Ithaca Times

Friday, August 17, 2012

By Emmett Neno

The Children’s Garden at Cass Park looks mostly deserted when I pull into the parking lot Thursday night; except for a few cars parked in between the lines, one might almost think that for this evening, Ithaca had forgotten about this place. But then, at 7:15 p.m., members of the Ithaca Gunshow, Ithaca’s new men’s roller derby team, rolled into the parking lot and the serenity of the environment dissipates. These guys joke hard, but don’t let that fool you: They are serious skaters as well.

“I like hitting people on skates,” says Greg “Patches” McElwee. “I like hitting George, because George falls over. Until George gets better at not falling over.”

“You never even hit anyone,” scoffs Mark Sarvary, one of the founders of the group. “You probably tripped him, I know.”

A fun loving group of guys, most of them were introduced to the sport of roller derby when their wives joined the Ithaca League for Women Rollers, a league that has two teams, the SufferJets and the BlueStockings, and a junior league attached to it.

Sarvary, who coached one of the teams for four seasons and was the head coach of the league, said his decision to become involved in roller derby was precipitated by his wife, Kitty “Chairman Meow” Gifford decision to start the SufferJets.

“If I wanted to see her,” he said, “I had to go to practices three times a week, and it was just boring sitting at practices. I started to coach, and then it was downhill from there.”

Many of the other guys have the same sort of story. Jeremy “MacDeath” Miller said his wife became involved in the ILWR and was therefore gone a lot as well. If she was going to be gone that often, he said, he decided he might as well do something during that time.

“Derby widows,” he laughs. “That’s what we are.”

One of the men, a fellow named Ed Sturbridge, came up with the idea of creating a men’s roller derby league in Ithaca and proposed it to the other men at one of the women’s bouts. Miller was not there, so Nick “Bruise Campbell” Hinman mentioned the idea to him later on and asked Miller if he would be interested in starting a league. At first, Miller refused, saying he did not know how to skate, but Hinman reassured him that he could learn. And just like that, the Ithaca Gunshow started to come to life.

“It had to happen,” said Sarvary. “It just needed a spark.”

Today, the Ithaca Gunshow is not officially a league with the Men’s Roller Derby Association because the players are waiting for more recruits. The men do practice by MRDA rules, however, which are mainly based on rules created by WFTDA, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, said Sarvary.

Founded in 2004, WFTDA rode in on the heels of the rapidly spreading popularity of roller derby. Originally performed in the 1920s, roller derby consisted of races between multiple skaters on a raised track, according to the WFTDA Web site. The sport’s popularity dwindled during the 1970s, but a group of women in Texas revived it in the early 2000s as they made it a competition between two teams on a flat track.

Today, the opposing sides work to clog the middle of the track while a skater from each team attempts to lap the group in order to earn points. The sport is similar to hockey in that full body checks, shoulder checks, and hip checks are legal. If an onlooker watches long enough, he is almost certain to see one of the skaters get slammed out of the pack and go flying across the floor.

“It’s definitely a full contact sport, but it’s not like boxing where you get hit on purpose,” said Brittany Cronk-Chilson of the ILWR. “You get hit in the face often, by accident, or some of them will still trip you. You get punched in the face; it’s normally hopefully not on purpose. When it gets to that level, the skater will be ejected if they purposefully did something to you that was illegal.”

An athlete during high school and college, Cronk-Chilson said she missed the challenge of sports once she started working. She joined the league in Syracuse and liked it, and when she moved to Ithaca and heard about the ILWR, she was only too happy to continue in this sport.

“It’s cool because everyone’s starting from the same spot,” she said. “Some people have more skating experience, but no one’s played roller derby in high school or since they were little. And nowadays, there is the junior team, which is great because they will be really good in the future.”

The junior league that Cronk-Chilson mentioned is put on by the ILWR and is open to girls and boys ages 8-12 and 13-17, with a special emphasis on referee training for the boys. Those who decide to participate pay a dues fee of $150 and a USARS insurance fee of $35. The practices are held before the women’s league trains, and members of the women’s league train the children on various techniques such as the different types of stops.

Margaret McCarthy, whose daughter, Rebecca Chason, is part of the junior league, said her daughter first heard about the league from a friend. McCarthy and her husband decided to let Chason try it out, and she liked it so much that they continued to let her participate in the sport, said McCarthy.

“It’s really good for her,” she said, “it makes her physically active, she’s learned how to roller skate a lot better, it builds self esteem.”

“Warm up is awful, the drills are hard, and then scrimmaging is fun,” says Chason, “because by then, you’re not as exhausted. So it’s fun.”

Britani “Mischief” Miller, the head non-skating official for the ILWR, said roller derby truly is a family sport, and she pointed as an example to her family. Her brother sometimes coaches or jeerleads (a male version of a cheerleader), and her mom is on one of the teams, she said. The sport itself, however, is a good chance for females to stretch their wings and enjoy themselves, said Miller.

“When I’m actually cheering for them, I just love the aggression of females,” she said, “because guys have their sports like football and like hockey, but now women have their sport to get their aggression out and show their womanhood to some extent.”

This sport first became available to Ithaca in 2008, when members who had been skating with the Syracuse Assault City Roller Derby League decided to create their own league here, said Kitty “Chairman Meow” Gifford, one of the founding members of the ILWR. The new league ran into some challenges, with the first being the WFTDA’s requirement that all new leagues go through its apprenticeship program. The ILWR had to play a certain number of games against other WFTDA ranked teams, as well as have sanctioning paperwork and follow up the game with stats and score reports, said Gifford.

An even bigger challenge arose during this time, however: the issue of where the growing league would practice. At first, the teams would travel to Auburn, Cass Park, and the Montessori School before they found a temporary home in a warehouse off Route 13. Unfortunately, the league was only able to lease the building from month to month, thereby making it difficult to create long-term plans. Recently, however, the league was able to secure a two year lease with the owners of the East Shore Skate Park.

“Now, with this warehouse that we started in last year and with the move to East Shore Skate Park, I think it presents a lot of opportunity for the league to grow stronger and perhaps grow bigger,” said Gifford.

Despite these first few unsettled years, the league has worked to maintain a high level of civic mindedness. It often hosts benefits in coordination with its bouts, such as its Wheel A Thon Roller Derby, which took place Aug. 4. The BlueStockings, one of the league’s two teams, will be serving chicken dinners before the SufferJets’ bout versus the Hellions of Troy, and all proceeds will go to benefit the Foodnet Meals on Wheels program.

The league also gives lectures at different settings from time to time, such as at the GIAC Senior Citizens’ home and at the YMCA. The presentations are each different depending upon the audience, said Gifford, but members of the league usually discuss the history and rules of modern roller derby, giving demonstrations if the audience desires, as well as mention how the league recognizes the women’s rights movement. The SufferJets’ name, for instance, is derived from the term suffragists, or those women who advocated for the right to vote.

“Our tagline is celebrating the right to roll, which comes from celebrating the right to vote,” she said, “so we play a little bit with the history, and we take a lot of pride in women’s empowerment and activities that develop that.”

In addition to its community involvement, members of the IWLR devote a great deal of time to maintaining the league, said Gifford, including doing their own PR, event production, training, and finances.

“All of this work is required to keep the machine of Ithaca League of Women Rollers running,” she said, “so that is a big commitment that people have to make when they join the organization.”

For those who are interested in joining either the women’s league or the men’s upcoming league, both are looking for new recruits. The women’s league hosts open nights, where interested parties can come and receive more information about the league. Those individuals can then return for the Level 1 and Level 2 workshops and following skills assessments.

The list of open nights is on the Web site at, and the next round of Level 1 practices starts August 29.

The Ithaca Gunshow, on the other hand, does not have any open nights for recruitment scheduled now, said Sarvary, but the group would consider scheduling one if enough people were interested. Men who would like to join are encouraged to call Sarvary on his cell at (607) 342-6702 or to contact the group via their Facebook address at

“It’s a really good workout,” said Jeremy “MacDeath” Miller. “That’s one thing I like about it; you go to the gym, you get tired, and you quit. Here, even if you’re getting harassed, you want to do well.”