Heather Cockroft's first fall on skates hooked her as a new member of the "Bettie Brigade" roller derby league at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“It hurt, but it hurt so good,” said Cockroft, 23. “I fell. It was painful, but it made me want to get up and do more.”
The Army wife is one of nearly 50 military spouses and service women who enjoy bouncing back from tough falls on hardwood floors in the Bettie Brigade. They signed up for the exercise, the fellowship, and of course, the contact.
“My self-esteem is at an all-time high, and it’s because of derbies. It changes lives,” said Cockroft, who joined the league in January and lives at the base with her husband.
On Saturday, she donned camouflage hot pants, a matching green tank top and an assortment of protective pads for the league’s first intramural match. It drew a sellout crowd of 350 fans who watched Cockroft and the G.I. Janes face off against the sky-blue-clad Bombshell Betties.
Each team put five players on the rink. Four of the five were blockers aiming to prevent the other team’s “jammer” from cutting through the pack. A jammer scored points by passing her opponents.
It’s not a sport for the timid. Women shoved one another’s backs to clear paths for their jammers or raised their elbows to gain better positioning. They fell to the floor in singles or clusters, leaping back up to race around the rink as their friends and families cheered them on.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jason Schmidt, 33, was one of few men on the rink. He was the G.I. Janes’ mascot, tossing out chocolate candies from a toy Army helmet to rally the crowd for his wife’s team.
Schmidt’s costume went well with his wife’s uniform. He wore a black tank-top, camouflage shorts and an Army-green tutu.
He and his wife, Tech. Sgt. Rebecca Schmidt, moved to Lewis-McChord about a year ago. Jason Schmidt said the roller derby gave his wife an extended family at the base.
“It’s warming to the heart,” he said. “These girls all share something. They all need an outlet.”
The league started quietly at the base’s skating rink Oct. 10 with 10 players. It spread “like wildfire,” coach Erin Dafoe said. It now has the two intramural teams, a traveling squad and a group for beginners.
The teams cultivate a family-friendly atmosphere with a number of Army moms toting their children to practice. Some of their daughters created their own junior derby team. Creating a sense of community was one of the goals for the league, said Bombshell Betties player Sarah Howard.
“The girls just have a lot of energy they can’t expend in other areas,” said Howard, 30, an Army veteran whose husband continues to serve in the military. She goes by the name “Gloria Sass” when she’s on the rink.
“Now they go from post to post, and it’s a way to connect,” she said.
That fellowship can be important on a military base, where families are constantly coming and going as service members are moved around the country.
“It makes such a difference to know you’re not by yourself,” said Bianca Andrews, 33, of Yelm. She goes by the handle “Rock n’ Rolla Cholla” when she’s on skates, coaching the Bettie Brigade’s G.I. Janes intramural team.
Andrews, a mother of five whose husband is in the Army, was part of a push to open a roller derby league at the base three years ago. Their effort foundered, partly because the base was preparing to shut down the rink for renovation.
After that, Andrews joined roller derby teams around the Puget Sound area. She skates with a competitive team in Everett and looks forward to her role as a coach and mentor with the base teams.
She was especially proud of players who came to the rink uncomfortable with their skates. They held the walls and inched around the floors at first. Within weeks, they were skating fast and making blocks.
“I just love the way this team’s coming together,” Andrews said.
The newly refurbished rink helps, Howard said.
“It’s just really nice, which is rare. For roller derby, we’re used to seedy places, like funky old hangars,” she said.
Dafoe, of Olympia, is the head coach for the Bombshell Betties. She played on Puget Sound derbies for five years and was ready to hang up her skates when her friends asked her to help the base teams.
It turned out she was a good fit for the military spouses and service members in the Bettie Brigade.
“I have a somewhat military style of coaching,” Dafoe, 30, joked. “I can be aggressive, bossy. I yell a lot, and they do really well with that.”
She makes a point to show the newcomers what they’re in for when they get to the rink.
“The quicker they get hit, the quicker they get over it,” she said.
Staff photographer Joe Barrentine contributed to this report.