By Ken Lay
It’s not a sport played by pampered millionaire athletes and its fan base is loyal and its skaters are as passionate as any athletes.
And that’s the appeal of roller derby — a rapidly growing sport in East Tennessee. Knoxville’s roller derby league (featuring the Hard Knox Brawlers and the Hard Knox Rollergirls All-Stars) arrived in 2006. Its following has continued to grow every year.
The women’s league is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization and the skaters aren’t paid. The referees, track crew, announcers and other officials are also volunteers.
“We chase the game,” said six-year roller derby veteran Valerie Indihar, aka Sadie Hellcat. “We pay to play the game.”
Indihar arrived in Knoxville about six months ago. She’s a nurse and spent the first five years of her career in Charlotte, NC.
She said that she’s a natural for roller derby.
“I grew up skating and as a kid, I speed skated and I would knock the other kids out of the way to win,” Indihar said. “If you could win a hot dog or a coke, I was there.
“I was always the fat kid who didn’t want to lose a hot dog or a coke.”
Indihar, 43, was likely competing in roller derby before she even knew what it was and now she blocks for the Hard Knox Rollergirls’ jammers
One such jammer is Anna Jo Auerbach, also known as Evil Lucia. Auerbach has played for the Rollergirls for the last three seasons.
She came to Knoxville to attend graduate school at the University of Tennessee and joined the team.
“It was a full-contact team sport on wheels and that was all that I needed to know,” said Auerbach, who recently celebrated her 34th birthday. “I grew up skating and I came here to go to grad school and they had a [roller derby] league.”
Roller derby is only a part of her busy life. Auerbach is still enrolled in graduate school, where she’s pursuing a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. She also works as a teacher’s assistant at UT. She’s also married. Her husband, Jeremy, attends the bouts.
She hails from Georgia but is looking to make a permanent home in Knoxville.
“I love it here,” she said. “You have everything you need. It’s a small big city.”
East Tennessee has its rabid sports fans. UT football is king and the Ice Bears, Smokies and Lady Vols basketball team each have their following.
But perhaps no fan base is more loyal than the one that belongs to the Hard Knox Rollergirls.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Auerbach said. “When we go on the road, our fans travel.
“We have a loyal following.”
As the years pass, players come and go but one player has been with the Hard Knox Rollergirls since roller derby came to Knoxville.
Paradise Kirkland, aka Battle Ready Betty has been with the Rollergirls since their inception.
“It’s a great sport,” said Kirkland, who was first exposed to the sport as a child in Southern California. “I lived in San Diego and I saw roller derby on TV and I loved the sport.”
“I joined [the Hard Knox Rollergirls] after I was at a recruiting event at the Electric Ballroom. I’ve been addicted to the game. In roller derby, I can be myself and not have to apologize.”
Roller derby is a sport that makes no apologies. The Hard Knox Rollergirls are rough on the track. Off the skating surface, the athletes are anything but mean.
“We’re just normal people,” Indihar said. “We’re good athletes. We’re cute and we smell good.
“But we all have jobs and roller derby is like a second job even though we don’t get paid. Since I’ve gotten older, I don’t just want to sit around on the couch. I’m not going to let the young kids beat me.”
Kirkland, an insurance agent by day, said the sport is more than just a game.
“Being in roller derby has made me a better person,” she said. “It has made me more patient.”
The game is a family affair for her. She and her husband, who once volunteered in the league, have a 12-year old son, Kyler.
“My husband is glad that he has a woman who can take care of herself and my son is my biggest fan.”