"She thought I was a little bit crazy."
Sara Persing's mother didn't really know what to make of her daughter's latest life choice. In person, Jan Persing might have expected to see her daughter "punching people and slamming them over railings," said Sara.
There's more than meets the eye with a group of "Derby Girls" that used to call themselves Youngsville Eagles.
Photo submitted to Times Observer
The Babes of Wrath’s Melissa “Stratosfear” Sproveri, middle, is among several Warren County residents — at least four Youngsville High School graduates —who are taking up the sport and pageantry, but mostly sport, of roller derby. There’s more than meets the eye with these Youngsville Eagles turned Derby Girls.
At 27, and a Youngsville High School graduate, Persing lives in Erie and is a substitute teacher by day.
By night, she is "Peronica," No. 11 on the Eerie Roller Girls flat track roller derby club.
"Don't know how to skate? We'll teach you," according to the website at eerierollergirls.com.
Persing's Eerie Roller Girls' (www.eerierollergirls.com) next home bout is with the Ohio Valley Roller Girls on Saturday, July 21, at the Presque Isle Events Center in Erie. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the bout starts at 7:30. Johnson's and Sproveri's Babes of Wrath (www.babesofwrath.com) have a bout this Saturday in Franklinville, N.Y., then return to host the Summer Bruise-In II at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 30, at Allen Park Ice Rink in Jamestown, N.Y. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the whistle blows at 7 p.m.
"For new recruits, which would have been me at the time, you have to come and watch two practices just to be sure. Then you have to get equipment, which is kind of expensive," said Sara.
You can start to see why her family was raising their eyebrows.
"It was around Christmas when I joined," said Sara.
A perfect time to ask for a couple hundred dollars worth of equipment - four-wheel skates, knee pads, wrist guards, a mouth guard and helmet.
"Neck braces, for maybe on the way out," said Sara.
According to Persing, the Eerie Roller Girls are upwards of 40 women. The team practices for two hours at a time, a couple times a week. The Eerie Roller Girls hold their games/bouts at roller rink-type venues like Presque Isle Skating and Events Center, formerly Evans Skateland in Erie.
Brought into the mainstream by the 2009 movie "Whip It," the sport is really "not like the movie at all," said Sara. "It's not old-school roller derby."
The floor is not "banked," but rather flat. "And bouts are very strategic and athletic," she said.
In other words, you can't knock people around all willy-nilly like in the movie. Falling down is usually inadvertent.
"The goal is to win, but the theory is you have to play smart," said Melissa Sproveri, of Pittsfield, one of four girls from Warren County that make up a third of Chautauqua County's Babes of Wrath. Sproveri and Ali Johnson are also Youngsville High School graduates.
Sproveri is a different breed, which may or may not be necessary to be on a women's roller derby team. But a different breed in a very good way.
The 1997 Youngsville graduate didn't want to be afraid anymore. To be clear, "I was stepping out of the box, doing things that scared me," said Sproveri. "I used to have this tendency to talk myself out of things because I didn't want to fail. As I grew up and my life changed, I refused to not do something because I was afraid. Roller derby can be very scary and very intimidating."
Sproveri has competed in seven bouts in a little over a year with the Babes of Wrath - billed as Chautauqua and Warren County's only flat-track derby team.
The Babes of Wrath are the same type of team as Persing's Eerie Roller Girls, except that there's just a dozen "derby girls" on this squad that practices at Russell Roller Rink and holds bouts at Allen Park Ice Rink in New York.
"My family was among the several hundred people in attendance and we couldn't have had a better time that evening. I hope more roller derby is coming to Jamestown," Len Berry told the The Post-Journal of Jamestown, N.Y., after a recent bout.
Yes, he said "several hundred."
But while the pageantry and costumes help get people in the door, make no mistake about it, this is a serious sport to Sproveri.
"I don't like to say I'm a derby girl," she said. "It's a sport to me.
"Everyone who is on my team currently is invested," she said. "We have just 12 rostered girls, but we're a solid core bunch. There's so much camaraderie."
It doesn't take long to find out Sproveri is a passionate person, and passionate about her sport.
"I knew that it was going to be an investment," said Sproveri, who is married with two kids, ages six and nine. If she was going to get involved in something, she wasn't going to waste her time.
And she's in deep.
Her nickname is Stratosfear - for several reasons:
"On Sept. 13, 2010, I (base) jumped off the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas... It was the 10-year anniversary of my dad's passing. I'm afraid of heights, so that's why I did it, to conquer my fear - hence the name Stratosfear (and number) 913," she said.
According to babesofwrath.com, "We have women from all walks of life; mothers, teachers, bee keepers, lumber jills, chefs, artists, musicians and everything in between, many of whom hadn't been on skates since childhood. Over the past two years we have become sisters in our goals to form a team, athletes in our abilities to train and learn the basic skills of roller derby and entrepreneurs in our aims to spread our passion for the sport throughout Chautauqua County and beyond.
"We strongly encourage women who are looking to increase confidence, athleticism and social wellness to contact CCRD."
Persing was searching for all of that. She had played volleyball, soccer, basketball and softball in her youth, and was looking to fuel that competitive drive.
She thinks she found it in a bar over a drink and conversation. This girl knew this girl that knew this girl that had skated for a roller derby team.
"I started as what we call fresh meat and, I'm going to be honest, it was freaking hard," said Persing. "I wasn't great at it when I started. In March of 2011, we played each other and called it an exhibition. It was pathetic, we were terrible. Now compared to that... I can't even watch (that on tape). We were like babies.
"After I was clear from 'fresh meat,' I had to pass the basic minimum skill requirement," said Persing. "They teach you how to fall, how to hit, teach you how it's safe for you and all nine other girls on the track. You have to learn to avoid a hit, or hit back. We have had some injuries, concussions."
Actually, Sproveri had knee surgery and was back on skates in nine days. She's also played while ill with mono.
But this community health specialist knows the importance of a strong mind, body and soul.
"I teach the importance of having a goal," she said.
And lives it.
So does Johnson, a 1994 graduate of Youngsville, who "used to ride the same school bus" as Persing.
"We're tough - us Youngsville girls," said Johnson, who didn't realize Persing did this kind of thing until their teams met for a bout many months ago.
There's something in the water in Youngsville - Youngsville grad Molly Sanford skates with a local roller derby team in Charleston, S.C.
Johnson is a public school teacher in Falconer, N.Y., but wants to teach something more. She has an eight-year-old daughter.
"I want to empower my daughter by empowering myself, so to speak," said Johnson. "(Roller derby is) kind of a metaphor for life, really. I just think we all get knocked down and you have to keep your eye on what's the goal, what's the outcome."
There's so much about the sport Johnson loves, she said, including getting knocked down and getting back up again.
Her derby name, "Ali Catastrophe," she's started running again after being on the track team at Youngsville years ago. But this girl is overcoming a knee surgery as well, also from roller derby.
"I get pretty bruised up," she said. "It's funny; I remember a girl saying, 'you're just crazy.' I'm like, what do you mean? 'You get down and you jump back up and go after it,' she said."
An upcoming bout will be Johnson's first in many months.
"I have fresh legs," she said.
The Babes of Wrath also feature Jenny Watts and Kathy Johnson, two more from Warren County, only not originally.
Persing and Johnson are "jammers," or like point scorers in basketball.
There are two 30-minute halves in a bout, made up of a maximum of two-minute jams.
There are four blockers and a jammer on each side. You get points depending on how many of the other team's blockers you can pass or duck through in a jam.
"We've played some teams that are huge hitters, but we've also played some teams that really just use strategy," said Persing. "We usually have to travel anywhere from two to four hours to get to another team."
But the sport is growing.
"I was shocked... I think the first thing I said was how in the world did you get into that," said Sara's mother Jan. "This would be the last thing I thought of. But it was a lot easier to see when you went to the ice arena in Jamestown - she was better at it (the more bouts she competed in), and that place was packed."
"(My daughter) absolutely loves it," sand Johnson. "I would let her do something like this when she gets older. She's eight years old. She wants to go to practices with me, but she's not allowed to right now because it's been on school nights. I think she likes the sport, but like all little girls, I think she likes the costumes."
Peel back the layers of each "derby girl," and you find a strong woman.
"It's a group of people that care about giving back to their community and encouraging social justice," according to Johnson. "In all bouts we donate a portion to a charity or not-for-profit that we've picked for that particular event. My favorite part is there's such a diverse group of women and to see us come from different backgrounds, and bond over something perceived as (scary or too tough to accomplish). It's becoming more socially-acceptable. One of those socially-acceptable self-destructive behaviors."
"I do feel like I found a competitive, empowering sport in roller derby," said Persing.