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There's nary a coffee shop or bar in Chicago these days that doesn't display the Windy City Rollers' league poster in their window come derby season. Even those who have never been to a bout are well aware of the group of bad-ass girls who are slamming into each other on four wheels. Some people have even turned to derby as a recreational fitness regimen (OK, I'm totally talking about myself here). It's funny, then, to think that just over ten years ago the league didn't exist.
What started in 2004 as a handful of women looking to bring the Austin-born tradition to Chicago has evolved to an eight-team league (one farm team, four home teams, and three traveling teams). On Tuesday skaters from the past decade—some of whom haven't stopped rolling since the league started—will gather to celebrate the Windy City Rollers' short but illustrious history at the Black and Blue Gala.
"Earlier that afternoon these 50-some women (and a few male ornaments) had collected at Delilah's, fueled up on Bloodys, and boarded this charter bus bound for Madison, where the five-month-old Mad Rollin' Dolls were holding their first exhibition bout," wrote our own Mike Sula in December 2004. "They're still months away from holding their own bouts, and they don't yet have a place to do it, but already charities, sponsors, and reporters want a piece of them. This trip to Madison was to serve notice to other leagues that they were organized and anxious to start kicking ass." His front-page feature in the Reader was the first real exposure the league received as they geared up for their first bouts—not to mention the meet-cute between him and his now wife, WCR founder Elizabeth "Juanna Rumbel" Gomez.
After meeting a derby girl in Austin, Gomez became interested in joining a league in Chicago only to discover that there wasn't one. She teamed up with Kelly "Sister Sledgehammer" Simmons, who she befriended when the two worked for a print shop in Chicago, and embarked upon the grueling journey of starting a league. A recruitment party and 5,000 hand-delivered fliers later, around 120 women gathered to be a part of history.
Without a proper practice or competition venue, the first sessions took place at Logan Square Auditorium. Members would show up to practice early to peel gum off the floor and hammer in rogue nails, just one example of the instant and extreme dedication every inaugural member had to the league.
"One of the things a lot of people said when we started was they weren't sure if they could handle working with a bunch of women," Gomez says. "People would think they would tear each other down but instead it turned into people building each other up. It's grown into a real show of empowerment for women. It's the only sport where women dominate and we created the whole groundwork for it. We can still be very expressive in a female manner while still being a real athlete."
Because of the entertaining pseudonyms and flashy outfits, roller derby sometimes draws comparisons to WWE-style wrestling. But unlike the choreographed spectacle wrestlers treat us to, derby bouts are 100 percent unplanned. It's a competitive sport that just happens to lend itself to a little extra showmanship.
"The only thing that's fake about what I do is the name on the back of my jersey," says Val Capone, who these days only goes by her derby name; it's even on her business cards.
Capone grew up as a sports fan who frequented rock clubs and DIY venues, so roller derby served as the perfect intersection of those two loves. She was among the first to join the Windy City Rollers and still skates with them, unlike Gomez and Simmons who have since retired from the track. Capone is a part of an elite club who has firsthand experience of every change the league has experienced over the past decade, witnessing the move to a proper athletic venue, the UIC Pavilion, and the shift from "sports entertainment to an entertaining sport."
"I would love to see roller derby in the Olympics, and I think it's on the right track," Capone says. "I never would have been able to say that ten years ago."
It's strides like these that will be honored at the Black and Blue Gala, which also serves as a fundraiser for the league so it can continue expanding. Along with appearances from the WCR founders and some of the league's best and brightest, there will be a silent auction, brews from Revolution, and live performances from Haymarket Riot and Rory Lake.
"I've had so many teammates that I consider family over the last ten years, to have them all there to celebrate what we've accomplished is so exciting," Capone says.
Black and Blue Gala, Tue 9/16, 7:30 PM, Crowne Plaza Hotel, 733 W. Madison, windycityrollers.com, $40.