An Evening With the Hermiston Melon Smashers

The Hermiston Melon Smashers will take on the Atomic City Rollergirls on Saturday at Sandstone Elementary School.

[quote style=”2″]Roller Derby Team Also Smashes Stereotypes[/quote]

I had a distinctly uneasy feeling Wednesday evening as I pulled into the parking lot of a Hermiston establishment. As I approached the entry, the feeling crystalized and I suddenly realized I was putting myself in great, perhaps even grave, danger.

Numbers often randomly pop into my head from time to time. Sometimes they mean nothing; a weird, meaningless statistic that embeds in my head for no apparent reason. Like .313. That was Hank Aaron’s lifetime batting average through the 1971 season. I saw it on the back of his 1972 baseball card when I was a kid and never forgot it. I have no idea why.

Or 70. That’s how many journalists were killed in 2012. Admittedly, most of those deaths occurred in battle zones, but as far as I was concerned Wednesday evening, I was entering a battle zone as I walked into the Hermiston Roller Rink to come face to face with the Hermiston Melon Smashers, a roller derby team right here in our quiet, little town.

I had good reason to be afraid. I grew up in the 1970s and roller derby was a fixture on Saturday afternoon television. Derby women were the female equivalent of the Hell’s Angels. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof right here.

So that’s what I was ready for when I walked into the rink armed with only a camera, notepad and pen. Good Lord, I thought to myself, I should have at least brought a can of mace. I didn’t even think to tell my family where I was heading. They’ll never know where to look when I fail to come home.

Then it happened.

“Hi, I’m Megan.”

I turned around and was looking straight into a smiling face of Megan Reeve. I was paralyzed with confusion. She’s smiling. That could mean anything, really, but has to be better than a scowl, right? Her name is Megan, the same as my daughter, so I associate that name with everything that is good in the world. But she’s dressed to kill. Elbow pads. Knee pads. Helmet. Camouflage shorts. With my peripheral vision, I identify my escape route. I take a mental inventory of my advantages. There are none. Zero. It’s either make a break for it immediately or stand my ground. No good. Legs shaking too badly. I suggest to Megan that we sit down and talk. She agrees. A good sign. She then proceeds to give me the inside scoop on the life as a roller derby skater.

First, she’s a mother of a 5-year-old boy and a 3-year-old daughter. Second, she teaches third grade at Sunset Elementary School. Third, this is turning out very different than I thought.

“We’re very much family-oriented,” she says. In fact, as we talk, a couple of young children are playing in the background. And as my fight-or-flight instincts begin to subside, I can now see that all the women look like they could be my neighbor or co-worker. I suddenly realize I will see my family again and begin to settle in for an enjoyable and enlightening visit with the Hermiston Melon Smashers, a team that formed in 2011. Reeve joined them in January 2012.

“Several years ago, I saw a bout,” Reeve said. “It was fast, hard hitting and seemed like the sport for me.”

The team practices for two hours, twice a week. They have bouts about once a month with teams from around the region. Because they are a newer team with some players having never even skated prior to joining (affectionately known as wall walkers), the Melon Smashers take their lumps on the rink now and then.

“We’re still pretty green,” Reeve said.

Some more than others. Reeve played a lot of high school sports – volleyball, softball, basketball and track. Stephanie Linnell, however, wasn’t a star athlete in high school, but there was something about roller derby that intrigued her. She admits, however, that it wasn’t love at first sight.

“My husband had to talk me into it,” she said. Like Reeve, Linnell is a mother of two. She works as a bartender and eventually realized the edgy sport appealed to her.

“Aside from being slightly rebellious, I needed something for myself,” she said. “And once you hit somebody, you get hooked. But mostly I get hit.”

Melon Smashers 2
Coach James Franz watches over practice on Wednesday. The Melon Smashers are also coached by Dave Cooley.

OK – so real-life roller derby isn’t like the WWE-style of roller derby I grew up with, but it’s still not for the faint of heart. The players like to give themselves “derby names,” designed to strike fear, if not in the hearts of their competitors, then in the hearts of mild-mannered journalists. For example, Reeve goes by the derby name of Meg N. Mayhem. Linnell is known as DBL Jinxx. Then there’s racHELLe on Wheelz, Suzy Sledgehammer and Narlie Charlie.

It turns out, some of the nicknames are well-earned.

“We get asked all the time, ‘Is this real?’ said Reeve. “The hits are real. The injuries are real. The bruises are real.”

But no one is grabbing another skater’s arm and whirl winding her into the stands.

“People expect to see the theatrics, the super hard hits and nastiness,” said Amy Lytton, AKA Lyte Em Up. “It’s not like that.”

But still . . .

“If you can hit a girl and get her up in the air, it’s like ‘Yeah!’ ”

But it turns out that roller derby is not just about hitting. It’s about scoring – and winning. Each team has five skaters on the rink with a designated scorer, called a jammer. Each 30-minute half is broken up into 2-minute jams in which the jammer tries to get around the other team’s blockers and lap them. A team scores a point for every player a jammer laps.

It can get pretty rough, but that’s part of the appeal.

“You get hit so hard and it hurts,” said Sarah VanAlstine of Richland, who commutes to Hermiston for the practices. “At the end of the day, you’re like, ‘Hit me harder!’

“It’s a sick obsession,” said Lytton, another commuter from West Richland. Lytton said she got into roller derby after seeing an ad on Craigslist announcing tryouts.

“My friend said we should go and try out,” Lytton said. “Afterward, I was hooked. My friend said, ‘No way.’ ”

VanAlstine, whose derby name is Babe Smashyous, said she loves the idea of a physical sport just for women, even if it can be painful. She once broke her leg in a bout and was out of action for 18 months, but couldn’t wait to get back on the rink.

“It’s really empowering to be involved with such a strong sport,” she said. “And it has a cool factor.”

Both VanAlstine and Lytton previously played with the Atomic City Rollergirls in the Tri-Cities.

“I didn’t mesh well with them,” VanAlstine said. “After I joined the Melon Smashers, I came away from my first practice with these girls and fell in love with them.” She then talked her Rollergirls teammate, Lytton, into joining her on the Melon Smashers.

“She’s the best jammer and the fastest skater,” VanAlstine said of Lytton. So it should be interesting this Saturday when the Melon Smashers play host to the Rollergirls. It will be the first time Lytton has played against the team since leaving them.

“They’ll be gunning for her,”VanAlstine said.

“I’ll definitely be relying on my girls Saturday night,” Lytton said.

There are rules and refs to keep things under control in roller derby. And the women take safety seriously. In order to play regularly, players must pass a minimum skills test which includes being able to stop on skates, complete an 18-inch lateral jump and circle the track 27 times in five minutes, among others.

“We’re not going to put someone in a situation where they’ll be unsafe or make someone else unsafe,” Reeve said.

The team is also community-minded. A portion of the proceeds from each bout go to a good cause. Saturday’s bout against the Atomic City Rollergirls will benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. The bout takes place at Sandstone Middle School. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the bout begins at 6 p.m. The cost is $10 for adults, $5 for kids 6 and up, kids 5 and under get in free, and seniors, veterans and military personnel receive a $2 discount.

So I left the Hermiston Roller Rink Wednesday intact. Not a single black eye, broken nose or even a small bruise. But I did come away with a story about some pretty interesting women who come from all different backgrounds to do something that is pretty cool.

“We’ve got a diverse group here,” Linnell said. “We’ve got scientists, teachers and bartenders. But most of us are wives and mothers.”

Definitely a tough bunch.

To learn more about the Hermiston Melon Smashers, check out their bout on Saturday and visit their Facebook page.