Lowellian Amy LeClaire is one of the three founders and also plays for “Grand Raggidy,” the women's roller derby team based in Grand Rapids.
“We've been skating since July 2005, so going on almost 15 years,” LeClaire said. “I roller skated as a child and even in high school, but after that I did not put on skates. I was at a bridal shower and found out that they were starting to develop a team in Grand Rapids. I was like, 'I want to come!' I still had my old skates. I grew up playing soccer and volleyball, and I definitely missed that whole team unity concept in sports. And it's good cardiovascular exercise! I put on a lot of weight in college and grad school, and I was looking for a different opportunity to exercise and get back in shape.”
Traditionally, roller derby players choose a clever nickname instead of playing under their given name, and many of these aliases are not printable in a family newspaper. LeClaire's derby name is Bette Mangler, a violent pun on Bette Midler. A few of her Grand Raggidy teammates include Carmen Slam Diego, Peach Clobber, Killy Munster, Ringo Deathstarr and Abra Cadaver.
“There is such a camaraderie between everyone that you play the sport with,” LeClaire said. “I've met so many people. Not just skates, but referees, sponsors and all the volunteers that we work with. It gives you a chance to exercise, you step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself in different ways. It's a challenge and a rush to learn something new. Playing a full contact sport gives you that adrenalin, and it's great stress relief.”
Roller derby is one of the most brutal contact sports. For example, one of the official rules is, “skaters who are injured during play may return to play as long as they are no longer apparently injured or bleeding.”
“You have to have quad skates, you can't wear inline skates,” LeClaire said. “You have to have knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, a mouth guard and a helmet. That is the bare minimum. Some skaters choose to wear other equipment such as shin guards. You tend to get kicked in the shins at times.”
According to the official rulebook of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, roller derby “is played on a flat, oval track. Play is broken up into two 30-minute periods, and within those periods into units of play called 'jams,' which last up to two minutes. There are 30 seconds between each jam. During a jam, each team fields up to five skaters. Four of these skaters are called 'blockers.' Together, the blockers are called the 'pack' and one is called a 'jammer.' The jammer wears a helmet cover with a star on it. The two jammers start each jam behind the pack and score a point for every opposing blocker they lap, each lap. Because they start behind the pack, they must get through the pack then all the way around the track to be eligible to score points on opposing blockers.”
“On the track, I'm a blocker,” LeClaire said. “It's a five-on-five sport, and my main objective as a blocker is to play defense and stop the other team's jammer from scoring. At the same time, I'm also trying to provide offense, when available, to my own jammer so she can get through and score. It goes back and forth, offense to defense. Both teams can score at the same time. There is strategy, of course, but what the other team does effects what you have to do. The longest it will go in one rotation is two minutes, but it can change as quickly as 20 seconds.”
Roller derby was invented in 1935 by a Chicago publicist named Leo Seltzer. After he read a magazine article that stated 93 percent of Americans had roller skated at some point in their lives, his goal became to create a sport that involved roller skating. At first, the emphasis was on roller skating for marathon periods of time, hence the word “derby.” The focus changed when it was observed that crowds became excited by skaters crashing violently into each other. It's gone in and out of style over the years, there are now approximately 1,250 amateur roller derby leagues in the world.
“None of us grew up playing the sport,” LeClaire said. “Now there are juniors teams in Detroit, Lansing and Kalamazoo. My cousin's kids on the east side of the state have been playing roller derby for years. They're starting at eight or nine years old, and there are co-ed and male leagues now. Detroit has a male league and Kalamazoo used to.”
Grand Raggidy belongs to the Women's Flat Track Derby Association; they have 468 full member leagues and 46 apprentice leagues. LeClaire said the team is currently ranked # 73 in the world.
“We're considered Division Two, the top 40 teams are Division One,” LeClaire said. “Detroit and Ann Arbor are part of Division One. One time we made it into Division One, we were team number 40 going into the tournament. Many years we've gone to a playoff tournament.”
LeClaire works full time as a licensed physical therapist and lives in Lowell with her husband and their three dogs.
“We moved to Lowell about four years ago,” LeClaire said. “We lived in Grand Rapids for many years. We wanted a place with a little more land and not so congested. We were looking for some property and ended up finding our home here. We have space for the dogs, and my schedule is very flexible so I can spend time with them.”
For a season schedule or to learn more about Grand Raggidy Roller Derby find them on social media or visit grandraggidy.com. The team is currently looking for a head coach. For more information about the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, visit wftda.com.