Roller Derby

Jacqui Ellzey, above, tries a high five as she skates during practice while in the photo on the right, Jocelyn Lee jumps over Bobie Souvannarinh, who tumbled during a spin around the rink.

First rule of Jacqui Ellzey’s roller derby club – no one talks about the club. 

Anyone wishing to watch her club practice must have prior authorization from Ellzey. No one’s allowed to reveal to outsiders when and where they meet up. 

“It’s kind of a secret,” Ellzey joked. 

The secretiveness is not for security reasons, she said.

The skaters are actually paying homage to “Fight Club,” the 1999 film about an underground group of brawlers who turn into anarchists.  

Brad Pitt and Edward Norton keep their club’s violent duels hidden by instructing members to never mention them to the outside world.  

Ellzey’s league of players has shirts copying the “Fight Club” insignia and one of their teams was called Project Mayhem, the codename for societal destruction used in the movie.

But there’s a notable difference with the fight club of David Fincher’s film: it didn’t have any women. 

Ellzey’s league of all-female skaters is all about sisterhood and giving women a chance to grow as talented athletes.

“That was the goal I had set when I started the league – to find something that is empowering to women – women to accept who they are,” she said. 

The Arizona Skate Club formed a couple years ago and consists of 16 skaters who range in age from 17 to 54. Some have been skating for several years; others are more of a novice to the skating rink. 

They come from Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Tempe and Queen Creek. Ellzey said her goal is to have the league represent every community in the East Valley; all she needs is someone from Ahwatukee. 

It’s a goal-oriented league, meaning Ellzey expects players to put in the work to make themselves better competitors. 

“This is not just a hobby,” Ellzey said. “This is something that can build strong athletes to achieve anything that they put their heart to.”

Roller derby dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, when it evolved from a skating race to a physical competition.

 The sport consists of two teams skating around an oval-shaped rink and blocking one member of the opposing team from passing them.

Derby quickly became a spectacle as audiences flocked to see skaters crash, fall and collide into each other. The game earned more legitimacy over the decades as leagues started setting more rules and regulations.

Hundreds of roller derby leagues currently compete all over the world. 

Ellzey said she hadn’t been very athletic growing due to asthma and hadn’t thought of taking up a sport. But around 2006, a friend encouraged her to consider roller derby.

At this time in her life, Ellzey said she was suffering from low self-esteem after escaping an abusive marriage. 

“I didn’t like myself,” she recalled, “I just had no self-respect.”

But the regimen of roller derby slowly started to build up her confidence over the years – to the point where she’s taking control with her own league and running the show. And Ellzey’s seen other skaters go through the same transformation.

“These women really, really grow into becoming strong, confident women,” Ellzey said. “It’s extremely therapeutic.”

Bethany Wray was suffering from stress-related seizures before she put on a pair of skates and joined Ellzey’s league about a year ago. 

The 23-year-old Gilbert woman said her husband nearly died in a severe accident and the trauma of it had started to impact Wray’s own health. 

She was encouraged to find an outlet for her stress and that’s when derby came into her life. 

The sport was unlike any of the others Wray played growing up – it’s a constant momentum of physical contact with other people. 

If a skater busts a competitor’s nose, Wray noticed there were no hurt feelings between the players. 

It wasn’t long before derby made Wray let go of the dread she’d been carrying since her husband’s accident.

“I never quite came back from that until I was able to do derby,” Wray said.

The East Valley league encourages members to focus on form before speed. 

During a practice at basketball courts in Mesa, the skaters could be seen sliding and skidding across the concrete. Ellzey said the players must learn how to fall down skillfully, so if they stumble during a match, their body knows how to react. 

Skaters protect themselves with lots of padding, helmets and mouth guards. But injuries are still known to happen. 

Amber Staab once tore a ligament in her knee during a match, which benched her from competing in the rink for several months.

The 32-year-old flight attendant from Chandler said as soon as the pain was gone, she was itching to get back to derby. 

“It’s like going to church for me,” Staab said.

As someone who works in customer service, Staab enjoys having a place where she can release some aggression and not be punished for it.

“It’s the best way you can hit someone and not go to jail,” she joked.

The Arizona Skate Club will be holding a match on Oct. 26 at the Barney Family Sports Complex in Queen Creek. Pre-sale tickets cost $10 and the game starts at 6 p.m.