With a single whistle blast, the skaters of Hellgate Roller Derby set off around their track for a friendly "bout." Divided into two teams, all were focused on two skaters, each wearing a star on their helmet.
Called “jammers,” they scored points for their teams by forcing their way to the front of the pack. The rest of the team, the “blockers,” fought to keep the opponent’s jammer back while helping their own ahead. Elbows flew, hips swung and tailbones hit the floor.
“I think roller derby’s one of the only sports you can think of where contact is required at all times,” said head coach Christian Shiffer. “You’re using your body to get through other people who are also using their bodies to try and stop you.”
As the Hellgate club members circled the floor of Sovereign Hope Church’s SHEC Community Center, a few spectators watched from the bleachers. Saturday was the club’s Demo Day, and current members hoped to win new recruits to this fast-growing sport.
Hellgate was founded in 2009. Shiffer got involved in 2014, shortly after moving to Missoula. Veda Gobrecht, now his partner, skated, and he got involved as a referee.
About three years ago, he remembered, “they needed a coach, and I stepped up, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
During that time, both the club and the sport have evolved. In past years, roller derby teams were almost exclusively female. Bouts were more for audience entertainment than athletic competition, with skaters donning gaudy outfits and assuming eccentric names for the track.
“It used to be fishnets and fun crazy stripper names,” said Jannette McDonald, a member since 2011.
But now, roller derby is growing up.
“Since about 2014, there’s been a pretty steady transition to being a more competitive, athletic sport,” Shiffer said. “We’ve been working towards being more athletic, [and to] break down some of the sexist stereotypes that go with roller derby.”
In 2016, the team changed its name from Hellgate Rollergirls to Hellgate Roller Derby. Three men now skate with the group. The skaters at Saturday’s event had left their fishnets and face paint behind.
But many players still pick derby names for competition. Shiffer goes by “Spicy;” his partner Veda Gobrecht, also one of the co-captains, “Darth Veeder;” McDonald, “Nettie.”
They’re working to extend the sport’s reach.
“We’ve had boot camps the past three years,” where novices can learn the basics before their first bout, Shiffer said.
McDonald, who coaches Hellgate’s Junior Skaters, especially enjoys teaching the next generation of derby skaters.
“It’s a good feeling to be able to see them continue the sport as they become adults,” she said.
In the past few years, the club has gone from a low of just 12 members to about 30 now, including a team of 20 that skates five to 10 bouts each year with other teams from around the Northwest. About 20 younger athletes are involved in its Junior Skaters program.
The club’s members hope more gains lie ahead. Currently, Hellgate rents gym space hourly from the Sovereign Hope Church, and competes against other teams at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. “We’re still in search of a permanent home,” Shiffer said.
“It’s really difficult in this town... We need 10,000 square feet of uninterrupted warehouse, and finding that in Missoula is trying.”
For now, “we’ve moved from a space hunt to a people hunt, because a space is useless without the people.”
“We don’t discriminate,” McDonald said. ”We take all types, whether you're tall, short, small, big, male, female, somewhere in between, everybody's accepted in roller derby.”
She acknowledged that, while there are “tough parts and challenges every time you put on your skates... it's a great physical sport, there's just so many aspects about it it that are really good.”
After just an hour’s worth of demonstrations and practice drills, one of the Demo Day guests already liked what she saw. University of Montana student Brenna Love had grown up watching Hellgate Rollergirls/Roller Derby.
“I've always thought that they were super cool, and super badass, and something that seemed like a lot of fun.”
As skaters glided through the gym between activities, Love said she’d like to get involved, “if I can stay upright on skates.”
For more information, visit www.hellgaterollerderby.org.