Every week, members of the Forx Roller Derby League meet up to practice. Their team is called the “Sugar Beaters,” and recent temperatures in the 90s did not deter them from skating in the parking lot of the old medical school in Grand Forks.
At first glance, the casual observer might think they were a group of women out roller-skating. However, a closer look at the extensive amount of padding they wear, including helmets, mouth and wrist guards, and knee and elbow pads, indicates that something much more serious is about to go down.
The Sugar Beaters say they are nice people but that there is nothing “sweet” about roller derby.
“It’s a full-contact sport,” said head coach Jules Amundson. “Injuries happen. We get bruises and we’ve also had some head injuries, torn muscles and broken bones.”
However, all 13 members of the Sugar Beaters say that the health benefits of physical activity and strong bonds of friendship far outweigh the risk of injury.
“It was their idea and then a whole bunch of us worked together to get it going,” said Amundson. “We all wanted a name that would reflect this region. The sugarbeet industry is something that is really unique in this area. That’s why the team is called the ‘Sugar Beaters,’ and the American Crystal Sugar Company has sponsored us from the very beginning.”
The team’s name and the names of the players reflect the one-of-a-kind culture of roller derby. Name selection is serious business because the name a player chooses will be their name for as long as they are a derby skater, and becomes their persona in the sport.
“We pick a name that is unique and individual, and shows attitude. It tends to be puns or plays on words, and expresses your personal interests,” said Jo No Mercy, 28, of Grand Forks. “Names are also a rite of passage. You get your name after you learn how to skate, learn the skills and understand the rules of roller derby.”
Roller derby prides itself on inclusivity, and any woman who is at least 18 years old is welcome to join the Sugar Beaters. According to Amundson, the only requirements are a sassy attitude, enthusiasm and a strong desire to learn.
New team members are referred to by the team as “fresh meat” or “sugar babies,” and must successfully pass Amundson’s six-week boot camp held in June and July.
“We have to explain it a million times to other friends and family,” said Mighty Mouse. “They are very supportive, but they don’t get it.”
Jo No Mercy’s parents are huge derby fans who love to cheer for the team.
“They like to ‘help’ Jules coach from the sidelines, but they don’t always understand the rules,” she laughed.
“And then there are the people who just come to watch women be violent in short shorts,” added Artie, 30, of Hallock, Minnesota.
Mighty Mouse and teammate Sky describe roller derby as having the footwork of hockey combined with the speed of speedskating and the blocking of basketball.
“Everyone knows the rules for basketball, though. Roller derby is not as well-known,” Sky said. “It’s really not very similar to any other sport.”
Roller derby traces its origins to the popularity of roller skating and the banked-track roller skating marathons of the 1930s. Modern roller derby began in Chicago and its creation is generally credited to promoter Leo Seltzer and sportswriter Damon Runyon. The sport quickly grew in popularity and is now played all over the world. Seltzer founded the original Roller Derby league, and there are now more than 1,200 amateur leagues around the world. Roller derby was also under consideration as a roller sport for the 2020 Summer Olympics.
According to their website, the WFTDA is the international governing body for the sport of women’s flat track roller derby and a membership organization for leagues to collaborate and network. As of 2020, the WFTDA has 451 full member leagues and 46 apprentice leagues.
The Sugar Beaters are a rec league, according to Amundson.
“We’re not sanctioned or ranked,” she said. “This is due to our location. However, we go off the official rulebook of the WFTDA.”
Each jam starts with five players from each of the two teams playing. There is one “jammer,” who has a star on her helmet, and four “blockers.” There is one blocker with a stripe on her helmet, called a “pivot.” The blockers are collectively known as “the pack,” and skaters are not allowed to be more than 10 feet apart in a pack.
The jam begins with the players skating counterclockwise around the track. Each team’s jammer starts behind the pack and scores a point for each opposing blocker they pass on each lap. Points can only be scored by the jammers, who must get through the pack and then all the way around the track to be able to score. The opposing team’s main objective is to play defense and stop the other team’s jammer, while helping their own jammer make it around the track successfully. During a bout, blockers will play both offense and defense simultaneously. The team with the most points at the end of the bout wins.
Players always rotate between jams, because of the sheer physical effort required.
“Each jam is like a sprint. Because of this, people from other teams called ‘foster players’ will come on to the team to play and help out,” said Mighty Mouse. “We’re all competitive and want to win, but we all love playing the game, and that is what always comes first.”
There are three to seven referees at each bout for both jammers and blockers. Play that is unsafe or illegal will send a skater to the penalty box for 30 seconds of jam time, or result in expulsion from the bout.
Players wear flat quad skates with padded, low cut boots that are especially designed for roller derby.
“Regular roller skates are dancing skates designed to make you go forward,” said Jo No Mercy. “Our skates are designed to help us stop quickly.”
The skates are also a significant investment for derby skaters.
“They are about $400-500 and you can’t buy them at Wal-Mart,” said Amundson. “Inline skates are prohibited in roller derby and regular roller skates don’t work for this sport.”
The Sugar Beaters practice year-round. Their season runs from late April until the end of October, and the team plays eight games per season. They practice at the Blueline hockey arena in Grand Forks, where they have most of their home bouts, until ice is made for hockey. After that, they practice at the Crookston armory in Crookston, Minnesota, or at outdoor locations.
A typical practice for the Sugar Beaters consists of drills to build endurance and work on game strategies.
“We do planks and sprinting, which is the team’s least favorite activity. We’ll do 50 laps in a row, 20 minutes of sprints, and footwork drills. We also work on transitions, which is switching between skating forward and backward,” said Shernobyl, assistant coach of the Sugar Beaters. “During the last part of the practice, we do a scrimmage. On our team, every player learns every position. We go through the rulebook and enact every possible scenario, and the veterans help the beginners learn. We also spend a lot of time teaching new members the rules…so many rules.”
Shernobyl, 47, owns and operates Mike’s Pizza and Pub in East Grand Forks with her husband. She joined the Sugar Beaters in 2016.
“I was going through a time in my life when I just needed something new. I saw an ad for roller derby in the paper and then I saw the team practicing outdoors on the greenway. I just started seeing them everywhere,” she said.
Shernobyl said her derby name is a combination of her real name and her fascination with natural disasters. Her favorite parts of roller derby are the friendships she has formed with teammates and the confidence she has developed from participating in the sport.
“I had never skated before doing roller derby and am still learning all the skills. We surprise ourselves by what we can learn to do. The confidence you get in roller derby carries over to all other parts of your life,” she said. “We all have busy schedules, but make time to practice. I also love the encouragement we give each other on and off the track.”
The Sugar Beaters are a diverse group who range in age from 19 to 47. Sky, originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, is currently working toward her doctoral degree in clinical psychology at the University of North Dakota. She is also very close to earning her roller derby name, which will be “Psycho Sis.”
Sky, a former middle school football player and collegiate volleyball player at Rocky Mountain College in Montana, said roller derby is an excellent way to relieve stress and find new friends.
“It’s hard coming to a new state and making friends as an adult,” she said. “It’s a great way to meet people.”
The friendships are also what make the hour and 45 minute to two hour drives to practices well worth it for blocker and third grade teacher Crash Bandicoot, 24, of Dazey, North Dakota. She is also part of Triple H Simmentals with her husband and his family in Hannaford, North Dakota, and fits in skating between teaching and hauling hay.
“My teammate Rachael brought me to a practice last summer and I had so much fun that I kept coming back,” she said. “The whole team are non-judgmental, supportive friends.”
“I love the physical activity. Roller derby is good for your mental health and it always makes me smile,” said Kitty Blockins, who works for Easter Seals and has two children in elementary school. “My younger kid wants to try skating, which is really exciting. I can’t wait to take the kids to a bout.”
Other Sugar Beaters include Rachael, a social work student, Thumper, a pilot, and Violet Tendencies, a veterinary assistant.
The Sugar Beaters are a lot like the plant they are named after. Many things have tried to “block” the sugarbeet crop this year, such as lack of rain and excessive heat. However, the sugar beets skate around it and keep on rolling, just like the Sugar Beaters.