Sometime back in the early 1970s, I was afforded a unique opportunity.
Walla Walla Community College’s Booster Club was sponsoring a professional roller derby bout between the Northwest Pioneers and the New York City Chiefs at Borleske Stadium.
And I was assigned to cover the event for the Union-Bulletin.
The Pioneers were based out of Seattle and Portland, and their star player was Joanie Weston — the Blond Bomber, the Blond Amazon, the Roller Derby Queen, take your pick — who in those days was as famous a female athlete as tennis star Billie Jean King or figure skater Peggy Fleming.
It was an interesting evening as I watched both men’s and women’s teams bash and bang their way around an oval-shaped 60-by-25-foot portable banked track that had been set up in front of the Borleske grandstand.
Thanks to the advent of television, professional roller derby’s popularity peaked in the 1950s and ’60s. But by the 1970s the sport was in decline.
Nevertheless, more than 1,200 mostly curious patrons showed up that night at Borleske Stadium. And for the most part they jeered the Chiefs and cheered the loudest whenever Joanie blasted her way through a pack of blockers.
To this day I have on my desk a glossy photo of myself seated in one of the stadium dugouts flanked by Joanie and men’s star Ronnie Robinson, the son of boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson. The photo was snapped by a U-B photographer while I was conducting a halftime interview.
Flash forward nearly half a century.
My wife Margaret and I, accompanied by several other family members, made our way into the YMCA’s quirky old gym where I was at long last reacquainted with roller derby.
The Walla Walla Sweets Roller Girls were matched against the Blair Hits Project in the third of five consecutive home matches for the Walla Walla squad. And it proved to be a thoroughly entertaining evening.
The Sweets are by no means a professional team. For them, the sport is mostly recreational with the side benefits of rigorous physical exercise and at the same time being able to unleash their competitive juices.
We were mostly interested in watching one of the Sweets jammers — Lois Slay’n is her roller derby moniker — do her thing. Which she did regularly throughout the bout, putting on her best Joanie Weston impersonation.
Lois Slay’n is in real life Vicki Hillhouse, a fellow U-B reporter, and her roller derby persona is a take-off on Lois Lane, a fictional journalist for the Daily Planet in the Superman DC comic book series. And clearly she’s every bit as competent on wheels as she is at a keyboard.
Pseudo names are the norm for women who participate in today’s flat-track roller derby competition.
Nerdy Bird, LolliPop-Ya and Whack Job are three of the more interesting Sweets monikers. Potion Lady, Witches Brews and Melucifer were notables for The Blair Hits Project, a team name derived from the 1999 supernatural horror film Blair Witch Project.
The Sweets are this summer celebrating their 10th anniversary. And to highlight the occasion, they scheduled home matches each month May through September.
If you haven’t made it to a bout so far this summer, you should do yourself a favor and go. The team will host the Aftershocks Roller Rebels Aug. 24 and the Beet City Bombers Sept. 28 to complete the home schedule.
Putting on a bout is clearly no small feat. It requires scorekeepers and scoreboard personnel, center-court penalty wranglers and a fleet of referees, not to mention ticket takers and concessionaires.
And then there’s the public address announcer who provides a non-stop commentary on what’s happening on the floor. That role fell to Brittney Wilson of the Tri-Cities Saturday night, and her colorful delivery was almost as entertaining as the bout itself.
“She is just kind of a natural, just really good on the mike and super charismatic,” Vicki said of Wilson’s contribution. “Her derby name is Risky Brittness, and because she also plays the sport she understands what’s going on.”
And it’s all volunteer labor because the Sweets and their contemporaries operate on shoestring budgets.
“Roller derby is very volunteer oriented,” Vicki said. “There’s a whole culture around the sport where everybody takes on jobs that are needed.”
Vicki is in her ninth season as a member of the team. During that time she has seen team participation dwindle from 70 women when she joined to more recent squads of about 20.
“As with everything in our town, things eventually settle down and get to the real numbers,” she said. “We are now hovering right around 20 and we are in pretty good shape.”
However much time and effort and treasure — not to mention the bumps and bruises that are sure to come — these women commit to roller derby, the rewards are worth it, Vicki emphasized.
“It’s a group of people who are really hungry for it and understand what the sport is bringing into their lives,” she said. “When you are doing something you think of as outside the box, kind of dangerous, you see yourself learning something new and challenging yourself to do something you never felt was possible.
“For me it’s invigorating,” she added. “There’s something about keeping your space, holding your space on the track but also in life. To me it exudes confidence, and when you have confidence you are unapologetic about who you are and what you are going to present.”
You could clearly detect that confidence Saturday night watching Vicki — er Lois Slay’n — break away from the pack and flash around the track with an exhilarated smile on her face.
Joanie Weston would approve.