Jenna Johnson had her "A League of Their Own Moment" in 2015, when the Bullock Texas State History Museum hosted an exhibit about the history of roller derby in Texas.
For two years, Johnson had been part of Texas Roller Derby, the banked track league that helped launch a revival of the sport in 2001, and she recalls walking around the exhibit with her teammates, rivals and the women who pioneered this revival at the turn of the century.
Listen to Jenna Johnson on this week’s episode of "I Love You So Much: The Austin360 Podcast":
She spotted herself in some of the footage that played on a video screen and watched the league’s founders and early stars marvel at life-size images of themselves plastered on the walls.
"It was amazing to see people looking at pictures of themselves from years ago," she says. "Also, it’s a good thing the gear was under glass. Everything in derby stinks."
Johnson, 34, is one of about 70 members of TXRD, the longest-running roller derby league in the country. The league is now entering its 19th season, with the opening bout Saturday at the Palmer Events Center.
Roller derby dates back to the 1930s, when players would compete in marathon skating sessions, circling a track until they couldn’t continue. Chicago-based promoter Leo Seltzer noticed how the crowd liked when the men and women competing fell over in exhaustion, according to Johnson, so he turned it into a game that involved more falling down.
Derby had a heydey in the 1940s and 1950s, when millions of fans watched the events in dozens of leagues across the country. But by the 1970s, Title IX opened other athletic doors for women, and derby started to fade. In 2001, a group of women in Austin kickstarted a new derby movement when they founded the country’s first all-female modern league.
In 2003, that nascent league split in two, with the Texas Rollergirls continuing with a flat track league and Texas Roller Derby going all in on banked track competition, a drama that unfolds in the 2007 documentary "Hell on Wheels." (Texas Rollergirls’ 2020 season starts on Feb. 22, with a bout at the Austin Sports Center.)
It didn’t take long for roller derby’s popularity to surge once again. Several Austin teams were featured in a 13-episode TV show called "Rollergirls" in 2006, followed by a 2007 book by Melissa Joulwan called "Rollergirl: Totally True Tales from the Track." In 2009, roller derby hit the mainstream with "Whip It," a movie starring Ellen Page that was Johnson’s first introduction to the sport.
Johnson says she always wanted to play football, but girls in her community weren't allowed to play contact sports when she was growing up. But "Whip It" opened her eyes to an arena where she could be as aggressive as she wanted. "I didn’t know how to skate, but I was like, ’I want to do that,’" she says.
She enrolled in one of TXRD’s training classes, which prepare people who are interested in derby so that they can then compete in a three-month tryout, where prospects are eliminated a few at a time each month.
Johnson went through the newbie program three times to get her wheels under her, but then she made it to the hired gun stage, where she was essentially trying out for each of the teams as an alternate. "You have to be willing to fail a lot, but if you want this, you can learn very quickly," she says.
In 2013 she was drafted to the Cherry Bombs team, where she continues to skate today.
In TXRD, there are five teams — Holy Rollers, Hellcats, Putas del Fuego, Cherry Bombs and Rhinestone Cowgirls — that compete nearly all year long for a chance to play in the championship game, where the winner earns the Calvello Cup. The prize is named after a fierce, fiery skater named Ann Calvello, the sport’s widely loved original bad girl who competed in seven decades.
(Calvello, who had at least eight lion tattoos by the time she died in 2006, famously gave TXRD permission to use her name for the cup by signing the decree on a napkin, which was part of the Bullock exhibit five years ago.)
Each team has a pack of four blockers, as well as a jammer, who is trying to lap the other team’s blockers to score a point. A jam usually lasts about a minute, and there are four eight-minute periods in a game. The blockers take off three seconds before the jammers, and then all hell breaks loose. "It’s offense and defense at the same time," Johnson says. "That’s one of the things that is so hard when you’re first starting."
Skaters can’t try out until they are 21, and Johnson says they’ve had skaters compete well into their 40s. They come in with all levels of experience in sports. Some work in nursing and engineering. Others are teachers and parents.
"There’s no one right type of body. A big blocker could be a terrifying jammer. A little person like me can figure out how to use your body to your advantage; you can take down people much larger than you," she says.
TXRD is one of the few leagues that allow fighting, and though the brawls have an element of kayfabe — the over-the-top (and not exactly real) drama found in professional wrestling — the competition is unscripted. TXRD also has a penalty wheel with wacky games and contests, including pillow fights and arm wrestling, that add to the entertainment.
The hits are real, but each player takes on a derby name and persona, usually an exaggerated version of themselves or an alter-ego.
Johnson, a quality engineer at a software company by day and TXRD historian by night, plays Milla Juke-a-Bitch, a "delightful jerk" who will chase after competitors and yell or bark at them. She might be a heel, but as a veteran skater, she admits to being a mama bear for the newbies.
Even though the rivalries can be intense, the team members are ultimately league-mates trying to keep this spirited blend of sports and entertainment alive for another generation.
Nearly two decades after derby’s rebirth, there are hundreds of flat track teams but not nearly as many banked track leagues, which take considerably more effort to maintain because of the banked wooden tracks at the center of the competition.
With physics working with (or against) you, Johnson says that banked track derby is faster and generally more intense than flat track, which is part of what draws hundreds of fans to each bout.
TXRD has a permanent practice track in Buda, but they have a temporary track they have to set up at each event.
As a skater-owned league, skaters do everything, Johnson says. They have to earn a certain number of membership points each month, from setting up and taking down the track to taking tickets on game nights. Nobody gets paid. "Even if you’re not competing on game day, you’re there to help."
Johnson is entering her seventh season, but the average tenure of a TXRD player is about three years: "I’m definitely at the elderly skater age, but I’m still having a good time, and my body is still holding up."
The TXRD bouts this year are at the Palmer Events Center once or twice a month until the championship, which will take place in September. You can watch some of the bouts that are livestreamed through the TXRD Facebook page.
The first regular season bout of the year takes place at 6 p.m. Saturday, with the Cherry Bombs versus the Hellcats. Tickets cost $20 and are available at the door or at txrd.com. Each year, the banked track leagues around the country compete at the Battle on the Bank Invitational, which returns for the 12th year this June in the Texas town of Pasadena, home of the South Side Roller Derby. Both adult and junior teams compete at the local level and in the Battle of the Bank, Johnson says.
The local junior team is TXJRD, which hosts several events each year that are open to the public.
"Kids today are growing up playing this," Johnson says. "And they are so much better than me. When they get here, I’m going to be toast."