The Maui Roller Girls have been around since 2008. Part of the resurgence of roller derby in the US over the last decade, the MRG were basically just a scrappy collection of women who somehow fit roller skating and derby practice into their work and family lives when they first started. But over and over, the five girls they’d put on the track (one jammer, who scores points by lapping the other team, and four other team members who block or in some way assist the jammer) would dominate their opponents.
While not nearly as violent as the MMA bouts at War Memorial, roller derby is a full contact, physical sport. Girls get hit. They get slammed to the ground. Blood and bruises are as integral to derby as their skates.
While Maui Roller Girls aren’t so much massacring other squads these days, the team is stronger than ever. But of the original squad, just two members still actively skate with the team. I recently sat down with one of them, Sarah “Sassin” Gray–who bartends at Milagro’s in Paia, keeps bees and teaches yoga–to talk about how the team has changed over the last six years, and what challenges still remain….
MAUITIME: So let me start right off–your winning record isn’t what it used to be.
SARAH GRAY: We have a lot of rookies on the team. They’re enthusiastic, but that doesn’t really translate to winning.
MT: Ok. But how’s the team as an overall organization?
SG: We’re now an established 501(c)3. We have a board of directors, and committees now.
MT: And I see that you’re still struggling to find a permanent home with a roof. Before our interview, you forwarded me a copy of a letter Board of Land and Natural Resources Chairperson William Aila sent a few days ago to your team member Vanessa Oat Ghantous, in response to her inquiry as to whether the big new sports complex planned for Wailuku would have a place for your team to skate. Basically, he says no. To quote Aila, they’re “not planning to build any facilities that could specifically be used for roller skating.” That sucks.
SG: For two to three years, we’ve been working with the county to try to find space. So we have been on their radar.
MT: Do you still practice and do bouts at the Boys & Girls Club?
SG: Yes. They’ve been very generous with us, but it’s probably our biggest obstacle.
MT: What do you mean?
SG: Recently, we flew out a mainland team from the San Fernando valley. It stormed the whole weekend. They stayed three days, but left without every skating.
We felt so bad that they couldn’t play, so later we made a trip to the San Fernando Valley. We did a regulation game against them, then the next day we skated with them and a team from Santa Barbara that was coed. Then we went to San Diego and skated on their banked track, which was awesome.
MT: The Maui Roller Girls always skate on a flat track. What was that like?
SG: It’s bouncier. On a banked track you have to keep rolling forward all the time. Jams were only a minute long–on a flat track they can be two minutes. And penalties are served in the following jam, which is a big advantage, in that you’re not suddenly caught without your blockers and you can strategize about how you’ll deal with it.
The San Diego track was so friendly. They didn’t have to let us in. We got a huge amount of game play, which was very generous of them.
MT: What are other roller derby teams around Hawaii like?
SG: Kauai is doing really well right now. They beat us twice this season. They’re our sister league. They’re small–what we used to be, when we had a tiny core. I’m sure next season will be different. It always is.
MT: Do other Hawaii teams have the same problem finding a place to skate?
SG: No. They say we can’t use gyms. But on Oahu, the girls skate on a gym floor and it’s fine–their skates don’t scuff up the floor. The Big Island [team] skates at the civic center. There’s ‘sport court’ that they can use. The county’s been talking about doing that, but it fell through. Not sure if we dropped the ball or they did–probably a little bit of both.
So we’re still looking for a roof. A teammate rigged a tripod with construction lights so we could skate at night.
MT: I saw that your team has been traveling lately.
SG: We went to Roller Con in Vegas. They have coed scrimmages–
SG: It’s where we mix it and don’t keep score. It’s really fun, and that’s when you see girls do their most artistic moves. Anyway, at Roller Con you can make up theme teams and then challenge other teams. Star Trek vs. Star Wars, things like that. We did the Fasholes vs Tom Boys.
MT: That reminds me–I was looking at the website Derbyroster.com earlier. There are derby teams everywhere around the world.
SG: There’s a global village element to our sport. I can go to that site and contact any of those teams, if I’m in their area. We had a girl roll up the other night who was deaf. We didn’t really have time to talk about how to adjust our practice to her needs, but it was fun. Her skate name was “Irate Penguin.”
MT: Seems very informal. What about your season schedule as a whole?
SG: We’ve tried to make our season more agreeable to the tournament schedule. One of the problems was our season was so long, the girls would get exhausted at the moment when we needed them the most. And we’d book games during the summer when people were out of town.
So August is us taking a month-long break. We’ve also opened the floor to anyone who wants to coach–they can show us what they learned in classes or at Roller Con. September 1 starts our six-week training for the Battle of the Islands that takes place Oct. 17. We’re recruiting referees. Skarre Bomb [the other Maui Roller Girls founding member still active with the team] is a ref. She loves to skate, but we need refs.
MT: Tell me about the big championships that happen in November.
SG: This November, every state can send a roster to Daytona. It was somewhat controversial how the Hawaii team formed. There was an invitation for people, not a team, to sign up on behalf of the state. If there were more than 20 sign up, then we’d have try-outs. We didn’t get 20.
It’s challenging to get the girls to travel. But one of our members took charge, and we got 20. But by then we had 40 to 50 girls saying, ‘What do you mean, I want to be on the team.’ Next year, we’ll do tryouts.
MT: So this travel team is made up of derby girls from all over Hawaii.
SG: We recently had a practice on Oahu and skated against Jet City, Washington. We did really well. They first played against the Oahu team. The next day, they played against our Hawaii Travel Team.
By halftime, our travel team was up 100 points. Now the Jet City team was playing in the sun, which they weren’t used to, and they had been out the night before after they played the Oahu team. But [the Maui Roller Girls] are going to get stomped if we play teams from California, Washington or New York. Those teams are saturated [with talent].
MT: There’s also a World Cup for roller derby. What’s that like?
SG: The World Cup is the first week of December. My team did a GoFundMe to pay for my airfare and car rental for me to go try out for the Canadian team.
I had no aspirations for making the team. It’s just 20 people, and Canada is full of hockey players and figure skaters. Three hundred people tried out. It’s one of the only teams that put up any points against the US in the last World Cup.
But Team Brazil is cool, and it’s amazing that our team member Pixie made it.
MT: Ah, Pixie. The Maui Roller Girls website says Pixie’s “most powerful weapon is her ability to distract with her Brazilian accent.”
SG: It’s true. But there are only a few spots [on the Brazilian team] for people who don’t reside there.
MT: But I take it you didn’t make the Canadian team.
SG: I wasn’t expecting much so I wasn’t slighted by the format. It seemed to be constructed in a way as to funnel through people they already knew would be there. [The tryout] was four hours, and people got cut after two hours. They tested you on skills that weren’t common on the derby track. They wanted to see who’s agile on their skates.
MT: Well, agility is important to roller derby, I’d imagine.
SG: So much of derby is athletics, but a huge part is also awareness–knowing how to do and when to do. That wasn’t tested.
MT: Now you also help coach the squad, so I imagine awareness–or the lack of it–is something you’re familiar with.
SG: Self-awareness is a big thing to cultivate in other people. I’m guilty too: we’re always guilty of not doing something that we’re thinking that we’re doing. This is where the yoga teaching I’ve done is very helpful. People’s body awareness is very abstract most of the time. You tell someone to “get low” and they just do this–bend over. So instead of saying “bend your knees,” you say, “get like you’re trying to sit in a chair.”
MT: Seems like there are all sorts of things derby girls need to be aware of when on the track, and that it can be overwhelming.
SG: There are two jammers on the track, and your team’s blockers are either defending against the other jammer or helping their own jammer. Some girls can skate that lap in six to seven seconds, you don’t have a lot of time. You have to instantaneously know what’s the most helpful thing you can do. Four veterans will do it without thinking about it. But when you have two veterans and two rookies… there’s a lot of learning how best you can use your weakest link.
MT: Seems like it would be rough to get, and keep, people motivated under such conditions.
SG: We’re watching people show up totally intimidated but excited to be there. They have to get over the fact that they totally suck. They may be good at skating, but not derby. And they have to get over their own ego. They have to learn to fall down and then get up and not take it personally. That’s huge for personal development. And they have to get along with other personalities–there’s no regulation on the types of personalities we let on the track.
Then, if they decide to stick around, they have to decide which part of the organization they want to contribute to: the treasury, community development, etc.
MT: Meaning that being part of the Maui Roller Girls isn’t just a bunch of skating and knocking people over. People who join your squad have to do actual work.
SG: For instance, we’re very well known for our hospitality. Pretty much everyone on the team has family and careers. Women with families are doing this. So taking time out to host other derby teams can be difficult. But our people are really passionate.
You have a rough day at work, and then you put your body and mind through the ringer. People you love are attacking you. People you hate are attacking you. It can be very therapeutic.
People don’t go home with hard feelings to the best of our ability. Instead, we try to give them the satisfaction of being in something cooperative. How many sports ask you to do all that, then you get together after with the opposing team, crack a beer and talk story?
MT: What are your practices like?
SG: We have practice three times a week–Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Quite a few people also offer cross-training opportunities, like skating Mokulele Highway. We do a variety of things, and a lot of scrimmaging in the middle of practice. We’re trying to set it up like a tournament. They have half-hour games because there are so many teams. So we’ll have half hour scrimmages, then do a half hour of seeing where we’re going wrong.
Practices can be challenging because our skill levels are so different. We’ve had boot camps over the last year. The challenge is having vets walk away feeling challenged and the new girls walk away not wanting to quit.
On the Hawaii state team, quite a few of them are people who coach their league, and everyone has the same story: they’re struggling to get people to show up. The people who do show are largely new girls. Do they bench the new girl, who is enthusiastic, for the stud, even though the stud hasn’t been around and hasn’t earned it? It’s the same everywhere.
MT: How do you deal with injuries?
SG: We always have someone on the injured list. The majority of them come on crutches to practice. And they try to help out how they can. That’s what our league is made of.
Think about it: you break your leg playing derby. It’s really easy to stay home, but they’re chomping at the bit to get back at it. Meanwhile, their boyfriends are like, “maybe you should reconsider what you’re doing…”
MT: Indeed. Lastly, I think you have a fundraiser coming up.
SG: The fundraiser coming up at the end of the season is our drag king show. This year the theme is “An Evening With Wayne And Garth.” Two of our members will dress like Wayne’s World, and that will be the theme of the variety show. It will be in November.
We also donated VIP tickets to the Maui Economic Development Board Ke Alahele Education Fund Dinner and Auction. That happens Aug. 23. And we’re always looking for volunteers, sponsorship opportunities. We have to pay to play, so we’re always trying to raise money.
For more information, check out Mauirollergirls.com.
Photos by Sean M. Hower
Cover art by Darris Hurst