06.23.12

Is Gotham Girl All-Star Bonnie Thunders the LeBron James of Roller Derby?

Roller derby has grown up. Thomas Gerbasi talks to the DIY sport’s biggest star.

Nicole Williams isn’t above putting down the track that her fellow athletes in the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league will skate on a few hours later. Later, she might sell fans $20 T-shirts or $1 sodas. Never mind an entourage or handlers, she won’t even get paid for the work. On days like this, she’s just Nicole.

But on the days when she straps on her helmet and laces up to skate as Bonnie Thunders, she’s the best—the LeBron James of women’s flat-track roller derby. Last year she led the Gotham Girls all-stars to their second championship in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the sanctioning body of the sport, while also collecting a World Cup title as a member of the inaugural Team USA squad. She doesn’t get paid for those accomplishments, either.

Williams is a scoring machine, a vicious defender, and a team leader, but if you haven’t heard of her, that’s the nature of roller derby circa 2012. The sport still conjures, for many, memories of women wrestling on wheels, complete with elbows, exaggerated falls, and fights as heroes and villains like Joan Weston and Ann Calvello battled it out on national television every week.

Today, the outcomes aren’t scripted, the sport is sanctioned by the WFTDA and governed by an imposing rule book, the athletes are real, and the crowds are growing. In Feasterville, Pa., this weekend, a few thousand diehards will be track-side to see Williams and her unbeaten and top-ranked Gotham all-stars team take on their toughest competition of the year, the No. 3–ranked Denver Roller Dolls and the No. 2–ranked Rose City squad from Portland, Ore. Sunday she’ll close out the festival with a split-squad bout pitting her against other members of Team USA.

The national team has good reason to put on a show: derby is one of eight sports the International Olympic Committee is considering as new additions to the 2020 Olympics, along with baseball, softball, and karate.

The modern game was born in 2001, when a few enterprising souls in Austin, Texas, introduced a new sport, with no fixed matches, and bouts held on a flat surface rather than on a banked track. They kept some of the game’s more colorful spectacles, though, including fights and penalty wheels that would be spun after an infraction to determine whether the offending skaters would have to do things like race backward or arm-wrestle.

“The catfights were the highlight of the game,” says Emily Langmade, a.k.a. Fisti Cuffs, a teammate of Williams’s on Team USA and Gotham’s all-stars and one of the founding members of the Tucson Roller Derby league in 2003. “We had to have bands at our games so that people would come. We didn’t know what it could be, and nobody had any concept of this as a sport.”

By 2004, with the creation of what’s now the WFTDA and was then called the United Leagues Coalition, roller derby had returned—but this time as a real sport and one that quickly developed a cult following. The 2009 Drew Barrymore film Whip It helped drawn new viewers and even prompted many of today’s skaters to pick up the sport. Fans now pack midsize venues around the country, and there are now 156 WFTDA-sanctioned leagues and 58 more at apprentice status. Even men and kids are getting into the act, with the Men’s Roller Derby Association currently sporting 20 leagues and junior derby programs sprouting up around the country.

The entertainment level is high on bout nights, complete with musical acts, bike-polo games, and contortionists making up the halftime show, not to mention the skaters, with names like Suzy Hotrod and Evilicious on their jerseys—a whole league of Metta World Peaces and Chad Ochocincos competing as announcers deliver running commentary to the crowd and a team of statisticians compile a report on the Rinxter stats system (created by male skater Elliot Napakh, a.k.a. Ronnie Mako) that rivals anything produced by the major sports leagues in its level of detail.

Yet it’s the fast-paced, hard-hitting game on the track that steals the show for the 1,000-plus fans who routinely pack New York venues like Hunter College for Gotham bouts and even more who watch the replays on cable-access television two weeks later. The new derby followers range from 20-somethings looking for something to do on a Saturday night to celebrities like Elvis Costello and Channing Tatum to seniors who remember the old rigged spectacle.

“Don’t try to hit Bonnie, because it’s not gonna work—she’s gonna go away.”

The leagues are just as diverse, with speedsters like Williams opposed by defensive stoppers like Langmade, tacticians butting heads (not literally) with more visceral opponents seeking out the big hits at all times, and skaters ranging in age from their early 20s to a few who have passed the half-century mark.

“It began as this joke, this fun thing to do. It was sexy girls jumping around in roller skates, and then it was becoming a movement, and it had power behind it,” says Langmade. “We said we can actually create something special and different.”

Creating something that was their own was the key, and there was a distinct punk-rock, DIY feel to everything involved. The rallying cry was “By the skaters, for the skaters.” That meant every part of the event—laying down the track, marketing, public relations, uniform and other designing tasks, selling merchandise, and on down the line—was handled by the skaters and volunteers who joined them. The athletes are unpaid, as the money from ticket sales and merchandise goes back into the league to subsidize practice space, out-of-town trips, and anything else needed to keep the sport running.

Barring trips to the penalty box, each team has five skaters on the track for every jam (a period of no more than two minutes, after which the skaters on the track will rotate), including a jammer who tries to score by maneuvering past opposing four blockers. Williams plays both positions at an elite level, but her legend comes from a jamming style that opponents have likened to a clip from The Matrix—a unique ability to stop on a dime after a full-speed trip around the track and then contort her body while skating at high speed to wend through the smallest possible opening between blockers.

In 2010 one of Chicago’s Windy City roller girls, Beth Amphetamine, described a pep talk to one of her teammates about trying to contain Williams: “I was talking to one of our blockers, a really talented blocker, and this is her first year on the all-stars, and I was like, ‘Don’t try to hit Bonnie, because it’s not gonna work—she’s gonna go away.’”

The leading scorer in Gotham Girls Roller Derby league history entering the 2012 season, Williams is also a two-time league and three-time all-stars MVP, and while it’s her point scoring that makes headlines, her consistency wins games and championships. It’s a far cry from 2006, when the former high-school soccer player and collegiate synchronized skater entered the world of roller derby, unsure of what this new venture would turn into. By 2008, though, an MVP award in the WFTDA tournament that netted Gotham its first world title changed the way she saw the sport and its role in her life.

“Up until then I was not too afraid to miss a game because I had a work trip or miss out on other things,” says Williams. “And that was the turning point to where I was like, OK, derby first and everything else after.”

Williams opened Brooklyn’s Five Stride Skate Shop in April 2010, beginning the process of moving away from her conventional work life to finding a way to support herself while treating derby as an all-consuming affair, one that has forced her to make plenty of sacrifices along the way.

“Everybody has different sacrifices they make. There’s a lot of lost sleep, a lot of broken relationships, a lot of friendless roller-derby girls out there. But it’s hard to look at it as a sacrifice, because you’re gaining so much on the other end of it,” she tells me.

“I love the actual skating aspect of it, and enjoying that is what really drew me into the sport. There’s this inherent I want to win, I want to beat you, I want to hit you, and all these things that allow you to feel powerful and feel good about yourself. Those are the things that pull you in, but then what keeps you here is that with all the sacrifices you make, you gain so much out of it. You have a lot of people to choose from to be friends with and make friends with, to have a really big support network, to have a family. I think it’s especially important in New York City, because most everybody here is transient. Very few people have family here or grew up here, so this is my everyday family now.”

“She wasn’t naturally the most talented when she came in; she was decent, but not the best,” said Langmade of her teammate. “It’s her drive that makes her the best and makes her work so hard outside of practice to be as strong as she is and as fit as she is. And it’s also her mental capacity to see the game and be able to see everything at once and to know the best decision to make at any given moment. She’s at the top of the team in athletic ability right now, and we are all fighting to get to where she is and chasing her.”

It’s a pinnacle few outside of players and dedicated fans are aware of. Mainstream sports outlets still don’t cover roller derby, and what stories do appear tend to play up the quirkiness of tough chicks with tattoos battling on skates, or the idea of normal workers by day turned derby superhero by night, rather than the athletes and their competition.

“We are who we are 100 percent of the time,” says Williams. “I might have a fake name in roller derby, but Bonnie Thunders and Nicole Williams are the same person. Bonnie Thunders is my nickname; it’s not a different person, it’s not an alter ego.

 “When I first started playing roller derby, I was like, I would never want to be paid to play roller derby. That would just change everything,” Williams says. “And then the longer you play, and the more sacrifices you make, and the way your life changes, you say maybe it would be nice to play roller derby as a living. But it’s certainly a dream that doesn’t feel like it can be a reality. I’m not sure that anybody in roller derby is willing to let go of the control in order to allow for us to be paid to play. I think that’s the big factor, and I’m definitely not comfortable saying ‘Yeah, pay me, but that means that you get to make all the decisions.’”