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Roller derby is back -- and recruits are welcome!

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Randi B. Hagi
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Hilary Moore (Buzzkill) squeezes through the defense set up by Vanessa Breeden (V), and Bobbi Gentry (Executie) during a demonstration.

The Rocktown Rollers have resumed their Derby 101 events to recruit roller derby hopefuls to the track. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[sounds of 2020 scrimmage]

I recorded this audio at the last round of Derby 101's held at Funky's Skate Center in Harrisonburg. WMRA aired that story on March 15th, 2020 – the same day The Harrisonburg Citizen ran a story that led with this sentence: "Harrisonburg has one resident who is presumed to have COVID-19."

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Randi B. Hagi
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The "freshies" practice a bout before putting on their skates.

The normal events that took place right before the pandemic, especially those that happened just a few days prior to the first local cases, and the ensuing lockdowns, belong to this strange sort of before time as we all blindly approached this precipice. So it's both surreal and supremely heartening to bring you the story of the Rocktown Rollers' newly reinstated Fresh Meat program.

On Tuesday and Thursday nights the last week of April, the potential blockers and jammers trickled into the Exhibit Hall at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds, where painter's tape marked out an oval on the polished concrete floor. Their first task was to practice falling – with helmets, wristguards, and knee and elbow pads.

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Randi B. Hagi
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Hilary Moore (Buzzkill), Vanessa Breeden (V), and Bobbi Gentry (Executie) demonstrate the gameplay of a bout.

[sounds of knee pads hitting floor]

BOBBI GENTRY: You want that energy to go out into the floor, not straight down into the floor. Does that make sense?

Bobbi Gentry, a.k.a. Executie, is the team's coach.

GENTRY: We've been guided by our national association – the Women's Flat Track Roller Derby Association – and the big thing that they've emphasized, and we've also emphasized as a team, is safety before skates. And so what that meant with the COVID pandemic is no contact sports.

It was only last summer that they restarted outdoor practices.

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Randi B. Hagi
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Teammates and freshies gather for a group shot.

GENTRY: Every team across the country is doing rebuilding. And so having a game-ready team? No team is there right now. And so it will be a bit before we could do that, especially doing a big public event, but we are looking to do scrimmages close by with local, with other roller derby teams like Charlottesville.

Gentry and team Vice President Vanessa Breeden drew on their years of derby experience to guide the "freshies" with advice including, [quote] "Immediately upon splatting – unsplat." And, if you have to fall on your rear end, [quote] "Pick a cheek – the one you don't like as much."

They demonstrated how to score and block during a bout … [sounds of skates, yelling]

… and then let the freshies try it out – albeit in sneakers. Finally, the newbies laced up and took their first tentative steps on wheels onto the makeshift track. For some, it was their first time in skates since they were little kids.

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Randi B. Hagi
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The event ended with a group cheer.

KIMMY ADKINS: I've never skated or done derby a day in my life. I've roller bladed, like as a kid, a little bit.

Kimmy Adkins spoke with me while pulling off elbow pads and wristguards at the end of the night.

[velcro sounds]

ADKINS: This made me feel super empowered and great about myself and like an athlete again, and I haven't been an athlete in a while, so it was a really good feeling. And it was special to be around a lot of women who are also just super strong and so loving and caring and supportive of trying new things and just really being there for each other. It was a great experience. I'll definitely be back. We're going to do this again.

Kasey Lohr came to both Tuesday and Thursday's sessions.

KASEY LOHR: I had seen it advertised a few times before COVID and everything, and I just never had the guts to try it. And then, especially with COVID and everything, it kind of gave me that whole idea of, "why not try things? Why not do something different?"

She said she started skating for the first time since childhood a month ago.

LOHR: It's fun. I have managed to use body parts that I did not know I could use! They were killing me for it on Wednesday, but it wasn't bad enough to keep me from coming back. So I think I'm going to at least stick with it a little bit longer to see if I can hang!

Friends Laura Kokosky and Heather Cole came out, too.

LAURA KOKOSKY: We both have kids … I have two really young kids. It was nice to have something to do for myself for once!

HEATHER COLE: The husband of a neighbor had sent me the flyer kind of as a lark, like "haha, look at this!" And I was like, "actually this sounds like a lot of fun!" … I think I'm on the older end of the demographic here, so I was super worried it was all going to be a bunch of teeny-boppers, but it seems like it's a good mix.

They closed out the night with a round of stretching, encouragement from the veterans, and an ear-splitting cheer.

ALL: Rocktown! Rollers! ROCKTOWN! ROLLERS!!