Meet the skaters of the New Hampshire Junior Roller Derby
The NH Junior Roller Derby league is teaching kids more than blocking and jamming
New Hampshire Junior Roller Derby skaters, left to right, Jane Kittredge (Hella Kitty), Gabby Clarke (Beast) and Rachel Shewan (Hermione Danger) strike a pose at JFK Coliseum in Manchester on April 22, 2017.
Photography by Kendal J. Bush
It’s early on a warm Tuesday evening and Gabby Clarke is whipping around a track inside the John F. Kennedy Memorial Coliseum on Beech Street in Manchester.
The ice is gone, and blue tape marks an oval on the smooth concrete where Clarke is furiously roller skating – her arms pumping back and forth as she picks up speed. After a few laps at top speed she slows a bit, turns her skate sideways and comes to a stop near the sideboards to talk to a few friends.
Clarke is just one of the many kids who have gathered at this weekly practice of the New Hampshire Junior Roller Derby (NHJRD) – a league designed to introduce kids to the sport of roller derby.
“When most people look at roller derby, they might remember seeing it on TV in the 70s,” Head Referee Jason Kittredge said of the early days of the sport – when it was more about larger-than-life personalities akin to professional wrestling. “It’s not sports entertainment now the way it was then. It’s not scripted; it really is real.”
Roller derby works like this: Each team designates a “jammer,” who attempts to skate past a row of “blockers” as they encircle the 180-foot track. Each time the jammer laps the blockers, they score a point. It’s a contest based on speed, skating skill and a little rough-and-tumble positioning, and it’s drawn nearly 20 Granite State kids to the rink on this particular night, including Gabby Clarke. Just don’t call her Gabby. When this petite 9-year-old is tearing up the roller derby track, she’s known to her teammates and friends as Beast.
Part of roller derby is expressing some personal creativity, which can manifest itself in a number of ways, including coming up with a derby name. Participants are encouraged to come up with their own moniker – something that reflects their personality, likes or interests.
Photo by Kendal J. Bush
The team celebrates after a hard-fought victory.
Kittredge’s daughter, Jane, 13, goes by “Hella Kitty.” Her friend, Rachel Shewan – a big Harry Potter fan – is better known in derby circles as “Hermione Danger.” They take the floor alongside friends with derby names like “T-Lily,” “Bad Wolf,” “Dragon Rider” and “Ocean.” It’s just part of what draws kids to the sport.
“I also really like interacting with people and being in situations where you need to show teamwork,” Jane Kittredge/Hella Kitty said.
The most challenging part?
“Having to constantly be in ‘derby stance’,” she said of the low, crouching position. “It’s this weird standing position we do – it gets really tiring.”
For beginners, learning the basics can present some challenges. Safety concerns are paramount, and participants are coached-up from the most basic skills.
“My first time it hurt,” Shewan, 11, said. “I kept falling. It was intimidating, but it was also exciting.”
Despite a few bumps along the way, Shewan kept coming back – something that showed league founder and coach Amy Eskelsen that she was onto something when she strapped on the skates and started leading youngsters around the track. Eskelsen grew up in Seattle, started skating six years ago in Orlando, and created the New Hampshire Junior Roller Derby League “with the gracious help of parent volunteers” when she moved to Concord.
“When we first started we had 10 skaters,” Eskelsen said. “Over the course of the last year and a half we have grown to involve more than 44 girls. We have one kiddo who’s a brother of another skater so we did open it up to co-ed. Right now we’re at double the amount of skaters we started with. We offer scholarships and make it available to anyone who wants to skate.”
Eskelsen said her main priority is to make sure NHJRD is a safe environment and to make sure the kids are having fun. A cursory look around the arena shows that both of her main objectives are being met.
“In derby, they fall down – a lot,” she said. “It teaches them to be brave because it means you have to get back up and keep trying at things that are hard. It teaches them to improve and grow. It’s been really cool to watch some of our skaters grow and to see their confidence skyrocketing.
“I think it’s really resonated with the whole junior roller derby league,” she said. “We were the first league in New Hampshire to offer derby to kids 7-17 and since then there’s been an explosion of leagues.”
Jason Kittredge calls for the skaters’ attention and starts a two-minute “jam” – an abbreviated period of play when skaters take to the track in a full-on match. He offers advice and encouragement, directs one skater to the penalty box for a minor infraction, and then calls them all to the center of the arena to discuss strategy.
“I think there are some important lessons the kids learn from this,” he said. “They learn a lot about teamwork – accepting the strengths and weaknesses of others and trying to make up for them. And some of most important things they learn are how to fall and get back up – both in the literal and the metaphorical sense. There are a lot of skills, it’s hard to do, and the only way to overcome that is to keep working at it.”
It’s also been a personally rewarding experience for Eskelsen – who, by day, is a social worker in Concord.
“Watching them learn and seeing the light bulb go on is great,” she said. “All of a sudden they’re getting it. They pick it up and say ‘I got it,’ and then use those skills in game play – it’s amazing.”
It’s also drawn the admiration of parents whose kids have gotten involved in the sport. Often pressed into service as timekeepers or some other support role, NHJRD parents play an active role in their daughters’ derby experience.
“She’s definitely way more confident,” said Matt White, whose daughter, Rose (better known as “T-Lily”), skates with the team. “I don’t think it’s just the skating, though. It’s the whole attitude that goes along with being a derby girl.”
White said discovering NHJRD fit his daughter’s personality perfectly. He grew up playing sports like basketball, football, baseball and hockey, but Rose was looking for something different.
“Her favorite part is all of the friends she’s made,” White said. “And definitely the sense of empowerment. That’s why we wanted her to do derby. Everything you hear around derby is learning to push yourself. If you get knocked down, you get back up.”
Participants are encouraged to come up with their own moniker, like “Ruthless,” as a way of expressing themselves.
For coach Kerri MacPherson, whose daughter skated with the group until recently, the lessons went even deeper.
“My daughter is type 1 diabetic, as am I, and it didn’t matter,” MacPherson, of Amherst, said. “It was very easy to work around that. There was no focus on it. They didn’t see it as something big to deal with – she was simply another skater, which as a parent with a child with a chronic anything – learning disability, health issues – that’s the pinnacle of success.”
The skaters at the JFK practice work on a number of drills that focus on their particular skill level, from learning to stop safely to weaving in and out of cones to a full-on derby scrimmage. At the end of the evening, the kids take part in a “sock derby,” where skates are put aside so the kids can focus primarily on positioning, blocking and passing in a controlled situation. Forming a line across the track, the skaters – now in their stocking feet – form a defensive wall as a designated jammer does her best to maneuver through. It’s just days before the first bout of the season, and there’s a palpable feeling of excitement in the air.
“Our first game we played against Vermont in Vermont and it was so awesome,” Eskelsen said. “I cried at the end because everything was coming together. I said, ‘oh my gosh, we did the roller derby!’”
For a complete schedule and information on getting involved with the New Hampshire Junior Roller Derby, visit www.NHjuniorrollerderby.com.
You also know Bill Burke as Parenting NH’s Dad on Board, and author of the “Mousejunkies” book series.