Redwood City’s Peninsula Roller Girls roller derby league empowers women, both on and off the rink

Roller derby is surging in a period of rebirth: its reputation as a feminist sport holds new prominence in an age of mixed emotions towards feminism and the struggle to achieve equal opportunity for women.

Pain O’Noir – derived from “pinot noir,” because Cathy Ramos likes wine. Pinot noir isn’t her favorite kind, though; she says she prefers a sauvignon blanc. “I was thinking of ‘Savage Non-Blonde,” the mixed brunette and redhead said, but that would take too much explaining.

Pax PunchesPax meaning the “kiss of peace,” a fitting name for Sahana Baker-Malone, since she’s “kind of a peaceful person,” she says.

Betty Gesserit – a play on “Bene Gesserit” from the Dune series of books by Frank Herbert. According to Stephanie Fox, the woman who carries this name, the Bene Gesserit refers to a group of women who have control over their physical and mental states; they have a “master plan” for working together and creating a world they want. Fox calls it an “empowering, nerdy, obscure” reference that almost nobody gets.

Betty Gesserit, Pax Punches and Pain O’Noir are three of about 45 roller derby players with the Peninsula Roller Girls in Redwood City. Their “derby names” are products of their personalities, personas they embody as soon as wheels meet rink.

Roller derby, which debuted in the 1930s, is recognized for its promotion of feminism and female empowerment. Today, the sport surges in a period of rebirth. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association – a nonprofit organization that serves as the governing body of women’s flat track roller derby – currently has nearly 400 registered leagues across the nation and internationally. Now, roller derby’s reputation as a feminist sport holds new prominence in an age of mixed emotions towards feminism and the struggle to achieve equal opportunity for women.

Betty and Pax hit the track for the Peninsula Roller Girls’ Thursday night scrimmage at the Redwood Roller Rink. Pain O’Noir is sitting out with a sprained ankle; it’s been three years since she last tweaked it, so she was due for another injury, she says.

The roller rink is one remembered from childhood, where awkward elementary school outings took place and “couples skate” was the most anticipated event of the evening. A snack bar greets people at the entrance, offering hot dogs and Red Vines Super Ropes, among other classics. A tall rack filled with retro, oatmeal-colored skates with scuffed orange wheels sits behind a counter. On the floor near tables and benches is a slew of bags, some with cold packs and pain relievers in their pockets.

Roller derby is a game of harsh hits and frequent communication. The point-scorers are called “jammers,” a position in derby equivalent to quarterbacks in football. Jammers skate around the track trying to pass four blockers from the opposing team to score points. Another set of four blockers from the jammer’s own team tries to help its jammer through the pack.

At the start of practice, the Peninsula Roller Girls pour onto the rink with high energy, like marbles let loose from a tightly cinched drawstring bag. A rainbow of helmets adorned with stickers whizzes by, the skin on the women’s arms seemingly bleeding the black ink that identifies their derby numbers. The coach comes out, her first question prompting a roar of claps and calls of “Woohoo!” “Are you guys excited?” she asks.

The Peninsula Roller Girls league was founded in 2010. “It was basically a bunch of girls who were really wobbly on skates,” said Pain O’Noir. She joined the league about four-and-a-half years ago and got pregnant six months in, returning to play a year later. Her husband usually accompanies her to games, also called “bouts.” “His name’s Rob and he’s good-looking, so [the team] named him ‘Hot Rob,’” she says.

For some of these women, derby was their first go-around at playing a sport. Betty Gesserit, who has played for nearly six years in four different leagues, recalls her original derby nickname, “Bambi,” because she didn’t have her balance yet.

Jennifer Emmaneel – an attorney known as “Claw Breakher” on the rink – diagnosed herself as a “non-sports person” early in life. For her, roller derby was an attractive sport because it welcomed all shapes and sizes. “I was never the small girl,” she says, “and so I think growing up that probably impacted how I felt I would be in any particular sport, whereas in derby there’s everyone from 90 pounds to 300 pounds, and five feet and smaller to six feet and taller.”

Other members grew up watching the derby of the ’70s when the sport’s popularity spiked during the era of the “Blonde Bomber,” Joan Weston. Back then, derby was televised and had more of a theatrical professional wrestling flavor. “I always thought if I could do that, that would be the best thing in the world,” says Tania Guardado. Her derby name, “T-M.A.G.num,” is a product of her first initial (T) and her brother’s initials (MAG); he passed away in 2008. “My brother believed in doing whatever makes you happy, and I thought, you know what, I’ll try [roller derby] out and see.”

The Peninsula Roller Girls are an abstract puzzle. Each woman is her own – a different style, shape, personality – and together they fit perfectly. But it’s hard to decipher the complete picture until they’re seen united on the rink. Outside of roller derby, they are caretakers, lawyers, stay-at-home moms and software engineers. Inside the rink, they are the Peninsula Roller Girls – the “friendly league,” as Pax says – a group of women who play to feel empowered and then remain for the weekly outings to Harry’s Hofbrau on El Camino Real to eat carbs with the people to whom they have become so connected.

Pax’s 8-year-old and 9-year-old daughters play in the junior derby league, which Pax and a few other coaches founded in 2014 for kids ages 7 to 17 to participate in the sport. She says roller derby teaches her daughters that they can be a presence in the world. “I think women try not to take up too much space, and I think this is the time to stand up for yourself, and it really empowers women to have a sport where you can do that,” she says.

Players say the Peninsula Roller Girls stand for strength and confidence, where girls aren’t afraid to speak up or stand out, and a woman’s toughness and athleticism are celebrated. “We’re part of a movement in another way,” Pax said. Together, they work to build a world in which they desire to live: a true 21st century renewal of the Bene Gesserit.

Video produced by Peninsula Press Reporters Tori Owens, Aliyah Chavez and Jenna Fowler.

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