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Rollin’ with it: Roller Derby isn’t just a hobby for Shannon Murray, it’s a way of life

Shannon Murray, manager, coach and player, leads the Babe City Rollers through warm-up drills Thursday evening in the Memorial Hall gymnasium at Bemidji State University. — Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

This is not the campy, over-the-top, nickel beer sideshow from the 1970s.

And it isn’t “WWF on skates,” as described by Shannon Murray, known better among her four-wheeled friends as “Olive Mayhem.” The 31-year-old Blackduck native had the same misconception of roller derby when she was introduced to the sport five years ago.

“When people think of roller derby, they think of a spectacle, of violence, of objectification of women,” Murray said. “But the women I saw were all different body types, just really strong women on and off the track.”

Nearly four years since the creation of the Babe City Rollers, the Bemidji-based roller derby league started by Murray and Sara Bronczyk, the group now includes 40 women. All 40 traveled in shifts to Milwaukee over the weekend for the Midwest BrewHaHa — a tournament of more than 30 teams from across the country.

“I think that any woman who walks through the door and laces up their skates, whether it’s for our league or any other, the commenting is about empowerment,” Murray said. “People come to derby for many different reasons and to get different things out of it.”

Twelve hours before the first group left Bemidji at 6 a.m. Friday for the tourney, the women gathered in Memorial Hall on an ancient basketball court to work out the kinks. And probably get some new knots.

While it’s hard to tell if some are grimacing due to breathless exertion, opening their mouths to inhale much needed oxygen as they skate, there is no mistaking Murray’s expression even though her teeth are blocked by a red mouthpiece: it is a joyful grin.

Without Murray, the Rollers might not exist and without the Rollers, Bemidji wouldn’t be the same.

“I spent a lot of time traveling, but Bemidji is where I want to be,” she said. “There’s a lot of things I want to have in my life that I could say ‘I’ll just move to a big city.’ You can bail on your community but it’s also so easy to build something when you have people who are invested.”

The tournament this weekend will undoubtedly create some bumps and bruises, but it won’t be as bad as the Babes’ first tourney in 2010, when their ranks deteriorated from 11 to five due to casualties.

Newly a part of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTBA or “wooftba,” as Murray said) the Babes are as legit as skaters with names such as  Assaulty Ms. D’Meanor and Nymphadorable can be.

“We applied for membership (in the WFTBA) right away,” Murray said. “We were pretty aggressive as a league.”

Not surprising, considering Murray’s abilities on the hardwood.

While she can cruise under arms and around thighs, she can knock hips too. She’s the jammer, whose job it is to get to the front of the pack and gain points.

“Something I think that’s unique about derby is that you’re playing offense and defense simultaneously,” she said. “There are times that I’ll tell my team ‘I got this,’ and there are times when I tell them they need to stop her.”

Most of the women wear black skates, but their leader stands out. Hers are red on the left and white on the right — resembling bowling shoes. Looking at her from her right, Murray is Joe Namath with his white cleats, and the Rollers are the black shoe-donning linemen who take her orders.

She’s part quarterback, manager and coach. And at all times, she’s positive.

“When I came into this, I had never skated before. So there’s a lot of feeling accomplished,” she said. “I’ve never been involved in anything like this.”

Just don’t get in their way.

“I think what it means to me is that when you get a bunch of strong, awesome women together, you can do anything.”

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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