For the Hellbilly Heartbreakers, Roller Derby Is About Empowering Women

The team gathers in a huddle at the end of practice. Credits: M.K. Killen
Co-Captain Dali D and newcomer Boss Applesauce practice getting low in a skills drill. Credits: M.K. Killen
Head Referee Lynsanity and skater Nikola Wreck Ya watch jammer Liberty O'Death attempt to skate past Boss Applesauce (right) and Alabama SlamHer (left) in a drill called "Confidence Killer." Credits: M.K. Killen
Liberty O'Death goes head to head with co-captain Dali D in a one v. one "Confidence Killer" drill. Credits: M.K. Killen
From right to left, Liberty O'Death, Alabama SlamHer, Boss Applesauce and Bloody Professor, practice slowing and starting rapidly, a necessary skill. Credits: M.K. Killen

LIMESTONE, NY -- In the Old Limestone School's gym, wedged between youth soccer and basketball practices, a group of women meet three times a week to put skates to waxed wood floors and forget about life for a while.

“Modern roller derby is about women empowering other women,” said Becky Misenheimer, who skates for the Hellbilly Heartbreakers as “Bloody Professor."

Misenheimer, an associate professor at St. Bonaventure University, said that most people’s impression of roller derby is an outdated cliché of male-owned leagues used to exploit women. 

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Co-captain Kathy Cram, who skates as “Dali D,” agreed that roller derby is a shared communal experience and a healthy outlet for women.

“It gives women a solid outlet that’s healthy and gives them a chance for camaraderie and outside engagement. The team is another family, in a way,” Cram said. “It also gives the community an opportunity to see women excelling at a sport that’s specifically made for them, that otherwise isn’t really out there in the entertainment world.”

Each team member was drawn to roller derby for a different reason, and each has their own story of personal growth.

“They say roller derby saves our souls and that’s true for a lot of us,” Nicole Gabler, who skates as “Nikola Wreck Ya,” said. “We’ve overcome addiction, self-abuse and depression—and some of us just think it’s a lot of fun!”

“I just have anger problems really,” Sunny “Liberty O’Death” Frey joked. “But, you know, when you’re tired and sweaty and stuff, you don’t have that aggression.”

Co-captain Karen “Alabama SlamHer” Lingaton, shared her own journey into roller derby.  Lingaton started three years ago as a new mother suffering from post-partum depression and host of other health issues. She started as a volunteer for the league, a non-skating official who kept track of scores and other stats.

“A few of the girls asked me if I’d ever thought about trying [skating] and I thought, you know what, why not? So, one of the NSOs actually loaned me his skates and I started skating the next week,” Lingaton said.

It was a long process for Lingaton to learn the ins and outs of the game and gain control and confidence on skates.

“I was Bambi on skates, but now I do pretty well,” Lingaton said. 

Misenheimer echoed this experience.

“I joined a little over five years ago, and when I joined I could count on one hand the number of times I had been on roller skates in the past 15 years,” she said.  “I remember when I first started skating somebody said you don’t just have to be able to skate -- more importantly is you have to be able to stop.  You have to have control.”

“Everybody here is super supportive,” Lingaton added. “The support, coupled with the exercise I was getting, helped me power through my depression, and mentally, I’m in the best place that I’ve ever been before.”

The team welcomes new members, regardless of skating experience, focusing on creating a supportive and positive atmosphere for women of all ages and experience level.

“The great thing about this sport is it doesn’t matter what kind of background you have in sports because this is a totally different beast. Anybody can do this! It’s so inclusive of body types,” Lingaton said. “I’m a big girl, but that’s okay because I can use that to my advantage when it comes to blocking the jammer. Our girls that may have more of a thinner athletic type -- they make great jammers. So literally there’s a place on the team for every body type.”

The Hellbilly Heartbreakers are part of Enchanted Mountain Roller Derby (EMRD). Last year, the organization was offered the opportunity to expand its audience and become internationally ranked.

“Last year we were finally accepted as full members of the international association—the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association,” Misenheimer said.  “There’s only like 350 full-member leagues around the world. That’s huge, especially for a small town like Olean.”

“Some teams will only play WFTDA teams,” Lynette “Lynsanity” Case, head referee, added. “It opens the door up for more teams, and it gets the team on the rankings.”

The news came after the Hellbilly Heartbreakers were displaced for a year while the William O. Smith Recreation Center in Olean was being renovated.

“This is our homecoming season, because last year they were doing renovations at the rec center and so we had to do all our home games in Jamestown—which is not really home,” Misenheimer said. “We’re calling it our Hellbilly Homecoming.”

Cram added that even in their year away, community members remained supportive.

“We actually have fans in the area that travel with us to our outside games some have traveled as far as 6-7 hours away -- not even just family members, some dedicated fans,” Cram said.  “We had some fans travel with us all the way to New Hampshire last year to watch us play.  Not to mention when we go to play other away games, we notice that their crowds aren’t nearly as large or as vocal and committed as ours.”

The Hellbilly Heartbreakers do what they can to give back to the community that supports them.

“We are a non-profit 501c3 organization and we actually donate a lot of money to local charities,” Misenheimer said. “Every bout we name a charity as the recipient and a portion of ticket sales goes to that charity. We usually have a half time charity with a giant check and all.”

“I like that because I do a lot of volunteering in my spare time,” Case added. “I wish we could give more, to tell you the truth.”

Each individual member is expected to volunteer, not only positions like marketing or finance for the league but in other community events. The Hellbilly Heartbreakers can be seen in EMRD gear at community events and even staffing a desk at the Greater Olean Chamber of Commerce.

The next challenge EMRD has to face is garnering support for the upcoming season and promoting their first match at the end of March.

“There’s still people out there that don’t even know roller derby’s here,” Case said. “And then those that do, there’s a small percentage of them that think it’s just the same old scripted game it was in the '70s.  It’s actually getting people there, getting them to see it and be like ‘holy cow—I love this!’ ”

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