Lehigh Valley Rollergirls

By Ann Wlazelek
Photo by Jim Rhoades

When Tanara Govern unwinds with the girls after a rough week at work, the 41-year-old mother of four doesn’t head to a bar or book club. She grabs her skates and helmet and heads to the rink. That’s because the Lenhartsville woman is also known as “Helen Darink (hell-in-da-rink),” and the girls she meets are the Lehigh Valley Rollergirls, the Valley’s first and only women’s flat-track roller skating league.

Govern is the big wheel, or president, of the now seven-year-old league. She also is a star skater along with team captains Stacey “Wayward Stay” Emenecker of Allentown and Lynda “Lin Diesel” Searfass of Coopersburg.

From February to November, these women and some 30 others don fishnets and fake personas to practice and compete in the high-speed contact sport at a track in Schnecksville. Members must be able to skate 27 laps in five minutes to qualify for one of the league’s two teams – the Hissy Fits and Special Vixens Unit.  They range in age from 21 to 51. About half are working wives and moms.

Lehigh Valley Rollergirls compete against more than 20 East Coast leagues, including three in Pennsylvania.

What might surprise you is the fact that Rollergirls are not paid to race around the track and risk bodily injury. The league has yet to turn a profit, so members dig into their own hot pants pockets to pay for equipment, jerseys and the $50 annual dues.

“We do it because we love it,” Govern said of roller skate racing, also known as derby.  “It’s exciting, a nice local sport and empowering for women.” Their fan base, averaging 300 spectators and counting, appears to love it as well, clapping and yelling for their favorite players and teams. The girls even have their own cheerleaders: a small band of husbands and significant others who call themselves MACK, short for man pack. Members of MACK built the Rollergirls’ scoreboard.

“It’s a weird demographic,” Govern admits of an audience composed of young girls, some with pink hair, who want to be derby stars; older women who recall the heyday of roller derby in the 1940s; and men of all ages with tattoos and funky beards.

Most of the women involved in the sport today were not even alive when roller derby was born.  That was 1935, according to The National Museum of Roller Skating, which credits a Chicago sports promoter with the idea of a roller skating marathon: 50 men and women skaters competing to be the first to race around a track for a total of 3,000 miles, a distance equal to that between San Diego and New York City. It took more than a month for winners to emerge, but attracted some 20,000 fans along the way.

The sport became even more popular years later, when derby hit the road and changed from an endurance test to a competition among teams trying to block or pass opponents in fewer laps. The pushing, shoving and elbowing was largely exaggerated, Museum officials claim, yet fans were not put off. At its height, roller derby appeared in more than 50 major cities, drawing an estimated 5 million spectators.

It crashed with World War II but re-emerged in recent decades, fueled by the 2009 hit movie “Whip it,” starring Drew Barrymore, and the TV reality show “Rollergirls.”

Searfass, a transportation manager, tax preparer and oldest Rollergirl at 51, remembers watching derby on TV in the 1970s.  Judy Arnold from Philadelphia was her hero and she once went to see her play.  So, when Searfass heard a team was forming in the Lehigh Valley, she signed up.  That was in 2008, when her daughter was only 8, and she hasn’t looked back.

Govern,  a mainframe computer programmer for a Reading battery maker, said she knew nothing about roller derby until she read an article about a Lancaster team in the paper seven years ago.  She was a good skater as a teen and was looking for a break from being home with the kids, who at the time were 1, 4, 5 and 8.  First time around the rink, she was hooked.

“I told my husband I’m so in love with this I will not stop.”

She returned to work last April after 9.5 years at home and still has not stopped.

Thirty-year-old Roxy “Loogie Vuitton” Alpha of Allentown was searching out tattoos on the Internet when a link to the Rollergirls’ Web site popped up. “I couldn’t even skate on roller skates” at the time, she recalled, but found herself challenged to do something new on her own.

Now a full-time, dean’s list student of medical technology at McCann School of Business and Technology in Allentown,  Alpha credits her four years as a Rollergirl with transforming her life.

“It made me a better version of my old self,” she said. “I’m better now at keeping things in perspective, getting control over my emotions, thinking first…strategizing my life.”

Today’s game is not your grandmother’s roller derby, not the bloodsport of elbow jabs, body slams and stretchers depicted in movies.  It has become considerably safer thanks to international rules against fighting, punching and throwing elbows set by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.  But that doesn’t mean no one gets hurt.  Govern’s collar bone, broken in three pieces during a bout in 2011, is now held together by a five-inch plate and four screws.  Searfass broke a leg her first year out.   Alpha cracked a shin bone in half during a practice, and has broken a few ribs since.

Under association rules, five members of a team can be on the track at a time, attempting to block the opposing team’s scorer, called a “jammer.”  Teammates can hold hands or bunch up to block, but at the same time, they are trying to help their own jammer break through, pass the competition and score.  Jammers can be spotted by a large star on their helmets.

Action is fast and fun, even if you do not understand all the rules and ways to score.  The women race counter-clockwise around the track (no one is sure how many miles per hour), with referees watching every move and sometimes sending player s to a penalty box.  Points can rack up quickly and an announcer explains what’s happening. Jams last two minutes; bouts about 2.5 hours.

On average, a Rollergirl lasts only couple seasons because of the demands on her time and body, Govern says. What keeps some on track longer varies.

For Alpha, who bears a star tattoo on the back of each knee, it is an alter ego.

“I love the whole persona of putting on skates and becoming somebody else, a hardcore side of me.”

Searfass enjoys the exercise, travel and educating the public. “We do events in the community; we donate to charity and try to be really kid-friendly at bouts and community events,” she said. “What more could you ask for in just a hobby?”

Said Emenecker, 36, “There is always something to learn, always room for improvement. Plus, it’s just fun!”

Lehigh Valley Rollergirls race February through November. Home bouts are held at the Independence Family Fun Center in Schnecksville, a modern, family-friendly facility with a snack bar, small bowling alley and rock-climbing wall about a block off route 309.

Tickets, which can be purchased online at www.lehighvalleyrollergirls.com, cost $10 in advance or $12 at the door. Because the league is a non-profit corporation, money collected pays for the track, Web site, promotional materials, insurance and music.

Home bouts to come: May 11, July 13, Aug. 24, Sept 7, Oct. 19, Nov. 2

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