Roller derby’s not just blood, sweat and tears

bmilazzo@centredaily.comMarch 9, 2014 

— On most days you can see Susan “Suenami” Varner leave a roller derby bout with scratches, scrapes, bruises and, sometimes, broken bones.

That’s what happens when she does everything in her power to take down opponents on roller skates in an effort to rack up the most points.

But the wife and mother of two — along with the rest of her team — is better known off the rink as one of the nicest people you’d ever meet.

Once the game is done, the teams put aside the competition and go out for a drink or have a potluck meal.

“It’s fun and competitive. You go out and kick the crap out of each other, but there is a sisterhood among us,” Varner, 38, said. “But we leave all the blood, sweat and tears on the rink.”

Varner is part of the State College Area Roller Derby league, which that started in 2010 as a way to bring a new sport to the area.

Varner, an original member, said the league struggled to find participants early on, but it has grown. The league held tryouts for the first time this year and added a team.

“The game is constantly evolving and changing,” Varner said. “We only see it growing.”

SCAR Derby has four teams, two of which are intraleague — Pennsyltucky Punishers and Mount Nittany Mayhem — and two composed of all-star skaters — Happy Valley Dolls and Plan B — that travel up to five hours to play.

Each team is made up of 20 adult women. Five skaters are allowed on the rink at a time. The objective is to skate around the rink in the same direction and gain points by passing the other team during two 30-minute halves.

The biggest rivals are the Roc City Roller Girls, from Rochester, N.Y., Varner said. But with that rivalry comes a strong friendship.

“They’re always the most competitive; (the bouts are) real nail-biters, but they’re always the most hospitable,” Varner said. “I think we agree we found a team we really like who have become sisters to us, even though we have to play against them.”

Fellow players Morgan “Claire Violent” Sample and Samantha-Rae “Culta Skaro” Tuthill said the bouts attract a few hundred attendees to the games that are played throughout the year.

The Dolls opened the season Saturday with a 267-107 win against the Iron Mountain Roller Girls, of Cumberland, Md.

As the bout began, the crowd got pumped. Families cheered, and “ooh’d” and “aah’d” as the skaters fell and pushed each other down.

Janis Morton and her husband, Thomas Morton Jr., of Port Matilda, attended their first roller derby event. They brought their two sons, Jackson, 8, and Ryan, 7.

They didn’t know what to expect, but Tom Morton said he was impressed and Janis Morton said she had a good time. The boys said it was “crazy.”

“Those girls are tough as nails, but it was a nice spontaneous family night,” said Janis Morton, who had the opportunity to mingle with some of the Dolls.

“I’d go again. I like the energy of the girls and the crowd.”

But for those on the team, it’s less about the wins and more about the camaraderie and love of keeping active.

“It not all glitz and glam. It’s a come-as-you-are sport,” Tuthill, 26, said.

“You don’t have to be athletic or know how to play,” Sample added. “The group embraces everyone, and we work with each other to better ourselves in all ways of life.”

Tuthill, who is both a Punisher and a Doll, has been with the league for a little more than a year.

A reporter at AccuWeather by day, Tuthill said she became involved in roller derby after she worked with an acquaintance of someone who played.

“When I heard it existed, it seemed cool, and I had to check it out,” Tuthill said. “I’ve been active and in sports my whole life — I danced — and I figured at 24, I was too old to get into competitive dancing, so this seemed like a cool alternative.”

Sample, who works as an advertising executive at Bargain Sheet in Spring Mills, joined the roller derby league in honor of a friend who died.

Sample, 29, was first approached to join in 2010, but she declined. When her best friend, Mellisa, passed away that next summer, Sample changed her mind.

“She was with me when I was approached to join, and after that, something just triggered in me to join,” Sample said.

“So I really joined for a completely different reason than some others.”

Some skaters said joining the team is good therapy.

Varner said it was a good outlet after her mother passed away and her child was in the hospital with seizures. And Sample and Tuthill said they both have different forms of anxiety.

“It’s like you work all day, or there is something else on your mind, but you can go to practice and find support,” Tuthill said. “We’re all there for each other and can act like a punching bag for our teammate if necessary.”

“The support system you find in the other women is great because they’re like your 40 new best friends and (you) can lay out all your emotion when we’re out there,” Varner added.

The league practices twice a week at Penn Skates. And it’s more than just skating around the rink.

Sample said the women do fitness drills, scrimmages and skating exercises to enhance their performance.

“It’s not easy. If you don’t know how to skate, you have to learn, you to have to build up endurance and muscle strength,” Sample said.

Required gear includes a helmet and mouth guard, and elbow, wrist and knee pads — and a jersey. The outfits are mostly accessorized with fishnet stockings, a tutu or other glittery apparel, “for the fun of it,” Varner said.

Additionally, each skater has a “derby name.” Some are spinoffs of their real names, and others are nicknames that mimic the woman’s personality.

Part of the league’s mission is to give back to the community. Each game helps support a local cause or organization. On Saturday, proceeds helped benefit the Girl Scouts, and annually during a game in November, the team helps raise money and awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project.

“It’s so much more than just skating or what you see on TV,” Sample said. “We do this because it’s fun, and we love it and love the community we’re playing for.”

Varner said she only sees the league growing.

“We’re hoping to get enough people to make a third (intraleague) team,” she said. “At this point, it’s pretty realistic because we’re doing a lot of networking to recruit girls.”

Varner added that SCAR Derby also acts as a mentor league for other nearby towns, such as Johnstown, DuBois and Lewistown, with new roller derby programs.

While SCAR Derby is partnered with Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, it’s working to become a national member, which would allow the teams to play other teams from around the country and make it eligible for national rankings.

“I think even though we’re walking away daily with cuts and bruises and broken bones, the benefits far outweigh the cons,” Sample said.

“In a way, we’ve found a second family in the league.”

Britney Milazzo can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter @M11azzo.

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