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Battling on Wheels return to Tampa

Kristie Grey loves the bruising sport of roller derby.
Kristie Grey (black uniform) as Merry Khaos is jammer on the Tampa Roller Derby team Bruise Crew in this match against the Atlanta Rumble B’s.
Kristie Grey (black uniform) as Merry Khaos is jammer on the Tampa Roller Derby team Bruise Crew in this match against the Atlanta Rumble B’s. [ Photo: Derby Pics by Phil ]
Published Jul. 3

Times Correspondent

Over the last 86 years, roller derby has gone from serious sport to staged entertainment – like professional wrestling – and back to serious sport. Modern combat on quad skates reportedly began in 2001. Now hundreds of teams roll around the country. The Tampa Roller Derby league has three teams, the top traveling team being the Tampa Tantrums. The pandemic has shut down games and practices since March of 2020, and the players are hopeful it can start back up fully in the fall, said skater Kristie Grey. They play at Skateworld of Tampa in Town ‘n’ Country.

The battle names the women use are one throwback to tradition. Grey goes by Merry Khaos. Other players include Punk ‘N Drublic and Despicable D. When she’s not knocking people down, Grey, 38, works as food and beverage manager at Hotel Haya in Ybor City. She talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the sport.

How does the game work?

Roller derby is a 60-minute game broken up into 30-minute halves. Each half is broken into individual jams, kind of like how football has downs. Each jam can be no more than two minutes long. Each jam, both teams will field four blockers and one jammer. The jammer will be designated with a star on the helmet. When the whistle blows, the jammer’s job is to get through the pack of blockers. And after their first pass, they will then begin to score points. You score points by (circling the track and) passing the hips of an opponent. Whoever scores the most points at the end of the game wins. Now there’s obviously more to it than that, but that’s the general rundown.

Have you had any injuries?

It is a full-contact sport on roller skates, so it’s not a matter of if you’ll get injured, it’s when and how bad. Whether it’s a sprained ankle or a bruised shoulder or what we call rink rash – if you fall on the rink and you scrape up your skin. I’ve torn both my ACLs and had repairs on both of them. I’ve had my nose broken several times. I have a crack in my L-5 (vertebra) from falling on my butt too many times. Yeah. I’ve had high ankle sprains, I’ve had sprained thumbs, sprained fingers. It’s no worse than if you were to go and ask a semi-pro football player what kind of injuries they’ve had. It’s about the same.

And yet you keep playing.

It’s fun. It’s the same reason why people who play basketball, they’ll … break their ankle playing basketball and go back and do it more. It’s healthy and it’s fun. I get to play a sport that I love with my friends. It’s challenging. I love being on my wheels, so that’s helpful.

Kristie Grey.
Kristie Grey. [ Photo: Courtesy Night Owl Photography ]

How and when did you get interested?

I started playing in September of 2009 in Harrisburg, Pa. I started playing because a group of women overheard me talking about how my boyfriend at the time was able to play all these sports, and when I would play the same sports they said no you can’t, you’re a girl. And they said why don’t you come out and try roller derby? I was really skeptical at first, but I really skated a lot when I was younger. So I went to one practice and I just never looked back. …

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I’ve been an official, because I referee as well. I’ve been doing that for about six years. And then I’m an announcer also, and I’ve been doing that for four years.

What is it you like about it?

I played softball and soccer growing up and I missed the camaraderie that comes with a team sport, and the community of roller derby is really, really strong. I have friends literally all over the world and have been able to travel the world because of the community and because of roller derby.

And not only that, it’s such a great physical challenge, but it’s also a mental challenge... because of the way the game is designed. There is no perfection in roller derby. You get really good at one thing, that just means you have to get good at the next thing.

What are some of the places roller derby taken you?

I actually got to announce in Barcelona for the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup. I’ve announced in England for the Men’s European Cup. ... I’ve coached in Canada and the Netherlands, and I’ve officiated in Belgium.

How did you become an announcer?

I have a theater degree and background in public speaking, so when I tore my ACL the first time and was getting ready for surgery, I needed to find something to do to be involved with the sport. But I wouldn’t have to stand the whole time as you do for officiating. So friends of mine were like, well, why don’t you pick up a mike? You like talking. It’s funny, I’ve only been doing it four years but I’m president of the announcers’ association now.

How did you come up with Merry Khaos?

When I started roller derby, I was a Mary Kay woman.

Players in many sports retire after a relatively short career because they aren’t physically able to give their best anymore. Do you believe that applies to roller derby?

Nah.

When I started playing, the average age was around 36. I would say that that average age has trended younger thanks to junior roller derby having been a thing over the last few years. ...

But one of my very good friends on the Tampa league – her name is Karmavore – she’s in her fifties and she started playing when she was in her fifties.

) Kristie Grey referees during a Put Up Your Toques tournament in Ontario, Canada (photo by Darren Stehr).
) Kristie Grey referees during a Put Up Your Toques tournament in Ontario, Canada (photo by Darren Stehr). [ DARREN STEHR | Darren Stehr ]

The sport reportedly began in 1935. Do you know the history before the modern game?

(Event promoter) Leo Seltzer would put on those long-track marathons for roller skates. And he noted that, one, people attended more when it was women skating, and two, the crowd reacted if something happened on the track, just like we would now… (in) modern NASCAR. So, he decided to make these long-track marathons into more of a game.

That was the original incarnation of it. Fast-forward to the ’60s and the ’70s and his son, Jerry Seltzer, had kind of taken that idea and sold it to the production companies as a wrestling kind of fake storyline thing.

For more information, go to TampaRollerDerby.com or look for Tampa Roller Derby on Facebook and Instagram.