Camaraderie On Wheels: Traveling with the Tucson Roller Derby

By Irene Jagla

Not many Tucsonans willingly go to Phoenix, especially during the summer. The running joke is that Phoenix is nothing more than a giant parking lot in the desert. So when I found myself standing in a Phoenix parking lot on a sweltering July afternoon, enveloped in waves of heat emanating from the asphalt surface, I had to smile. I was watching the Copper Queens of Tucson Roller Derby do off-skate warm-ups before a bout with the Skate Riot Project at Agility360, a modern sports facility designed for athletes with disabilities.

Ordinary people would not exert themselves in these kinds of conditions, but the Copper Queens are no ordinary people. They are trained athletes who sacrifice time and energy for the love of skating and the camaraderie that comes with a traveling roller derby team.

Dave, who started coaching the Copper Queens in 2010, explained the reasoning behind the parking lot warm-ups. “We want to get blood pumping and get used to hitting each other before the bout. Since we’ve been in the car for a while and we’re dealing with another venue’s production, it gets us into the game quicker.”

Dave is right. The 2 hour drive from Tucson to Phoenix can be tiresome. Earlier that afternoon, I was packed into his Dodge Charger with Mystery Meat (or Joanne, the President of Tucson Roller Derby) and Dewey Decimatrix, another veteran of the Copper Queens, interviewing them as a heavy monsoon pounded the car roof. This drive is one of many journeys that the Copper Queens have taken during their fourteen seasons competing.

And during those seasons, the team has always managed to stand out in a crowd of other travelers. “I like stepping back and observing people’s reaction to the team,” Dave told me as he described how the team, all decked out in matching yellow and black flannels, travels to far-flung places for bouts. “There’s obviously some thread that connects us, but people watch and wonder what we are.” The skaters also have to be mindful of how they regard each other. “One of our skaters is named Blaxican Bomber,” Dewey said. “Sometimes we call her Bomber or Boom for short, but we have to watch our mouths at the airport!”

The skaters train constantly for these travel bouts, which take them as far as Pittsburgh, PA and Columbia, SC. They attend skate practices at least 3 nights a week and do off-skate workouts at least twice a week, all while balancing work and families, but their social lives usually revolve around roller derby. According to Metal Maiden (Deni), who sat shotgun on the drive up, “You lose other friends, it’s all-consuming and really difficult. Anyone who’s not in derby knows this saying: ‘Sorry, I can’t, I got derby.’ I hardly see my parents cause I have practice constantly.”

After working up a sweat in the parking lot, the skaters gathered inside and Emma Sculator confided in me that she was nervous. “I just always put a lot of pressure on myself to do well. It’s funny because I’m the Mental Toughness Coach for the team,” she explained as she braided her long red hair. “I read a lot of sports psychology, stuff by George Mumford, but sometimes I can’t help it if I’m nervous even as I’m trying to help my teammates be less nervous.”

Emma tucked her hair into her helmet and skated into a circle that her team formed in the corner of the gym, which was slowly filling up with rowdy fans of both teams. One by one, each skater looked to her left and gave her teammate a positive affirmation about how she will perform during the bout. “I’m excited to see how you will surprise them with your strength,” said Emma Sculator to Goldie Roxx. “I’m looking forward to seeing your awesome blocking,” said Blaxican Bomber to Heidi Foxx It Up.

From the beginning of the bout, the Queens had a clear advantage by following through with Coach Dave’s strategy: running full line-ups while successfully “time-lording”: “If we have to serve a 30 second penalty, anything we can do to run down the clock is to our benefit,” Dave told me between shouting words of encouragement above the din of the crowd.

The Queens pushed themselves to the limit and have the bruises to prove it. Mystery Meat, who had been recovering from an ankle injury, completed a graceful waltz jump that lifted her about 3 feet into the air and ahead of Skate Riot blockers, allowing her to score more points as she passed them up. Despite pre-bout jitters, Emma Sculator routinely sped past the opposing team’s blockers. Death Proof lived up to her name by quickly recovering from a forceful hip check that sent her flying headfirst into the stands. The entire gym fell silent for a few seconds while the referee checked on her. Looking somewhat dazed, she got up and glided to the bench to the thundering applause from the crowd. After taking a moment to rest, Death Proof was back in another jam, garnering the points that would allow the Queens to beat Skate Riot Project 117-183.

Huddled in the basement storage area of Agility 360 after the bout, both teams continued the roller derby tradition of appreciation by exchanging small gifts and awards. Meanwhile, Blaxican Bomber nursed a swollen tendon in her left arm. It hurt before the bout but got worse as she skated. The pain traveled up her arm and made it difficult to execute arm blocking moves. Death Proof helped her secure a crude sling that kept her arm in a comfortable position.

Even after expending so much energy, the Queens still had the enthusiasm to continue with another travel tradition: food, drink, and laughter. Around 11 p.m. we gathered at a lounge near Arizona State University where Mica Jackson, winner of the evening’s Fan Favorite award, discussed her experience with roller derby. She has been with the team for two and a half years and credits derby with helping her hone the confidence she needed to advance at work: she was recently promoted to a business trainer at Citibank. Judo Gnomi, now in her seventh season, opened up about how traveling with roller derby allows you to meet a group of women who really care about one thing. “It’s hard to find a group of women who completely understand each other and want to work toward something together. It’s amazing seeing the empowerment that it gives you being able to take on another team and go into battle together.”

On the road back to Tucson, Metal Maiden slept as Dewey Decimatrix, Mystery Meat, Coach Dave and I dissected the bout and veered into tangents about everything from our most beloved pets and Games of Thrones, to the tulip bulb boom of 17th century Holland. Before I knew it, we were back in Tucson and lightning streaked across the early morning sky. Trips to Phoenix and back are rarely considered fun by most Tucsonans, but then again, most Tucsonans don’t get to travel with the Copper Queens.


Photos courtesy of Mike Eller