Faces painted for war under their helmets and fishnet tights hugging their legs under kneepads, a team of women ranging in shape and size take to an oval track to play a game with the intensity of football on skates.
This is roller derby, and for the Big Mountain Misfits, it’s the perfect mix of stress-relieving violence and good-natured fun.
The Flathead Valley Roller Derby league’s all-female teams compete once a month in violent yet colorful games or “bouts.”
Lucky players walk away with sore muscles and bruises, but bouts can sometimes end in broken bones and the occasional concussion, said one of the league’s founding members, Lisa Pooler.
As a right of passage, each skater chooses a derby name to go by when she joins the team. Pooler is known as Scarley Davidson.
The Misfits team captain Kari Hammer (aka Hammer) described the draw of the full-contact sport.
“We get to skate and hit people and have a good time doing it,” Hammer said. “That’s one of the best parts. Work out some aggression.”
Here’s how to play:
Five skaters from each team are on the track. Each team has a jammer, who earns one point for each opposing player she passes — but there’s a catch.
Each of the team’s other four players are blockers, whose job is to work as a pack to keep the jammer from getting through.
“We work together to keep that jammer behind us, knocking her down, knocking her out of bounds, pretty much making her hate every minute of that jam. That’s our job,” said Hammer, who serves primarily as a blocker for her team.
Skaters can only use the area from their shoulders to their elbows and from their hips to their knees to hit or block.
For an idea of the legal zones to hit another skater, imagine a hospital gown, Scarley said. Anything the gown covers, both front and back, is fair game, but once the jammer gets 20 feet out in front of the pack no one can touch her.
Anyone, blocker or jammer, who incurs a penalty, must report to the penalty box or “sin bin.”
The bout is split into two 30-minute sessions, with multiple “jams,” each lasting a maximum of two minutes, comprising each half.
The key to the game, Hammer said, is finding a balance between being overly competitive and playing strictly for fun.
“To be a good team, it takes being really intentional about building your culture, talking with each other about what kind of team you want to be,” Hammer said. “To be a really highly competitive team, you have to agree that you want to work hard at it and that you’re in it not just for yourself, but you’re there for your team.”
The Misfits practice twice a week for two hours.
“We want to be competitive. We want to get better. We want to win games, because winning games is fun. But we also don’t want to lose the fun of it,” Hammer added.
For a Saturday night bout last month, the Misfits dressed out in fluorescent costumes and face paint.
Their opponents, the Snake Pit Derby Dames, stood rink-side in their black and green jerseys with outstretched arms, high-fiving each Misfit as they rolled past.
Ten girls lined up, taking their places around the “jam line” as “Short Skirt Long Jacket” played over the loud speakers.
The crowd hushed as the whistle sounded, launching the two jammers into the pack as the clock began its steady, nonstop tick down to zero.
Snake Pit dominated most of the first half, as Misfit after Misfit headed to the sin bin for various penalties.
Moments after gaining lead-jammer status, Jen Johnson (aka Jenny from the Block) was sent to the penalty box for an illegal hit. Without the support of all five blockers, the girls struggled to hold their formations. When the buzzer sounded, the half ended with the Misfits down 76-95.
Behind the curtain of a makeshift locker room, Misfits coach Steve MacLeay (aka Coach ICU) rallied his team.
Jessica Nelson (aka The Grand Chawhee) stepped up as the first Misfit jammer of the half, bracing herself on the toe of her skate on the jam line. The tall, lean skater specializes in speed and balance, and at the whistle, she launched into the pack, weaving through a cloud of black jerseys and reappearing with a flip of her hair as lead jammer.
Her teammates held their wall, preventing the black-jersey jammer from getting through as Chawhee rounded the track to clear the pack a second time for another five points.
Coach ICU grew more and more animated, bouncing on his toes before leaping in the air as Chawhee made another lap.
“All day long, baby! All day long!” he cheered.
The Snake Pit players fought back, taking lead-jammer status a few more times during the half, but the Misfit blockers held the score in their favor.
With the Misfit jammer benched for the beginning of one jam, a black-jersey jammer lapped the track. She was attempting to break through the pack a second time when Danika Pietron (aka Shotta Patron) shook an opposing blocker and rammed the jammer with her hip, knocking her to a firm, seated position as the rest of the blue-jersey blockers reformed their line.
The dazed Snake Pit jammer called the jam without getting through the pack again.
At the final whistle, Coach ICU greeted the players with a high five and a smiling, reddened face that matched his Wisconsin Badgers cap. The Misfits had come back from a 19-point deficit to win the bout with a final score of 179-148.
“Just because we wear fishnets doesn’t mean we aren’t athletes,” said Jeanne Langan (aka Veruca Slaughter) after having played the entire bout on a sprained ankle.
After each bout, competitors from both teams gather at a local bar to celebrate together, clinking glasses with the women who left them bruised but smiling.
Still dressed in their costumes and face paint, the Misfits collected for a few beers and dancing as they rode the high of the win.
The next Monday night, the girls dragged their gear into the practice facility where they slumped into seats, inspecting the bruises developing on their thighs and arms as they pulled on their skates and padding.
Watching his team rally, the coach smiled.
“The bruises always hurt less after the win,” he said.
He strutted to the center of the rink as the skaters trickled in.
“Y’all a little tired?” he asked.
The girls groaned the affirmative.
“Cool, let’s get some water and hit each other,” he said.
The Big Mountain Misfits’ next home bout will take place at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Feb. 17. For more information visit https://www.fvrollerderby.com