Before she arrived in Chicago back in late 2009 Jackie Daniels was already a burgeoning force in roller derby. She is recognizable as a star of the Windy City Rollers, one of the country's most established and competitive leagues right here in Chicago. Jackie was also named last season's League MVP, the second time she's won this award.
Daniels got started in 2005 in Grand Rapids, MI, after checking out the newly formed Grand Raggidy Roller Girls. Within a month after its founding Daniels became an early member of the club, along with about eight other regulars.
"I read about roller derby the first time, I think in the New York Times," says Daniels. "This article I read was about the formation of the Manhattan league, called Gotham, and I decided hell or high water I was going to get involved in the sport."
She had spent part of her childhood years as a gymnast and had been on roller skates a few times. As an adult, however, Daniels picked up skating quickly out of her own drive and new-found enthusiasm for the sport.
Later, as Grand Raggidy began to grow in size, Daniels took a leadership role. A few years older with more business experience than some of the founders, she parlayed her skills and a little startup capital of her own into the outfit, becoming an owner of the club and eventually its executive director.
Daniels talks derby with a local FOX TV affiliate in 2008. (pic: WXMI)
From the outset, Jackie had set herself apart as a key squad member, jamming with ease, blocking and skating in the pivot position, doing it all. She skated for the all-star team and traveled everywhere. She'd been on the news. And had her own growing following of derby fans.
Two of those fans were Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis, the Oscar-nominated movie stars. Both women were preparing for their upcoming parts in "Whip It!", Drew Barrymore's film about a Texas misfit who discovers roller derby. The pair had attended a derby bout in Los Angeles, where Daniels was in town with the visiting team.
Some months later the Michigan derby star, once called "America's Girlfriend" by one writer, had landed a small role in the production, which was filming just outside Detroit. Page recognized Daniels from the bout back in LA, and along with her teammate Dot Matrix (also from Grand Raggidy) Daniels spent a month filming the blockbuster film.
Skates off, Jackie does a great chicken dance too.
Between Christmas and the New Year two years ago Daniels started to transition out of her role with Grand Raggidy in anticipation of a job change and an eventual move to a bigger city. Chicago was one of the few cities on her short list.
"I was exploring different options and had looked at an opportunity here in Chicago," said Daniels, a project manager for a rendering and animation company. Having competed against a lot of clubs, Daniels knew about the Windy City Rollers, and that she was up for the idea of landing in another established roller derby league with competition at a higher level.
"It was a combination of things, but roller derby had a lot to do with the decision."
With seven years of roller derby under her belt, Daniels is not only one of the veterans of her current league, but could be considered a pioneer in the sport. According to Robin Bond, one of the directors of "Derby, Baby!", Jackie, who starred with Juliette Lewis in "Whip It!", is "one of Lewis' favorite derby girls".
"A lot of it is effort and natural ability, and a lot of women are transitioning into the sport." says Daniels. "Now we've got 15 year olds skating in junior derby, and maybe ten years down the road the competition and skill may increase. But for now the competition is pretty fierce. It's growing and you can see how bad people want it."
Currently Jackie leads the two time league champions, The Fury, while serving the WCR All-Stars as a co-captain. In 2011 Jackie was a clutch player when the All-Stars won the North Central championship, hooking up a first round bye for the national championships in Denver. She's also got an sponsorship deal with Riedell, one of only 20 skaters in the world representing the roller skate maker.
"If anybody does, Jackie's got every reason to be cocky," says fellow skater SpartaKris of her Fury teammate. "But she never is. And she's totally down to earth."
With Windy City's season about to kick off this weekend, Daniels is focused not only on skating, but on coaching, training and helping her club's All-Star team reach for a roller derby national title in 2012.
Andy Frye has written for ESPN.com, The Chicago Sun-Times and FiveonFive magazine. Follow on Twitter at @MySportsComplex.
Photos of Ms. Daniels courtesy of Gil Leora.