Junior roller derby empowers young women in Chicago

Eight girls wearing roller skates, bright shiny helmets and thick padded knee, elbow and wrist protectors huddled in the middle of the gymnasium. They spread out as they began to skate. Their wheels buzzed across the bright blue rink.

"Pack up. Get low," shouted 16-year-old Leeza Ambramovich. Her voice echoed off the walls. 

Those girls, ranging in age from 8 to 17, meet every Saturday morning to practice roller derby at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, on the corner of 55th Street and Kenwood Avenue in Chicago. The experience, they say, is empowering.

"Roller Derby was started for women, by women mostly. It's empowering young girls and women. It teaches girls that they don't have to be apologetic about being violent or loud or basically anything that people say isn't ladylike," Abramovich says.

Sports participation helps young women develop a variety of life skills like goal setting, adjusting to highs and lows and teamwork, according to Deborah Slaner Larkin, CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation. 

"Sports help young women get a sense of what they can do. They feel powerful and in control of their bodies," she says.  

Those skills also help young women across all stages of life, she says. 

“One of the things that sports really foster is leadership, which helps in your job. 80 percent of women in Fortune 500 companies say that sports have helped them succeed,” she says.  

Larkin says that athletes have a special bond that comes from putting in those hours at practice.

“There is just a mastery that you feel. It’s an opportunity to have that sound mind and sound body. If you are an athlete, when you are sweating, practicing and putting in those hours, you understand what that means and it sets you apart,” she says.

Abramovich says that the sport helps her with self-esteem and stress relief.

"It teaches confidence and helps me get my voice out there. It helps me get my anger out," she added. 

Abramovich has been skating with Second City Slaughter for almost three years but began the sport almost five years ago in Mississippi. She says she saw the movie "Whip It," which got her interested in the sport. She then went to a game, and says she fell in love.
           
"I immediately intruded upon an adult league, the Capitol City Roller Girls, and started practicing with them," she says.
           
Roller derby is a physically intense contact sport played in teams of five. Players skate around the track. Four blockers, true to the name, try to stop the "jammer" from lapping them.
           
"Don't use your elbows. Push with your hips," 17-year-old Zoe Steinhardt instructed a young girl so small she barely stood at Steindhardt's waist.
           
Steinhardt and a fellow blocker pushed the sides of their hips together as the younger girl, the jammer, tried again to get past, wobbling on blue skates that she would later pack up into a tiny pink backpack with a castle painted on the front.
           
The Second City Slaughter league came together about three years ago. The players initially led their own practices but eventually members of The Windy City Rollers, one of Chicago's adult roller derby leagues, came in to coach the girls.
           
Steinhardt says the sport is a good way to relieve stress and learn skills like teamwork and leadership.
           
"At my school we don't really have any harder sports," Steinhardt says,
           
"We have like, volleyball and lacrosse. Things like that. This is the only sport where I can get stress out in a way where I can have fun, make friends and strengthen my skills as a leader," she added.
           
At a recent practice, the girls got a chance to practice those leadership skills. Abramovich and Steinhardt led fellow teammates through the morning, acting as stand-in coaches.
           
"Fall small," Steinhardt shouted.
           
"Keep your elbows in. You don't want to wipe out the other person when you fall," she told a younger girl.
           
The girls kept going as they practiced falling. They purposefully scraped their padded knees against the floor as they skated. One young girl fell again and again, a smile on her face as she got back up and continued to skate around the arena.
           
"With the younger girls, it's really interesting to see how they come into the sport at such a young age. They're going to learn things more quickly then I did," Abramovich says.
           
"They're going to know more by the time they're my age. They could be out there winning trophies," she added.
           
Carlie Lusk, skater with the Windy City Rollers and the Second City Slaughter's team manager, says those younger girls are truly fearless.
           
"I feel like we are breeding this amazing group of women who are going to play roller derby and are going to be so athletic and so built and so awesome at it," she says.
           
"These kids are fearless. They'll go out there and do anything you tell them to do. They're not scared to fall. They're not scared to fail. It's amazing. These are the people that should be playing roller derby, before their knees are old and everything hurts on them,"
           
Steinhardt and Ambramovich have both suffered relatively minor injuries playing the sport, like bruised hip bones and swollen elbows, but say they've seen worse out on the floor at tournaments.
           
"We saw one girl get really injured. She ended up twisting her spine," Steinhardt says.
           
"It didn't really lessen my love for the sport. I know, yes, there are risks. There are risks in every sport. You could probably get worse injuries in football. We do take precautions," she added.
           
The girls say their parents are just glad that they are out of the house, participating in sports and dedicating themselves to something.
           
Mitch Steinhardt says that he thinks his daughter's involvement with roller derby is good for her. They've even traveled to conventions and tournaments all across the Midwest over the course of the few years she has been skating.
           
"It's good exposure. She gets to experience a lot of different personalities," Steinhardt says.
           
While roller derby is traditionally a female-focused sport, Lusk says in recent years male derby teams have been created.
           
She still says derby is always going to be a women's sport. It's women, after all, who have been paving the way, she says.
           
It's like how there's basketball, and then there's women's basketball. I have a feeling it will always be roller derby and then men's roller derby, which is awesome,"
           
"It's really empowering," she added,

"There are so few things that are women-centered. I feel like having a hundred women that I know will have my back no matter what choice I make and do nothing that build me up has been amazing. I wish every woman could experience that,"
           
Brenda Martinez just recently started bringing her 10-year-old daughter, Issa, to practices and says she plans on keeping it up. Martinez says even though it's only been a month, she can see changes in her daughter.
           
"She's a little more tough and she's made some friends," Martinez says.
           
"I remember at the end of her first practice she was just soaking in sweat. She's getting good exercise and liking what she is doing. She's not scared of getting hurt," she added.
           
As the end of practice neared, the skaters seemed to slow. "Water break," Abromovich yelled.

The girls clamored, as best they could on their wheels, out of the rink. They bumped into walls and benches in their hurry out to the water fountain.
           
Parents slowly trickled in to pick up their daughters. The girls packed up their skates and gear, talking among themselves. The little girl with the pink backpack ran out of the room, legs still wobbly. She slapped her mom a high-five before they walked off.

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