, one of four teams in the Windy City Rollers, an all-female roller derby league that culminates its first season Nov. 13 with the inaugural championship bout at the Congress Theatre on North Milwaukee Avenue. Adams, meanwhile, is the rebel known as Juanna Rumble, also on The Fury, which faces the Double Crossers for the title.
Crimson CrusHER and Juanna Rumble are one heckuva track tandem, and they're real-life best friends, too.
'I never envisioned we'd be at this level with the league, with what we've built,' Adams said. 'I never could have imagined this back when that strange girl stuck a flyer in my face, and told me I had to attend that first meeting, that I'd be perfect for derby.
'But the dedication, the loyalty, the camaraderie of everyone has been incredible.'
There are four teams in the Windy City Rollers league: Hell's Belles, The Fury, the Double Crossers and the Manic Attackers. Each woman, naturally, has a unique, self-created derby moniker. They refer to each other by those names and, quite often, don't always know someone's off-skates name. Adams' skater name was given to her by a friend after she sought suggestions.
The league features Athena DeCrime, Anita Bier, Quiet Storm, Ivana Krushya, Anne Putation, Queen B, Violet Nature and Ida Ho, among others.
Players range in age from 21 to 40, and the league features real-life lawyers, students, saleswomen and marketing executives. And moms, too. On Adams' team, there are two moms with kids. There are 61 active skaters.
'The friendships and the families that have formed from derby are unbelievable,' Adams said. 'I never would have imagined it. But I'll be friends for life with these people. Derby creates a strange little bond, but that's a good thing.'
The league has come a long way since the first practice, held Sept. 16, 2004, when many of the competitors couldn't even skate, let alone know the technical keys to the game. But the group has been dedicated, often practicing twice-a-week in Palatine and Lombard, or on the South Side of the city. Although less than half of the players even have cars, about 65 regulars have endured the road, literally, through snow, rain and more.
They now call a second-story facility at Hubbard and Western as their home.
'It's been great to build something and watch it form, so to speak,' said Adams, who hails from Columbus, Ohio. 'It's been great, better than I ever expected. In fact, I never would or could have anticipated it'd be this good.'
The league had one exhibition match over the summer, then started its once-a-month matches in July, kicking the league off with July's 'Red, White & Bruise.' That was followed in August by 'Birthday Bash' and 'School Daze Showdown' in September. The playoffs were held in October.
'The second Sunday of every month is Roller Derby Night' is the league's unofficial marketing campaign.
'The highlight so far has been my team, the way it has really come together,' said Adams, one of the most vocal players in the league. 'All of the hard work, all of the practices, wow, it's all been worth it.
'A lot of us were nervous early on, but everyone has gotten better, especially since a lot of us weren't too good when we first started.'
Adams credits her improvement to her past sporting background, plus her real-life skills of working with others.
The Windy City Rollers have developed into the highest-drawing derby league in the nation ( of more than 30 across America ) , regularly packing the Congress Theatre with 2,000 raucous fans, many toting hand-made banners and flyers. They cheer wildly from the balcony and often ask the league's stars for autographs. There are teenage fans and grandmothers, Black, white and every ethnicity around. Heck, one fan is a kindergarten teacher who took a photo once with several skaters, so she could show her students that, if they put their mind to it, they can do anything.
'I think there are a lot of people who never would have imagined the bonding possibilities with this sport. We've all gained 60 best friends. I like to call it, the sorority for the different kids,' Adams said, laughing.
The fun has not come without pain, literally. Adams, for instance, has a nasty-looking eight-inch bruise on her leg. Sure, she's proud of the battle scar, but that's just one of many marks left by the bruising action. The league's MASH ward also has included broken collarbones, twisted ankles, bruised tailbones, injured knees and dislocated shoulders, among other ailments.
The Windy City Rollers will comprise a 13-member team that will attend a roller derby tournament next February in Tucson, with 18 leagues also competing from other cities. Next year, the Windy City Rollers also plan to start traveling for bouts, to places like Wisconsin, New York, California, Texas and elsewhere.
'I've played high school sports, but enjoy this much, much more, hands down,' Adams said.
Kelly Simmons and Gomez are the league's founders. They were inspired by the Texas Roller Girls of Austin, a group that regularly attracted sold-out crowds of 1,100 to its bouts. 'We couldn't believe the crowds they were drawing; we thought that was an incredible amount. Now we're blowing away their numbers,' said Simmons, 35, who lives in Ukraine Village and has developed on skates into Sister Sledgehammer, a member of the evil Double Crossers.
'This is a very grueling sport. We all take a tremendous beating,' said Simmons. 'There's definitely a fight-club element to this and, yes, this sport breaks all the rules.'
The Windy City Rollers tentatively will resume play next April, running through November.
'I never envisioned we'd get to this point, absolutely not. Heck, I never envisioned in a million years that I'd be involved with roller derby,' Simmons said. 'Our fans just find something very compelling about derby. Our selling point all along has been, it's girls in mini-skirts beating each other up on roller skates. And it's not just men who find that compelling; it's women, too.'
WHAT IS ROLLER DERBY?
There are three positions for skaters, Pivot, Blocker and Jammer, each with a defined role. Let's see:
The Pivot sets the pace for the pack and is the last line of defense. She wears the helmet with a stripe. The Blocker tries to stop the jammer and makes life difficult for the opposing team's blockers; The Jammer tears through the pack and scores points by passing members of the opposing team. She wears the helmet with a star.
So how's the game go?
The pack begins with a pivot from each team in front, 3 blockers from each team in the middle, and a jammer from each team in the back. When the whistle blows, the pack takes off, and on a second whistle, the jammers blast off and fight their way through the pack in an attempt to become 'lead jammer.' The jammers lap the pack and when they re-enter the pack, they receive one point for each member of the opposing team that they pass. A jam lasts a maximum of two minutes, but the 'lead jammer' has the right to call off the jam at her discretion.
As the league's touts, it might appear as though there are no rules among the combatants, but there are penalties for certain behavior, such as: false starts, excessive skating out of bounds, holding, illegal blocking, intentional tripping and falling, illegal use of the hands, carrying a concealed weapon and, uh, selling tobacco to minors.
Hey, this is roller derby, remember, where just about everything goes.