Down and Derby 

Lowcountry High Rollers hope to bring the sexy sport of roller derby to Charleston

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A lot of girls in the Lowcountry long to be named Miss South Carolina. More power to them. But only one girl in the land of pluff mud and seersucker suits decided that she would take on the name of Philly Phuck and refashion herself as a rock'em, sock'em roller derby queen.

"I'm a dork by proxy," says Christina Bupp, a.k.a. Miss Phuck. And if her candy-cane striped tights and The Nightmare Before Christmas wreath hung on her door didn't send up a flare, she's a full on alterna-diva. She's also a member of the Lowcountry High Rollers, Charleston's newly formed roller derby team. And right now, that team and some new recruits are gathered in Bupp's living room.

Philly Phuck is just one of the many outlandish names chosen by gals involved in roller derby; each must be registered with the International Rollergirls Master Roster. And on that list are some pretty impressive monikers: Agent Spank-It. Punky Bruiser. Ivana Tripabitch. Sandra Day-O'Clobber. Susan B. Agony. Magnolia Thunder Pussy.

Today's derby is sex on eight wheels — think hot pants, mini skirts, skull-and-cross bones-covered leggings — and leagues are sprouting up across America like Hot Topics — Denver, Seattle, Austin, and even closer to home in Columbia. South Carolina boasts at least four competitive teams.

Always the reluctant, tradition-bound sister to whatever hip trend is sweeping the nation, Charleston is just getting started thanks to two proactive newcomers, Wendy Jernigan and Wendy Boswell.

An environmental manager, Boswell moved to Charleston from Myrtle Beach, where she was a member of the Palmetto State Rollergirls team. Once in town, she decided to seek out fellow derby lovers. No dice.

Call it fate if you will, but another derby girl had just rolled into town. Straight out of Austin, Texas, Jernigan was also on the hunt for some like-minded skaters.

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"Derby is huge in Austin," says Jernigan, who goes by the name Red Dread, thanks to her flowing scarlet locks. "I'd been skating on an amateur team, and I was getting ready to try out for the Texas Rollergirls when I got the job opportunity to move here," she says. Jernigan took a manager job at the Taco Boy opening up downtown.

For a while, Jernigan thought she was going to have to be content with skating by herself and thinking about her roller derby glory days. That's when Wendy Boswell and Craig Newmark came in.

"I saw the ad Wendy posted [on Craigslist]," says Jernigan, "And here we are now."

Yes, here they are, as well as a handful of women of varying backgrounds, gathered in a living room to watch the documentary film, Hell on Wheels, focusing on all-girl roller derby in Texas.

The sport of roller derby began on August 13, 1935, when Leo A. Seltzer, a Chicago restaurateur and sports promoter, thought of a way to capitalize on the new roller skating craze. He recruited 50 skaters in teams of two to compete at the Chicago Coliseum. Participants had to skate around a track for 3,000 miles, or roughly the distance between New York and San Diego. No fool, Seltzer kept medics on hand to aid the exhausted, injured, and dizzy. Forty-one days later a winner was declared.

These endurance races quickly evolved into a contact sport after Damon Runyon, a New York sportswriter, suggested that skaters add a little pushing and shoving to the mix to fire things up.

By the 1950s, roller derby teams — both men and women — began popping up all over the U.S.

And while roller derby peaked in the 1960s — reaching audiences in sold-out auditoriums and those sitting at home in front of televisions — the sport continued on a good run into the '70s. But by the '80s, it had pretty much gone the way of plaid pants and mood rings.

Since then, there have been attempts to bring roller derby back to national television, but all have more or less failed. At least one reality show drew some attention. However, the sport has been revived on the local level; you may even think of the return of roller derby as something of a girl-powered grassroots movement.

When it comes to all-girl roller derby, one woman — with a rather frightening perm — stands out as the icon to emulate for the current crop of roller derby divas, or at least the ones at Bupp's house — Ann Calvello, the original archvillianess of roller derby.

Calvello, the subject of the well-received documentary Demon of the Derby, was the badass among female skaters before badassiness was allowed, which is why she was called "The Meanest Mama on Skates." With her bleach-white lipstick and neon-hued hair — think the John 3:16 guy but less Ringling Brothers and more Mad Max — she paved the way for future female skaters. And there's good reason too — the late great Calvello still got up on the skates when she was in her 70s.

As inspiring as Calvello is, these newcomers to the world of roller derby aren't concerned about lipstick and hair dye at the moment. They're more concerned with the basics.

"Am I gonna get beat up?" asks Christina Cummings, a barista at City Lights Coffee.

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"You're going to get bruised," Boswell says.

"On my team back in Austin, we had a girl tear her meniscus (knee cartilage)," Jernigan tells the crowd. "Instead of falling, she tried to jump over a girl and landed wrong. She was out for six months."

Such is the nature of the sport and frankly part of the allure. Roller derby is like chocolate-covered gravel: sweet, gritty, and probably a little rough on the teeth.

Cummings hasn't skated since she was eight years old, much like the other ladies who are gathered at Bupp's pad — including another barista, an environmental scientist, and an IT specialist. In fact, Cummings has never even seen a live roller derby match let alone competed in one.

"I don't want to spend 200 bucks on gear and find out it's just not my thing," she adds, gazing into a giant box of derby accoutrements.

But Jernigan assures her she won't have to. "You can just use rental skates to practice before you decide to commit," she tells Cummings. "The only problem with rentals is they suck so bad, they make you feel like you suck."

Eager to avoid suckage, many decide to take Jernigan's advice and get the proper gear.

"Wow, you got everything!" Jernigan says to Jennifer Bushee, a health insurance administrator who has purchased a large package of new equipment. "Mouth guard, toe guard, knee pads, elbow pads..."

Bushee, clearly not as reluctant as Cummings, is excited about her recently purchased roller derby wares. "It was only $239.99!"

"Really? That's a really good deal," Jernigan assures her. She then adds, as a note of caution to those less certain that roller derby is for them, "If you're not sure and don't want to spend that much, Wal-Mart sells wrist and elbow pads really cheap, but you've got to get better knee pads somewhere else."

Speaking about the sport's rough-and-tumble ways — and the perception by the more traditional that women shouldn't be engaged in such horseplay, Boswell adds, "I had a woman say to me, 'I wouldn't take my kids to that,' which was like, wow, what kind of person does she think I am? I mean, what do you think football is?"

Which leads us to the much exhausted feminist debate — to be sexy or not to be sexy? That is the question.

The thing is, roller derby is attractive to both women who want to wear a fanny-flashing tennis skirt while throwing a few elbows and men who like to watch those women roughhouse in fishnets and spandex. Some would argue that this sexy superhero side is part of the appeal. And for the ladies in the Lowcountry High Rollers, this is as pure a display of feminism as any.

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It's not just about cute outfits and toying with the primal instincts of heterosexual males; Boswell and Jernigan are the first to point out that roller derby is a sport that takes a lot of hard work.

The infant team looks to Boswell and Jernigan like wise parents, wanting assurance and direction. Yet, as eager as they are to get started, Jernigan admits it might be September before the team is ready for a bout.

Roller derby, for all its kitsch, is still an actual sport with rules and regulations, all of which the new team is fairly unaware of.

"I've got knowledge, I just don't have skills," environmental scientist Kathleen Hamrick reports. She Netflixed the Hell on Wheels DVD for the group. She also picked up a copy of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association rule book. "You might want to look this over," she offers.

Let's see: Teams shall consist of a maximum 20 skaters. There will be a 10-foot clearance outside of the track for safety. A bout is composed of 60 minutes of play divided into 20 or 30 minutes played between two teams. Yada yada yada. With 21 pages of rules complete with appendices, you'd really have to see it to truly get it.

Hamrick perks up, "There's a bout on the 20th in Columbia. Wanna go?"

Absolutely. There's been enough talk. We want to see some action.

Roller Games

Pulling into the Jamil Shrine Temple parking lot in Columbia is a lot like stepping back into the 1950s, at least as it was envisioned by John Waters in Cry-Baby. Twenty tailgaters — some sporting pompadour hairdos and black T-shirts reading The Richland County Regulators — are gathered around a pickup.

The Regulators are a recent off-shoot of the Columbia Quad Squad. Like the Lowcountry High Rollers, they're just getting started; it could be months before they're ready for a bout. Today's match between the Squad and the Palmetto State Rollergirls is part fun, part instructional.

Inside the temple's hall stand four sets of risers placed around a central taped-off track. Music blasts, and beer flows.

A greeter rolls up. "Hi. Welcome to the bout!" Po'Raia says.

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A Quad Squad "training wheel," Po'Raia's been recruited as part of the welcome committee for the Lowcountry High Rollers. She's a University of South Carolina Law student who got involved through friends.

The announcer presents each girl one by one. The away team, the Palmetto State Rollergirls, goes first. "How about some noise for Onoshe Ditten!"

Applause breaks loose, and a pack of girls in green T-shirts, knee-high socks, and boy shorts rushes in. "Please welcome, Tart of Darkness!"

Later, he gets to the ladies on the home team — the Quad Squad girls. The announcer shouts, "Give it up for Ms. Mel Anoma! Let's hear it for Danielle Steeltoe! Don't forget Bluegrass Crash!"

The introduction alone has the crowd on its feet. There are grandmothers next to infants, uniformed members of the S.C. National Guard standing side by side with pierced skater boys. An entire family of five enters wearing T-shirts honoring one skater, Lil' Bit Crazy.

Po'Raia skates back by. "See the ref there?" she says, pointing to a thin woman in a mini-skirted referee's uniform. "That's Revolution. She used to be on the Quad Squad, but now she refs. She's a huge Ron Paul supporter, that's why she's called Revolution."

Finding a hardcore Ron Paul supporter among this bunch typifies the thrill of roller derby — expect the unexpected. Yeah, the players swerve into the front row seats. Yeah, they wear barely legal outfits, and some have bloody noses. But you'll be surprised who's doing it — college kids, mothers of two, a couple of Ph.D.s, and even a few retirees — and they're all out on the floor getting rowdy.

Lowcountry High Rollers Hamrick, Cummings, and Elizabeth Harrison are caught up in the action on the floor. A bout goes like this: Two teams of five players face off. Each team's jammer is the only player that can score points. Three blockers try to stop the other team's jammer while pushing their own jammer forward; a jammer scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. Each team also has a pivot. This individual controls the speed of the pack. She also keeps an eye on the jammers, calls her team's plays, and acts as a blocker. Helmet designs differentiate the positions — jammers wear stars, pivots wear stripes, and blockers wear blank helmets.

"It's awesome," says Hamrick at half time. "I just feel bad I didn't bring my daughter."

And as odd as that may sound to some, Hamrick has taken her three-year-old to a game before. In fact, a few days earlier, her daughter said she wanted to go see Debi, a member of the Quad Squad, skate. So it comes as no surprise to hear what her daughter thinks about Mom's extracurricular activity. "Oh, she thinks it's great," Hamrick says.

Looking for Recruits

Outside of the Temple, a group of eight grinning National Guard members stand next to a truck.

Apparently, someone suggested that the members of the platoon catch the roller derby bout. Few were interested. "No one wanted to go," says a hulking crew cut gentleman who looks no older than 21. "Wait until they hear about this. Those guys that stayed are going to be so pissed."

These new fans were quick to pick their roller derby favorites.

"Oh I love Shiv Tyler," says one guy about a member of the Quad Squad.

"Yeah, Lil' Bit Crazy's pretty hot too," another suggests.

Four days later, the men of 187th Ordnance Battalion Charlie Company shipped out to Iraq.

Quad Squad cruised to victory defeating Palmetto State 76-50. They're undefeated this year. Palmetto's loss was chalked up to the fact that the team's pivot, Punk Blocker, was skating with a broken hand. This is not unusual. Limited numbers require wounded soldiers.

Back in Charleston, the Lowcountry High Rollers are working on growth.

"Ideally, we would like around 60 interested girls to have great practices of 20-30 people. If it grows more, then we will develop multiple teams within the Charleston League," Jernigan says.

Until then the High Rollers have made the Hot Wheels Skating Center on Folly Road their home. For five bucks a person, the team has secured blocks on Tuesday and Saturday nights for practice. Of course, new recruits are always welcome.

"For people who don't know how to skate, this is a really good time to join," says Boswell. "You're gonna pick up all your skills now, pick up things you wouldn't get at a skating rink."

This is all something to consider if your fun factor is low, or if you need a different way to exercise, or hell, if you just want to be called Abita Hoedown — not that we know anybody who does.

For more information on the Lowcountry High Rollers check out their MySpace page: or their website

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