By Jennifer Lane
9:36 AM PST, February 20, 2013
It may seem from the stereotype that it's all about jabbing elbows and shoving people over the rails, but for the juniors at OC Roller Girls, it's also about taking pride in personal growth and ability.
OC Roller Girls is a roller derby organization based in Huntington Beach. Founded by Heather "Disco Dervish" Shelton in 2006, the group trains women at several levels of expertise to work in teams and compete against area leagues.
The junior league, consisting of girls ages 8 to 17, formed in 2010. Together with the adult league, the organization has about 175 members.
"First we had to convince women to play, then we had to convince children to play," Shelton, 38, said.
With its latest game sold out, the junior league is quickly becoming as popular as the adult league.
Both of the league's founders are deeply involved with the league and believe derby is a sport to help women grow, change and develop. The junior division is now a nonprofit organization and is part of the Junior Roller Derby Assn., also a nonprofit.
"We believe that sport is a catalyst for change in women's lives," original skater Deborah "Dirty Deborah Harry" Monterossa, 45, said.
Monterossa said she has seen women and girls come and learn how to skate and play the game, and has seen how it changes their lives.
"Self-esteem is garnered through achievement, not necessarily based on how you look," Monterossa said. "When you achieve, you start feeling better about yourself."
Parents like Wendy O'Donnell, of Huntington Beach, think it's not just sports in general, but derby in particular, that made the difference for her daughter.
O'Donnell, mother of junior league member Megan O'Donnell, said her daughter tried many different activities, but none of them hooked her like derby.
"She did soccer, softball, Girl Scouts and a lot of other organizations; but this is just so awesome and so well-run — it is just cool to be a derby girl. It is just incredible," she said.
Wendy O'Donnell decided to get into the action as well. She recently signed up for the adult fresh-meat program, the league's beginner level, and said she can better understand how tough it is for her daughter and is even more impressed with how far she's come in her year and seven months in the league.
"By me getting on skates, I am amazed by what she does in a bout," she said. "When I watch her, I am just so proud of her and all those girls. When they get knocked down, they just get right back up and they can't wait for the next jam. They train so hard and have such great coaching — it is just amazing to watch."
Megan, 17, better known by her derby name, John Payne Gacy, said being a part of derby has helped with her confidence.
"It has helped me embrace the parts of my body I wasn't comfortable with before," she said.
She added that it is difficult balancing derby, school and other activities.
"I do have to make sacrifices," she said, "but I feel they are worth it."
The sport is physical and competitive, but Megan said there is no hostility toward the girls from other organizations.
"One of the best parts is all the friends you make from different areas," she said. "I get to meet girls from all over."
But because the junior league consists of girls as young as 8, she has reservations about how to handle the younger girls on the track.
"Part of me wants to not hit them, but we are protected and you just have to know your limits," she said.
Though not a typical sport, roller derby does have several similarities to the classics.
"Roller derby is an athletic pursuit, a fully-regulated game and a full-contact sport with rules and points, like any other game," Monterossa said.
It is played on either a banked or flat oval track. There are two key positions, jammers and blockers. The blockers from each team assemble themselves into a pack, where they stay tightly together. Any girl who gets too far away from the pack will receive a penalty. The jammers start behind the pack and their goal is to push past the pack and then lap them. Once they lap the pack, they start to receive a point for each girl they pass.
Monterossa compared it to football, where a person plays offense and defense. Fighting never happens, she said. But because it is physical, the league does take safety precautions.
"Not only do we train our girls how to roller skate, but we train them to play the game safely and effectively," she said. "We wear pads head to toe, a helmet, mouth guard, elbow pads, wrist guards and knee pads. We teach our girls how to fall and how to recover so the game can be played safely."
Shelton said that most of the women are working professionals, while most of the girls in the league are on their schools' honor rolls.
"These women can get training in different areas that they may be interested in, but aren't given the chance to explore in their professions," she said.
Many members also take a job within the league. Some are involved with marketing while others may sell tickets at the door.
The group is working on expanding the number of junior league games, including the new practice of opening for the adult games on Saturdays. The organization is also trying to start a men's league, called Manarchy, as well as a co-ed recreational league.
Shelton said the women and girls who are in the league now are really the pioneers of the sport.
"I believe we are where skateboarding was 30 years ago," she said.
JENNIFER LANE is a freelance writer.
If You Go
What: OC Roller Girls
Where: The Rinks — Huntington Beach, 5555 McFadden Ave.
Phone: (714) 847-9097
Games: The next adult game is 5 to 10 p.m. March 16 at The Rinks
The next juniors home game is May 11 from 4:30 to 6:10 p.m. at OC Roller Skates, 1947 S. Main St., Santa Ana. That game will be followed by an adult game from 8 to 11 p.m.