Wheeled warriors

Gilroy women compete in roller derby league

FAST PACE The Monterey Bay Derby Dames is a nonprofit roller derby league featuring skaters from Monterey County and surrounding areas. Photo: Robin G. Dodd

Ten players, two teams of five, roll onto the track geared up and ready for battle. Each takes their position, blockers in front, the jammer directly behind them. The starting whistle sounds and the blockers attack, pushing and shoving the opposing team, protecting their jammer at all costs as she bobs and weaves her way around the track racking up points with every blocker she passes. 

This is the fast-paced competitive world of roller derby.

Since its inception in the 1930s, roller derby’s popularity has had its highs and lows, yet almost 90 years later, it remains a top choice for many athletes, especially women athletes. 

According to the latest Women’s Flat Track Derby Association statistics (WFTDA), 450 flat track derby leagues exist worldwide. Its popularity is so widespread that the sport is under consideration for the 2020 Olympics.

Gilroy’s own WFTDA members, Lisa Wharton, 37, and Kimberly Merrill, 42, better known on the track as Smashin Meesha and Lucy Stars, entered that world more than nine years ago, and currently skate for the Monterey Bay Derby Dames, whose mission is “to strive to inspire, empower and motivate girls and women to be strong and confident in following their dreams. MBDD is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, hard work, perseverance and respect for diversity and personal development.”

In 2010, Wharton, now a mother of four and substitute teacher, had played competitive sports growing up, and was feeling something was missing in her life.

“I didn’t have anything for me,” Wharton said, adding, “I tried cake decorating but then I would just eat all the cake, so that didn’t work.”

After checking out a local roller derby team, Wharton was hooked. 

“I went home and I told my husband, ‘I’m going to do this,’” she said. “I just knew from that practice that it was going to be for me because I grew up playing sports. I did basketball and softball and volleyball; I even did golf. I wanted that again, the competitiveness and just being on a team again.” 

Merrill, also a mother of four, and pursuing a career in cosmetology, was never active in sports growing up due to her weight. Nine years ago she successfully lost 100 pounds and began searching for a sport to help maintain her new look.

“I did fencing for a little while, I did running for a while, and I was looking for something else to do,” Merrill said. “I wanted something athletic and something fun.” 

Roller derby provided her exactly what she was looking for.

“It is the most intense workout I have ever done in my entire life, and our bodies get conditioned to it,” Merrill said, adding that a former teammate boasted having burned 1,200 calories in one session. 

Derby also allowed Merrill to utilize an attribute she always knew she had: her strength. 

“I liked being fearless, but it has definitely increased 150 percent since joining derby,” she said. “I think once you face so many fears with derby, whether it be socially or physically, you just feel like you can almost do anything.” 

As for Wharton, she considers derby the most empowering sport she’s ever played. The supportive environment on the track, and in the stands, is an added bonus.

“To be on roller derby and be around so many women that support each other and seeing the husbands’ and the partners’ support, it’s great, I love that environment,” Wharton said. “I love when my husband is there with my kids, and he has my daughter on his shoulders and she’s like, ‘Go mommy!’ That’s fun.”

Whether on the track or off, roller derby continually inspires these women to be their best. 

“I love it and I enjoy it and it makes me better, and my family sees that and my friends see that, and it just really pushes me to go out of my comfort zone physically and even socially,” Wharton said, adding she also feels it’s setting a good example for her children.

“It’s OK to take time for yourself and it’s important.” 

The positivity Merrill’s experienced through her participation in roller derby has influenced her general outlook on life. 

“Don’t take life so seriously that you wake up one day wishing you’d have done this, that or the other thing,” Merrill said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, as cliché as it sounds, so take the opportunity and just try, just take that first baby step.”

To see Lucy Stars and Smashin Meesha in action, or to find out more about the Monterey Derby Dames, visit montereybayderbydames.org.

Kimberly Ewertz
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About Kimberly Ewertz
Kimberly Ewertz is a freelance writer for South Valley magazine and Gilroy Dispatch.