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Rowe finds her niche in roller derby
Jessica Rowe takes a break from the action as her teammates on the Mississippi Valley Mayhem roller derby team practice on the rink at High Roller Skating Center in La Crosse. Rowe, a 2006 La Crescent High School graduate, has been a member of the team since January 2008. (Henry-HCN)

Jessica Rowe doesn’t consider herself a physically aggressive person. She played basketball in high school and she swam, but at some point n she doesn’t really recall when n she wanted to push herself to do something somewhat out of character. She found what she was looking for on a pair of roller skates.

Since January 2008, the 21-year-old, 2006 La Crescent High School graduate has been a member of the Mississippi Valley Mayhem women’s roller derby team, based in La Crosse. How she got involved, though, was simply through a chance conversation with some friends.

“I was like, ‘Aw, I’d like to find a roller derby team,’” said Rowe, who nonchalantly made that comment to the group. “They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re totally recruiting girls. You should check it out.’”

Practice was the next day, so Rowe decided she would see what it was all about.

“I just thought, ‘Oh, I’ll show up and see if I like it,’” she said. “I didn’t know if it was for me. I played basketball and you’d scrum a little bit, but nothing major.

“I thought I’d give it a try and I ended up that night coming home and buying skates … and pads,” she said, adding that she hadn’t skated since elementary school and had never used quad skates. “I just ended up loving it.”

Chris Rowe, Jessica’s mother, was surprised when her daughter told her she was interested in something like roller derby.

“She’s so tiny,” Chris recalls thinking. “You’re going to get smashed.”

She was worried she was going to see what she remembered from roller derby in the 1970s: women taking hard falls and being shoved over guard rails. Although there is hitting, there’s plenty of mental strategy involved as well, Jessica said, and after seeing a few bouts, Chris could plainly tell this derby isn’t like the derby of old.

“The whole point is that you can hit people, but you can’t use illegal hits like full-on punch somebody,” Jessica said. “(But) the harder the hit, the better … It’s not a matter of if you’re going to fall, it’s when.”

But even in falling, there’s strategy. Players are told to “fall small,” meaning they should go down into a ball when falling so as not to take out other teammates with flailing arms and legs. Safety is paramount on the team and learning to take a hit is pivotal.

“If you take a hit standing upright, you’re going to go down face first,” she said.

At first, Rowe was afraid to get hit. She admits she shied away from contact sports in high school and she feared her first big encounter in roller derby, but her teammates encouraged her. They said once you get the first one out of the way, you’re fine, and you learn to take a hit.

“They don’t let you take a hit until they feel comfortable you can handle it,” she said. “You have to constantly be thinking because your safety is on the line, as is everybody else’s.”

A new attraction for the area

Amanda Boucher, founder of the Mississippi Valley Mayhem, formed the team with a friend after the two roller derby enthusiasts thought La Crosse might enjoy having such a league.

“We figured since we both liked it, there had to be other people that would at least express interest in it,” Boucher said.

Turns out, they were right.

In April 2008, the two met to decide how to run the business, which they decided to make not-for-profit. Their goal was to promote roller derby as a legitimate sport, which leagues in larger cities have been doing for years, so to get the word out, they made fliers and had informational meetings. To their excitement, people started showing up.

“We got a good group of about 10 girls right away and it just seemed over the weeks, we’d get two girls here, pick up another girl there and it just kind of gradually built up,” Boucher said.

As of now, there are about 30 members. The Mayhem accepts players 21 years and older, but there’s no age cap and tryouts are nonexistent.

“We just want people to be willing to put in the hard work that goes into roller derby,” she said. “You don’t necessarily have to have that top-notch skating ability right away, but you have to want to do it.”

And the backgrounds vary as widely as the ages.

“That’s the whole point of roller derby. You can be a librarian or anything you want to be and do roller derby,” Rowe said. “We like a wide range of people,” which on this team includes teachers, car dealers and mothers.

The team practices at High Roller Skating Center in La Crosse and some bouts also take place there, as well as the Omni Center in Onalaska, Wis. The season, which just recently began, depends on who the team schedules to visit or which tournaments it can travel to. A team from Duluth has visited, as did one from Minneapolis. The Mayhem was one of six team that competed in the Rollin’ Along the River tournament last weekend in Sioux City, IA. Boucher said it was a good learning experience where the team got to meet others from different leagues around the Midwest.

Though still relatively new, Boucher is “extremely happy” with how the Mayhem is progressing, both in skill and popularity.

“Our goals were to bring an exciting, new sport to La Crosse and help by giving back to the community as a nonprofit organization,” she said. “We’ve made numerous donations to different sorts of charitable organizations and our girls log volunteer hours.”

She’s found her niche

Since joining, Rowe has taken the role of skater representative on the team’s board. She assists players who need to talk through issues, such as the fear of being hit or the idea they’re unable to perform a certain task.

“I love it because I’m the nurturing type,” she said. “I like to help people.”

Chris Rowe said as people come out of high school, they try to find their niche and come out of their shell, and that’s what she believes happened with her daughter.

“She really likes this,” she said. “I was surprised when she came home and told me she was going to go ahead and give it a try. I’m like, ‘Well, you’re young. Do it now when you’re not as old as your mother.’”

Rowe said the game itself is her favorite part of being on the team, but the people she has met are an added benefit.

“The girls I skate with, I learn something from them every day, every one of them,” she said. “I feel very fortunate to have them on my team because I trust them, and half of being on a team is trusting your teammates.”

When asked how long she plans to stick with roller derby, her answer was honest, but logical.

“I’ll do it probably as long as I can … I mean, as long as my body’s able to do it.”

Rules of the game

Each team has five girls on the track, including a jammer, a pivot person and three others labeled B1, B2 and B3. The jammer usually hangs back from her the opponents and searches for the right time to break through their line, the pivot person leads the team around the circular rink and helps teammates stay in formation and the B3 is the team’s eyes, alerting teammates of the presence of the other team’s jammer.

The purpose of the game, called a bout, is to get the jammer through the other team’s line to score points. All the while, the other teammates try to get their jammer through the other team, keeping in mind their job of denying the opposite jammer a way through.

“The whole point is communicating with your teammates to keep (the jammer) behind you, but at the same time, that jammer’s team is trying to get her through,” Rowe said.

Though it could appear like a free-for-all, rules prohibit hitting below the waist or sticking arms and legs out to obstruct the path of another player.

“I think people think, a lot of time, it’s just people hammering on each other, but that’s not it. It’s a lot of strategy and thinking,” Rowe said.


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