“It’s not just a bunch of girls in tutus skating around saying, ‘Hee-hee, look at me, I’m cute,’” said Tanya Muckenthaler in regards to the sport of Women’s Roller Derby. “Some people don’t understand…that derby is a real sport.”
Muckenthaler, who is a current studying psychology at Missouri Western, recently laced up her quad skates and joined The Blacksnake Roller Girls – St. Joseph’s first organized roller derby league. As her weekly practice at the National Guard Armory began, her spirits lifedt and her energy rose. It was obvious she was thrilled to be skating. She said being in derby has helped her become a stronger person socially and physically.
Muckenthaler is a 26-year-old full-time student, who started skating at a young age.
“I kind of grew up skating,” Muckenthaler said. “My grandpa used to work for Quaker Oats and they had Christmas parties every year out at the local skating rink.”
Despite spending so much time on wheels, she was not familiar with roller derby until a couple of years ago, when she saw “Whip It,” a fictional film about a young woman being introduced into the world of derby. Muckenthaler was overjoyed to realize that this activity she loved so much could also be a competitive sport.
She immediately began fantasizing about being a derby player and having a catchy, clever name of her choosing. Due to a lack of organized activity in her immediate area, she wasn’t able to try out for derby for a while. When a league was eventually created in St. Joseph early in 2012, she jumped at the chance of joining.
The St. Joseph roller derby team, The Blacksnake Roller Girls, will have their first bout for the public at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 28 at the Civic Arena in St. Joseph. The doors will open at 6 p.m, and they will be playing against one of the teams of the Kansas City league Dead Girl Derby. Tickets will cost $10 for adults, $5 for children and children ages 5 and under are free.
Early in her pursuit of joining the Blacksnake Roller Girls, Muckenthaler learned the significance of choosing a derby name.
“A derby player’s name is kind of a big deal,” Muckenthaler said. “Aside from skating, which is an obvious selling point, many people develop an interest in derby because of the unique names.”
Players are allowed to fashion a creative and clever moniker to put on their uniforms. Muckenthaler chose the name “Aeris Throttle” – a play on words for Aristotle, which combines her appreciation for philosophy and her “need for speed.” She explained that having the ability to choose a name opens up the option of becoming someone different, an alter-ego that makes it easier to step out of one’s boundaries.
“I’m a shy… very nice person by nature. I tend to avoid confrontation,” Muckenthaler said, “but in derby, you can’t be like that – you’re giving hits and taking hits, and you have to be tough. There’s not much room for ‘nice’ on the track.”
Muckenthaler starts giggling as she goes on to say, “It’s kind of like the movie, “Over the Top,” when [Sylvester Stallone] flips his hat around. It’s the switch. He says he becomes like a machine when he does it. When I put on my skates, I know it’s time to get serious. You have to have confidence and you have to believe that you’re a badass, so you want to come up with a name that makes you feel empowered and ready to play. You have to be able to flip that switch that takes you from passive to aggressive.”
Before players may choose a moniker, they must pass a skills test and afterward submit their hopeful name to a registry to be determined legitimate.
“I know for me it’s exciting because registering your derby name means that you’re good enough to be in derby – you’re not just hoping you’ll be good enough anymore; you’ve proved to yourself that you are capable, and now you can really be part of the team,” Muckenthaler said. “It’s like this rite of passage. Once you choose your derby name, your teammates know you by this name, and it strengthens the bond as you become more embedded in the group.”
Joining roller derby has helped Muckenthaler meet many new people.
“There’s a tendency for derby girls to be stereotyped as deviant,” she said, “but the reality of it is there are all kinds of different girls from all kinds of different backgrounds, who all share this passion.”
She also said her teammates come from multiple work fields, including social work and hospitals.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in something where there is this immediate sense of camaraderie. Everybody is so accepting and so excited. Everyone is so different but it doesn’t matter.”
With no prior derby experience, Muckenthaler was unsure if she would be good enough to make the team. She was surprised by how encouraging and supportive the other women were.
Although dangerous and excessively harmful maneuvers such as any use of elbows or tripping are illegal, players can get pretty aggressive when blocking at such high speeds.
“People definitely get hurt,” Muckenthaler said. “Not everyone can do it. You have to be tough and you have to be willing to put in the time and the effort and work your butt off for it.”
Muckenthaler has taken countless bumps and bruises and has seen many of her fellow derby-mates suffer injuries from practice alone. Because of this, a majority of derby training is focused on learning how to fall safely.
Falling is inevitable in this sport so it’s imperative that players learn how to soften the blow in the safest way possible. Skating pads are required for knees and elbows, as well as helmets, but padding only goes so far. When a player falls down in derby, it’s crucial that they get back up as quickly as possible. With so many other players moving at such high speeds, it’s very easy for a single player’s mistake to quickly cause a scene resembling a train wreck or a multi-car pile-up.
Learning the different types of falls and slides especially intimidated Muckenthaler at first.
“We’re constantly being told we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Muckenthaler said. “Instinctively, you want to resist falling down, but the reality is that you will fall… a lot. You have to accept this and overcome your fear of falling, as well as your fear of embarrassment.”
Among the more strenuous tasks during practice are those that focus on endurance. The players often skate 20 laps in under 5 minutes, or seamlessly switch between sprinting, pushups, and sit-ups for a consecutive 10 minutes, or even practice falls continuously until they cannot get back up.
At one time, a single player pushed a train of 9 other players with nothing but her own strength, all while wearing skates. Then she skated to the front of the line and proceeded to pull all nine players with them clinging to her hips. Each skater then followed suit pushing and pulling the weight of their teammates.
Exercises like these emphasize teamwork, and that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. Each player has to hold themselves and each other accountable and strive to be better, faster, and stronger with each passing week.
“The great thing about derby is that you become more resilient and you can apply what you learn to many aspects of life.”