She came in like a Wrecking Belle: A profile of a Greensboro roller derby girl
By: Lauren Davidson
This summer, I was spending some time visiting family in California and noticed that rollerblading was a huge trend there. It looked so fun, and it made me remember how much I loved it as a kid. Along with my (very athletic) cousin, I strapped on a pair of rentals and was ready to hit the ground blading. Until I discovered that rollerblading is actually really hard and passersby will absolutely heckle you when they see you clutching to a barrier for dear life. It took me less than 20 minutes (and that’s generous) to hang up my skates and hit the taco stand instead.
The roller derby girls of Greensboro take on a slightly different attitude towards moving on eight wheels—instead of simply trying to master the art of rolling forward, they slam other people around, do jumps and participate in general badassery. When I sat down with Wrecking Belle, the vice president of the Greensboro Roller Derby, (or also known as GSORD), I was expecting a rough and gruff individual. Instead, Shannon Scott-Spillman was petite and soft-spoken. When she began to describe her role in the derby, however, I could see how she would be really good at this. A quiet confidence took over, and she described hits and falls with a delightful hint of menace in her tone.
To give you a breakdown of the sport, derby is a full-contact game. The participants wear skates, elbow pads, knee pads, wrist guards, helmets and mouth guards. The game (or bout) is rife with opportunities for penalties, like accidental tripping or hitting a person in the wrong place. Like basketball, there are 10 players on the track at any given time, broken into two teams. Eight of those players are blockers, and two are jammers.
“The idea of the jammer is to get through the pack, get all the way around, and start a scoring pass. They have to make an initial pass of everyone before they score,” Wrecking Belle said. “That sounds really easy like just go through the pack, but then you have four blockers of the opposing team that are trying to keep you from going through.”
And these opponents are no joke: Wrecking Belle describes herself as a “bad-ass blocker” who uses physics to maneuver her petite frame into stopping someone full-force. “I’m not a big girl, but I can stop a girl twice my size,” she told me.
GSORD was established in 2010 and includes two travel teams, with about 45 members total. “Our A-team is Gate City, and our B-team is Counter Strike, like the sit-in, so it’s got a little bit of Greensboro history,” Wrecking Belle said. “Within the league, we have home teams, and they are named after the streets of Greensboro, so we have the Mad Dollies, based on Dolly Madison Avenue; we have the Battleground Betties; we have the Elm Street Nightmares.”
Guidelines for joining the league are provided by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Beginners to derby come into the league as “fresh meat” and go through a program that teaches the minimum skills required to play. WFTDA, as Wrecking Belle told me, is like the NBA or the NFL– it gives guidelines.
“They say you have to skate this many laps in this time; you have to be able to step; you have to cross over; you have to be able to block. We don’t pass anyone until they pass that. Once they do that, you get drafted to a home team. It’s sort of like a round robin as the coaches go through all the new people. After you get some bouting experience, you’re eligible to try out for travel teams, after three games.”
Wrecking Belle started her journey in an unsurprisingly independent fashion.
“I grew up on rollerblades, so when I decided to do derby, I had to relearn how to skate because I had never skated on quads previous to doing derby,” she said.
She was in college at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, and one woman from the team was in Wrecking Belle’s class.
“I went to see her and thought it was really cool, but at the time I was still in school, newly married and had a kid. I just did not have time or the energy or the finances to want to do it,” she said.
However, fate brought her back to the sport. After a couple of years, Wrecking Belle went to a sporting goods store and purchased a pair of quads and taught herself how to skate in six months. Then she entered the fresh meat program.
“When you get into the fresh meat, it’s like four months, and then you go to scrimmage school,” she said. “Fresh meat, they teach you how to skate. It’s great if you already have balance, but they teach you how to fall; they teach you how to take hits. In three months, you are taught the very basics of roller derby. After the three months, you go to a month of scrimmage school and learn how to play derby. You learn the rules, and then you learn how to apply them.”
After getting drafted to the Battleground Betties, Wrecking Belle made the travel A-team, Gate City. For the next six months, she practiced with Gate City and learned a lot.
“I felt like I went through fresh meat again on the different level of the play,” she said. “From home teams to travel teams, there’s different strategies, different intensities. It was like a completely different game, so it felt like fresh meat for another six months. The rest is history, really. I’ve been on Gate City since then.”
Being on the roller derby has changed Wrecking Belle’s life—she even met her current boyfriend through it, who’s a referee and goes by the name Richard Cranium, and she has made it so far as to play for Team North Carolina. What she’s gained most, however, is the mental and physical toughness of an athlete.
“The thing I love about derby is that it’s a journey,” she said. “And it’s not only a skill journey, it’s a mental journey, like how many times can you fall and get back up; how many times can you get hit and get back up; how many times can you go to the penalty box and get back in and do it with the same intensity or better than you were before? It’s amazing to see people come in and be like family and they’re doing amazing things by the end of the year. That’s what I love about derby. It’s so fluid, and you can see people’s journey right in front of your eyes.”
Lauren Davidson is the editor-in-chief of Woven Greensboro, a weekly e-love letter to the Gate City. You can find more of her stories about the people and places that make up our town on wovengreensboro.com.