BLOWING UP the skating scene

A team of local women win by making contact playing roller derby on the skating rink. Strong and entertaining competitors, the Dubuque Bomb Squad is eager to share their passion for the game and need for a new home.

They admit not everyone might know them or understand roller derby, which typically is played by amateurs on a flat skating track.

“It’s a full-contact team sport,” said Whiplash Willow, whose name off the rink is Marie Brown, of Dubuque. “We play for fun, camaraderie and the love of derby.”

Willow has played for a year and a half and serves as the team’s vice president. She also is a stay-at-home mom of three boys, home-schools them and volunteers in the community. Her life already is busy. But now, she makes time for her extended derby family.

Originally part of the Eastern Iowa Outlaws, which dissolved, the Bomb Squad started in 2013. A handful of skaters wanted to continue playing, and Courtside Bar & Grill agreed to be its home court.

Two original players, known as Fischer Price and Mean Cuisine, founded the new team. It includes 12 active members ranging from age 18 to 60. Mainly, the women play while two men are in training to be referees.

“We have a great group of women and men who bring a lot to our table,” Willow said. “I can’t think of a day where I didn’t want to be there because the attitudes stunk. If one person is down, there are a dozen others to pick you up. We all bring something unique to our derby.”

All players have or are developing their skate names. In the Bomb Squad line-up, members include Bitter-sweetie, Batstitch Crazy, Raven Loonatik, ArtiChokeYa and Rama-llama-dingdong. Skate names are more than nicknames to these women.

Their alter egos are like “names warriors once used to feel more ferocious in battle,” according to The Cauldron, an athlete-driven content partnership with Sports Illustrated. Around 100,000 women play roller derby worldwide, and more than 90,000 have registered skate names.

“Roller derby is about becoming — escaping from society’s confining generalizations to become who they truly are. Not week, but strong. Not helpless, but powerful,” The Cauldron said. “A strong, inspiring pseudonym helps create a strong, inspired identity.”

For the women in Dubuque’s roller derby, their main goal is skating well to score points for the team.

“We officially practice the game four hours a week,” said Fischer Price, a skater also known as Sarah Oberbroecking, of Dubuque.

Price has skated with the group for seven years.

“Skaters do a lot on their own to gain skills, such as visiting our local rink (Skate County) and skating the many trails around Dubuque. Our skates become our second shoes,” Price said.

They play monthly games, called bouts, with other roller derby groups in the tri-states. A bout lasts an hour and consists of two sessions with a half-time break. Within the bout, play happens in two-minute jams or matches.

“On the track, the jam consists of five players from each team, including the jammer, pivot, and three blockers,” Willow said. “The objective is to get your jammer through the opposing team’s blocker to earn points while stopping their jammer from scoring points in the process.”

Roller derby started in the 1930s and has gone through several revivals during the years. Once scripted and played for primarily entertainment, today it’s considered a sport and was considered for a future Olympics.

In Dubuque, Willow said, “We play unsanctioned WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) bouts. We work with other leagues that are established within four hours to get bouts set up.”

The skaters alternate serving on the board of directors and as coaches.

At this time, the players are all women, but Price said they welcome nonbinary or transgender. Men can play if the game is designated as co-ed. Roller derby is known for being inclusive and welcomes anyone interested in participating.

“We have official recruitment sessions instead of tryouts because everyone can do this, even if maybe not at the beginning,” Price said. “We will train skaters from scratch. The easiest way to join the league is to contact us. We’ll invite you to a practice, and then, you’ll get hooked.”

The players are dedicated to growing their league and aim to double their roster. With the closure of Courtside, though, the team is facing their biggest challenge.

“As a league, we were lucky to have an amazing facility and sponsor with Courtside,” Price said. “They closed their doors in March, and we’ve been homeless and on the hunt for a permanent home since then.”

Because of this, the group can play only away games. They are seeking a home base for offer local games to their audience.

“We have an amazing fan base and support system here in Dubuque,” Willow said.

The squad is dedicated to this community in many ways. They regularly donate/volunteer for local charities and present at conventions and to schools. They want to share their story of female strength and sportsmanship.

“We are one,” Willow said. “We play, practice and are a team off the track. We celebrate birthdays for the team, attend our children’s birthdays and celebrate important life events together. It’s truly a family.”

As for the players’ actual relatives, many travel along to watch games and wear squad T-shirts to promote the team. Families are in the crowd, holding signs and encouraging sponsors for the group.

They seem to recognize that since its start, roller derby games have been something to see. The Dubuque Bomb Squad is no exception.

“Each player’s personality can be seen and felt by their name plus the stockings, leggings, attire, or make-up they wear to the bout,” Willow said. “The most important thing is what they bring to the league. We all have unique traits that make the Bomb Squad great.”

According to these ladies, there is a place for everybody in enjoying roller derby. It’s a model for encouraging individual expression while standing (or in their case, skating) strong.

“Roller Derby empowers women by allowing them to be exactly who they are,” Willow said. “Derby focuses on each players strengths and provide a supportive platform to work on our weaknesses. We get to be exactly what we are that day at practice/bout. One day, we are 18 years old and fresh meat, agile, quick on our feet and jumping through the air. Or, we are 60 years old — strong, steady with year of knowledge playing our retirement bout. I get to be a 32-year-old, plus-size mom, with a giant butt and thighs. I get to say, ‘Good luck getting past me.’ I am not fast. I don’t jump through the air. I can’t tip toe around other players. But I am sturdy. I am part of a solid wall. I am a blocker. I am accepted for exactly who I am.”

Sherri Edwards is a freelance writer from Dubuque.

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