Hidden in a small elementary school gym, four men put their feet in roller skates and tighten their worn laces. The pads are next; knee followed by elbow, then wrist. Finally, they don their helmets, the ever-important protectors of the head. Wearing childlike grins that can’t be contained, these men are ready for roller derby.
The Ithaca GunShow, Ithaca’s first men’s roller derby team, practices in the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School gym three to four times a week to hone their skills. The team’s skaters all have full-time jobs, including a foreign car shop worker, Gimme! Coffee employees and a university professor. Despite diverse backgrounds, all of these men have one common interest — the familiar sound of polyurethane wheels on hardwood floors after a long day at work.
“I caught the fever years ago volunteering for the SufferJets,” Lance “Fancypants” Nichols said. Nichols, who works behind the scenes for Gimme! Coffee when not laced up, volunteered for the SufferJets, one of Ithaca’s two women’s roller derby teams, before deciding to try it out himself.
Several GunShow members first met one another at bouts for the women’s teams. Mark “Tiny Bubbles” Sarvary, a former Ithaca College and current Cornell University biology professor, said watching the women play sparked their interest in forming a men’s squad.
“It was way too much fun to let only the girls play,” he said.
Sarvary, whose wife plays for the SufferJets, coached the team for a few years before helping establish a team of his own. With a background in karate, Sarvary sees many physical parallels between roller derby and the ancient practice of martial arts.
“It includes a lot of quick movement, hitting, taking hits, endurance, being able to get up after a hit and get back into the fight,” he said.
GunShow skater Jeremy “Mac Death” Miller had a simpler reason for his interest in roller derby.
“I played rugby in school, and it’s fun to run into people,” he said. “There’s not too many sports as an adult where you can run into people. I like that.”
The physical nature of the game is apparent as the four dedicated skaters began their first drill at a practice on April 24, a two-on-one drill where one skater acts as the jammer trying to pass the other two skaters, who use their bodies to get in the way. In roller derby, skaters aren’t allowed to extend their arms to push opponents over, but that doesn’t mean there are no hard falls.
Nick “Bruise Campbell” Hinman takes his turn as the jammer and jukes to his left, but Miller and Sarvary don’t bite. Hinman tries to make a quick move to the right but he runs out of space as Sarvary nudges him into the floor mats, sending him end over end. The sound of plastic on hardwood rings through the gym, eliciting good-natured laughter as Hinman gets back on his wheels.
Even with the occasional physical pain, Nichols finds a certain beauty in the game.
“It’s fast-moving, and there’s a lot of strategy,” he said. “There’s kind of a no-holds-barred, do-it-yourself aesthetic.”
Since they formed in September, the team has slowly grown in size, but quickly improved in skill with the help of the more seasoned women’s team.
“When we first started, we had trainers from the women’s league helping us out, and so every practice we would get demonstrably better,” Nichols said. “It went from not being able to stand without rolling, to effortlessly doing crossovers and more advanced things.”
Hinman, another Gimme! Coffee worker, said part of what makes roller derby easy to pick up is that it does not require too much athletic talent.
“Some of us were varsity athletes in high school, and some of us had never played a sport in our lives,” he said. “It’s for everyone.”
Sarvary said he hopes the laid-back nature of the team will help recruit more skaters.
“There are no real expectations because we don’t push anybody to the limits,” he said. “So if somebody has the enthusiasm, then we want to take him or her because that’s all it takes.”
The team has also fostered a strong sense of community, which has made the players’ involvement that much more enjoyable.
“We hang out other than roller derby, so it’s definitely a good community,” Hinman said. “It’s a way to bring people together with similar interests.”
Sarvary added that the bonds the players have made through skating are deeper than just simply hanging out for a traditional guys’ night.
“We could be sitting in a bar or playing poker, but it’s a lot more exciting being part of a sport,” he said. “We push each other in the sport, so we are not sitting around and being lazy, and since everybody’s very respectful and friendly to each other, it’s a great community to be part of.”
Miller said he enjoys the different kind of people he has met through roller derby.
“It’s cool to have half a dozen new friends just out of the blue,” he said. “People you would never otherwise meet. Working at a foreign car shop, you don’t meet many people who have a Ph.D. in entymology or whatever it is.”
The team isn’t certain when its first bout will be, because it needs a squad of 14 skaters to be able to play competitively. The typical turnout is around seven or eight skaters at practice. Despite the initial low numbers, Sarvary is optimistic about the future.
“It will take us, I would say, another half a year or year when we feel really comfortable about going out and playing bouts, but we will try,” he said. “And what we see in ourselves, how much we’ve already improved since September, I think that’s a good sign.”