They were the underdogs, the no-name skaters from a small town out West.
Matched against metropolitan teams like the New York Gotham, a roller derby team from Olympia with a shoestring budget and a big-dream coach wasn’t expected to win a national tournament in Philadelphia.
But the Oly Rollers Cosa Nostra Donnas team stunned those from New York, Denver and Houston to win a national championship this month, capping a remarkable 11-0 season in the team’s second year of existence.
“It’s a Cinderella story,” said Dani Lewis, one of the team’s top skaters and coach. “We went in not knowing what to expect.”
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Appropriately, Lewis’ nickname is “Sassy.” It took her impudent attitude to make a crazy dream come true. With Lewis, who grew up on skates, as coach and dream maker, the Oly Rollers did the unexpected. They won.
Three years ago, the idea of forming a team came up in a discussion had with Tannah Elwess-Jones. Both had impressive résumés in skating. Lewis, whose parents own Olympia’s Skateland, had been on the U.S. speed skating and U.S. roller hockey teams. Elwess-Jones, a North Thurston High graduate, was on the U.S. roller hockey team in 2004-06.
Both were looking for a way to get back into skating.
“She said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Dani is very goal oriented,” Elwess-Jones said. “She’s been a big part of this. This whole thing has been amazing.”
The age and talent gaps of the 14 players on the Oly Rollers range from 23 to 43 and from national caliber to novice. Julie Glass is a gold medalist in world speed skating. Heather Kirschenmann competed in national speed-skating championships.
But Regina Brown and Annie Johns, both in their 30s, had never skated. Jen Clark hadn’t skated for 10 years.
“What they all did was work hard,” Lewis said. “They all committed to getting better and learning how to play roller derby.”
From their first practice in February, Lewis made a distinction between the roller derby of the 1970s and today’s version. She didn’t want anything to do with the theatrics of the old version, which she compared to the scripted Big Time Wrestling.
“We’re not for a show kind of a gig. It’s not scripted,” Lewis said. “People were wanting more of the theatrical show. We said no, no, no. We’re more of the athletic part of it. It’s a real sport.”
While the Oly Rollers were more athletic, they still wore the roller derby garb – black knit stockings and skirts. Yet because Lewis’ team wouldn’t fake fights and play the theatrical role, fans booed them early in the season. But fans began to appreciate the Oly Rollers style of play as the season progressed.
“We’ve set a new standard,” Lewis said.
Starting in February, the Oly Rollers practiced three days a week, going through hour-and-a-half workouts Wednesday and Thursday nights and Sunday mornings. Lewis, with three children, traded off with her husband, Eric Charneski, who doubled as coach and fan.
“It was a huge commitment,” Charneski said. “For no pay, they worked very hard. They made lot of sacrifices, taking time from family and friends.”
Players with children often brought them to practice. There are a combined 18 children of players on the team. Charneski said the atmosphere at practice became hectic at times with children running around, but it worked. He compared it to the crowd booing – a distraction.
“Behind the Oly Rollers there’s a lot of men who have taken a backseat,” Lewis said. “For us to accomplish our dreams, a lot of men stepped up and were supporting us.”
Oly Rollers won three games at regionals in Denver and three at nationals.
Olympia couldn’t have drawn a tougher first-round opponent at nationals. They opened against New York Gotham, the New York Yankees of roller derby. Gotham, 17-1 over the last two years, usually won by 100 points.
Olympia beat Gotham by 31 points.
In the championship game, Olympia beat the team from Texas 178-100.
“When I was on the U.S. hockey team, I made the sacrifices. I trained,” Lewis said. “But when we won nationals with the Oly Rollers, I had far more satisfaction than I could ever imagine. We didn’t realize how good it could feel to stand on the podium and realize how many people supported us. We actually did it.”
But Lewis isn’t content.
“We want to repeat,” she said. “We want to win it again.”
The secret is out. The Oly Rollers rule.